There is no light way to state it. With four months still to go, 2008 has been a brutal year for live music in Central Kentucky.
First, soaring gas prices, already-costly tickets and a downward economy have made concert-going an expendable and unaffordable activity for many. Then there is the no small matter of venue closings, from modest all-age places like The Icehouse to the demolition of the high-profile The Dame.
The resulting question is unavoidable: Where do you go to hear original live music around here?
The complete answer is yet to come. But for this Labor Day weekend, four events in four regional cities, including Lexington, step up to the plate. These aren't high-profile, commercially driven performances. They operate with more modest intentions (and operating budgets) and strive to serve the communities they call home. And in an area where live music seems to be shrinking almost by the week, each is a source of considerable comfort.
Here is a look at holiday weekend events in Winchester, Wilmore, Woodford County and Lexington, and the people responsible for keeping affordable live music in Central Kentucky alive.
Daniel Boone Pioneer Festival
Aug. 29-31 in downtown Winchester.
Jason Michael Carroll and Luke Bryan
6:30 p.m. Aug. 31 at Lykins Park in Winchester. $5. 1-800-298-9105.
Kitty Strode was less concerned about the cost of gas than about the general economic downturn as Winchester's Daniel Boone Pioneer Festival prepared to turn 30 years old.
"I was worried this year because I know the economy has affected everything," said Strode, who has been chairwoman for the festival since its inception in the late 1970s. "But we've actually picked up new money. Winchester is committed to this festival. Many of our non-profit and civic groups set up exhibits that weekend. But those groups are also the work force.
"I use one of the church groups to pick up trash. I use the football boosters to load and unload the sound equipment. The rescue squad helps with parking. We actually have a waiting list of people to come on board and help."
The Boone festival kicks off Friday with a 7 p.m. street dance and will continue through Sunday with a 5K run, a talent contest and more than 100 vendors and exhibits. The event traditionally culminates in Lykins Park with a Sunday evening performance by a national country artist. The show has drawn as many as 10,000 patrons in past years.
In 2007, the festival hit gold by presenting singer Rodney Atkins just as his single These Are My People hit No. 1. This year, the festival will serve up two newcomers: North Carolina singer Jason Michael Carroll, who hit the country Top 10 twice last year with Alyssa Lies and Livin' Our Love Song, and Georgia native Luke Bryan of All My Friends Say fame. There will also a homecoming slant to Bryan's set. His drummer, Kent Slucher, is a Winchester native.
"This is our weekend to shine," Strode said. "Winchester is not a tourist destination. It's kind of a pass-by. People are either going to Boonesborough or the Mountain Parkway or further down (Interstate) 64. As far as having a captive audience, this is it for us."
J.D. Crowe Bluegrass Festival
Aug. 29, 30 at Ichthus Farm in Wilmore. $25, $30, $45, free for children 12 and younger. (859) 858-3001. www.jdcrowefestival.com.
The initial purpose of the J.D. Crowe Bluegrass Festival, now in its eighth year, was obvious: to honor the Grammy-winning and enormously influential banjoist and bandleader who lives in nearby Nicholasville.
But festival organizer and veteran bluegrass performer Dean Osborne said that in a time of tight budgets and venue closings, the festival's role couldn't help but intensify.
"We plan year to year but realize things happen that we can't control with the economy and the local music scene," Osborne said. "Our philosophy is always the same. We try to improve the lineup, improve the event by making positive changes and keep the ticket price down.
"But people are having a tough time. I think they would like to know that the folks promoting events realize it might not be as easy for an audience, with gas prices this year, to spend a lot of money. So if people decide to stay home, or at least closer to home, can we provide a quality event where they feel, basically, like they've been on vacation? That's what we're charged with."
Crowe and the newest edition of his band, New South, will play Friday and Saturday with some heavy-hitting festival co-headliners.
The Grascals, which took Entertainer of the Year honors at the annual International Bluegrass Music Association Awards for the past two years, will perform Friday, and another ultra-tasteful banjoist, Sammy Shelor, leads the current lineup of the Lonesome River Band in Wilmore on Saturday.
The extensive Saturday lineup also includes Bobby Osborne and the Rocky Top X-Press, Richard Bennett and Wyatt Rice, Paul Williams and the Victory Trio, and more.
"I was really saddened by the closing of The Dame," Osborne said. "But by the same token, today is now the day somebody is thinking about opening a new venue. The only thing sure about the future is it's sure to change."
Songwriters Festival featuring Robbie Fulks, Will Kimbrough and Tommy Womack, Campbell-Goddard-Hosley and The Vic-Tones
5 p.m. Aug. 30 at Millville Community Center, McCracken Pike in Woodford County. $15. (859) 873-2222. www.millvilleky.com.
The end of The Dame and much of the diverse music it brought to Lexington wasn't lost on John Watts. Although he runs the Millville Community Center near Frankfort, Watts regularly came to Lexington to see the club's more Americana-friendly acts. When word spread of The Dame's demise, Watts looked for a way to keep at least some of those artists coming our way while helping to establish the visibility of the Millville center.
"We had Goose Creek Symphony down here about four years ago," Watts said. "We learned a lot from that. It wasn't a financial success, but the community got involved. Plus, the people that were there absolutely loved the setting. Since then, they have wanted to do something else there. And now is certainly the time."
So Watts organized a Saturday performance that will be a benefit for the facility. Headlining will be Chicago alt-country favorite Robbie Fulks, who was a regular at the long-defunct Lynagh's Music Club before The Dame ever opened. Nashville songsmith Will Kimbrough, who has played Lexington with Todd Snider and Rodney Crowell as well as on his own, will perform in a duo setting with Kentucky native Tommy Womack.
The Millville Community Center, a renovated elementary school, has a mailing address of Frankfort, although it sits across the county line in Woodford County. For directions, go to www.millvilleky.com.
Watts also has confirmed a Sept. 20 date for Kentucky rural roots-rocker Chris Knight at the center.
"These songwriters don't deal with the cookie-cutter music that comes down the pike," Watts said. "They're putting out the good stuff."
Chiodos, The Showdown, Dr. Manhattan, Forever in a Day, Emarosa
7 p.m. Aug 30 at Tattersalls, 847 S. Broadway. $15. (859) 619-8128.
For more than eight years, Matt Wilson has booked concerts wherever he could. He would present them at churches, arts centers, YMCA halls, "just about any open space that can hold 100 or more people."
His stipulation was simple. He wanted the shows, usually of the harder-than-usual rock variety, to be available to any age. Being underage shouldn't be a penalty when it comes to live music, he thought.
"There really is no all-ages venue in Lexington," Wilson said. "Now that The Dame's gone, that's even more evident to people.
"But when I started doing this, it was more of an inward thing, really. I was in a band at the time, and no one was booking us. So I started doing it. Then I started seeing how strong the music community in Lexington was. I thoroughly believed in it."
On Saturday, Wilson has a big show in an unexpected local venue. Headlining a multiact rock bill will be Chiodos, which played at Rupp Arena in February as opening act for Linkin Park and Coheed & Cambria. Chiodos has more of a pop inflection than those bands, even though its songs — one of which is titled Lexington — regularly suggest a hard-core sound.
The show initially was booked into the Downtown Arts Center, but the need for a significant amount of sound equipment and what Wilson hopes will be a hearty turnout necessitated a move to Tattersalls, the horse sales pavilion at The Red Mile. The affiliation with the track itself, Wilson said, might grow in the months to come.
"We're working on some stuff at The Red Mile that's going to be pretty cool," he said. "We've got to keep a lot of it under wraps for now. But it's going to be pretty awesome."