Travel down U.S. Highway 23 in Eastern Kentucky, and you will see some of the most beautiful country on God's green earth. But there's more to the area than just the visual scenery. The area, saluted in song by Dwight Yoakam's "Readin, Rightin, Rt. 23" a few years back, has given birth to many of country's biggest stars, such as Yoakam himself, Patty Loveless, Ricky Skaggs, and Loretta Lynn.
Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear, along with Country Music Hall of Fame member Tom T. Hall, joined forces Tuesday morning at the State Capitol in Frankfort to announce the launch of two new initiatives surrounding Highway 23, which is referred to as the "Country Music Highway."
The announcement introduced the "Country Music Highway Road To Fame" talent competition, which will allow the discovery of the next generation of unsigned artists from the area, as well as the development of the "Country Music Highway Arts Education Fund," a charitable organization designed to support music programs in the state.
The competition, which will begin in March, will tap the musical roots from the area to find the next superstars from the region. The winner will receive a scholarship to participate in career development and coaching from PCG Nashville in the value of $25,000. The contest is open to aspiring artists between 13-35 years of age from the fifteen counties that border U.S. Highway 23. For more information, go to www.cmhroadtofame.com and register to receive updates.
"I'm really excited about the competition because it will show that some of the best talent can be found in the hills of Eastern Kentucky," said the legendary Hall, also known as the "Storyteller."
For Hall, a native of Olive Hill, he said he always enjoys a chance to come back home.
"It's great to come back to Kentucky, because this is where I got my music, and took it all around the world. Though I might be known as a celebrity in some parts of the world," he said with his usual wry sense of humor, "when I come back here I am just a part of the local talent."
Hall also cited Merle Travis and the Everly Brothers as two more examples of the artists that have come from the area. "It's an amazing number of people that gravitated toward Route 23," says the entertainer.
Hall is also excited about the state's efforts to build the area into a tourist attraction for fans of country music, as well. "They did something similar in Virginia with the Crooked Road a few years ago, and now arts and crafts are beginning to gather up, and it keeps growing and growing. We want to do that with the Country Music Highway."
One such attraction already in place is the U.S. 23 Country Music Highway Museum, located in Paintsville - the hometown of Crystal Gayle. "They have a nice museum there. They have my original instrument from a bluegrass band I was in with the bass fiddle, and a display with some of my stage clothes. They also have a nice theater there."
While Hall is excited to promote the country heritage of the state, he also hopes that credit is also given for the main musical genre that comes from the state. "I want Kentucky to make sure they don't take bluegrass music away from us. That started right here. Bill Monroe invented it here, and it spread worldwide. The reason he named it Bluegrass is that he was from the state of Kentucky. We want them to know it's ours, though we've exported it all over the world."
Jeff Crowe, President and CEO of Tour SEKY, said that the announcements represent "the next step of our region being recognized for the talent that we've hidden for all these years."
He credited Governor Beshear for his efforts in getting the word out about the area all over the word, "We have a huge legacy, and this is such a great inspiration for all of us."
Of course, while Crowe is humbled and honored to be able to promote the history of the area, he's also excited about what the future holds. "With the competition, we may add a few names to the list, and that would be a very good thing."
Corporate sponsors of these initiatives include the Gibson Foundation, Crawdad's Classics Gourmet Flavorings, Vietti Chili, Fairway Outdoor Advertising, Ray, Foley, and Hensley Accounting, as well as the afore-mentioned TourSEKY and PCG Nashville.