I approached the Mountain Arts Center in Prestonsburg back in 2017. They had no idea who I was and on a personal level, I had no idea who they were. Over time, I have worked closely with Joe Campbell. Joe is the Executive Director at the Mountain Arts Center, or the MAC, as it’s affectionately referred to. Joe and I bounced ideas off of each other, helping each other move forward. I asked if he’d like to partner up to create opportunities for Kentucky artists. He said yes and we began to discuss different ways to accomplish that goal.
I’ve been working on and thinking about this article for quite some time. I sat out to write an article that highlighted all the great musicians that are an alumnus of the Kentucky Opry, but the further I dug into that side of things, I decided that this article needed to be broader to convey what I was discovering. So, I want to take a step back and focus on what the Mountain Arts Center means to the folks in Eastern Kentucky.
Long gone are the days of folks making a decent wage in the coal mines and a lot of folks, myself included, had to leave the area to make a better life. Now tourism is helping to build up the area again. The infrastructure is improving and making the area more accessible than ever before. There has also been a few manufacturing jobs trickle into the area. Hopefully, all that translates to a brighter future and folks will have the chance to stay home and innovate and grow in their hometown.
So what does that have to do with this article? So glad you asked. Through the ups and downs, the folks there have persevered and they have done so with hard work, love, Faith, and traditions. The hard work is the easy part of this equation. As a poor region, we grew up working hard. It’s ingrained in our DNA. Most folks live in a home that someone in their family built themselves. There are abundant gardens. No one wants to spend money repairing a home or clearing a wooded area. God gave us two hands to use and Eastern Kentuckians are glad to oblige.
Love is what keeps many in the region. Be it family or just a love for nature, folks don’t want the big city, busy life. They’d prefer to hunt deer on their Grandparents farm or fish in Dewey Lake than fight traffic and make more money. I get that and I respect that.
Now with Faith, many folks grew up in the Church, so music was always a part of their lives. Add in the isolation and limited activities to be a part of and you will find that the music bug bites a lot of people. It is almost a certainty that every family has grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts and so forth that have a guitar or banjo. Once the chores were all done and supper was over, many of us would wind up on a front porch watching someone pick a tune or even trying to pick one ourselves. It is those traditions that make Eastern Kentucky what it is. Music is a very common thread in Eastern Kentucky and the long list of artists that were born and raised along US23, or as it’s referred to often, the Country Music Highway continues to grow at a very quick pace.
Having said all of that, within all of the change and migration, sits the Mountain Arts Center in Prestonsburg. For passers-by, it’s simply another music venue, but to those of us from the area, the programs set in place by Billie Jean Osborne were an absolute Godsend. Sure the MAC is a performance venue. But did you know there is a recording studio there? Or how about the Kentucky Opry? A show that features performers that call the region home. Or how about the Kentucky Opry Jr. Pros? A training ground to teach young minds from the ages of 6-16.
What the vision of Billie Jean Osborne created in 1990 was a spark of hope. She was a lifelong teacher and she formed the Kentucky Opry because she didn’t want to see the talented folks leave home. She lobbied for a venue and in 1996, the Mountain Arts Center was born. Inside is the 1,044 capacity performance venue, several classrooms for teaching music, just as Billie Jean did, and the recording studio.
In a time when our resources were being ripped from our mountains and the money leaving, Billie Jean Osborne helped reinvent what we have now. I never had the opportunity to meet Mrs. Osborne, but as an Eastern Kentuckian myself, I feel a kinship to her and my heart is thankful for her. She has inspired many and I wanted to tell her story to give some perspective on the what and the why, before sharing a few quotes of the prominent alumnus.
Ray Salyer – Bassist with Exile, John Michael Montgomery.
J.T. Cure – Bassist with The Jompson Brothers, Chris Stapleton.
Beau Tackett – Guitarist with Jake Owen, Blake Shelton.
Kory Caudill – Keyboardist with Justin Moore.
Roger Coleman – Guitarist with Justin Moore.
Jesse Wells – Multi-Instrumentalist with The Wooks, Tyler Childers.
Chase Lewis – Pianist with Postmodern Jukebox, Keys with Tyler Childers.
Rebecca Lynn Howard – Solo Recording Artist, Loving Mary Band, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith fame.
Josh Martin – Recording Artist, Session player, Sony publishing songwriter.
Brittany Taylor – Recording artist, Spirit publishing.
Haley Sullivan – Keyboards, Guitars with Pam Tillis.
Chris Castle – Steel Guitar with Midland.
Clarke Sexton – Drums, Bass, Touring musician based in Nashville.
Several folks have contributed to shape this article, be it information or a quote or a story and I hope you enjoy and appreciate each and every one of them.
First up is Kory Caudill, who’s Dad Keith was a large part of launching the MAC. He had this to say, “The Kentucky Opry and the Mountain Arts Center are treasures. There are nice performing arts centers across the country, but there’s something different about the MAC.”
Caudill continues, “To me, MAC audiences get a much more genuine, emotional concert experience. At the risk of sounding biased, I firmly believe this is the case because of the goals my dad established for the venue. Dad was adamant that the Mountain Arts Center’s purpose wasn’t so much to bring in flashy outside programming, but to nurture the abilities of local artists, and to put them on a multi-million dollar stage.”
That wasn’t the easiest task as Kory says, “For several reasons this was an uphill battle for Dad a lot of times, but now there is a generation of musicians and artists who are sharing their East Kentucky roots on a global level, and they’re able to do so fearlessly because of the resources they had access to at home.”
The success of folks like Chris Stapleton and Tyler Childers makes it pretty hard to argue with Kory’s points.
Josh Martin is also another shining example of how the MAC helps advance the talent in the Appalachian Mountains. Josh now lives in Nashville where he has a publishing deal with Sony and he is also a studio musician with a firm foundation in bluegrass and country music.
Josh chimes in with his thoughts on how his time at the MAC helped prepare him for Nashville. “It’s really challenging for me to sum up in a few words what the MAC symbolizes to me. Being a native of Floyd County and involved in the arts, it was viewed as somewhat of a “Mecca” type building where the greats (both locally and nationally) would take the stage and show off their God-given gifts.”
“Because of perception, I grew up feeling like an outsider in comparison to those on that stage. I never took lessons, and though I had tried out several times to be in the Kentucky Opry Jr. Pros, I was actually denied. But that didn’t dampen the mystique of the MAC in my eyes at all.”
Martin continues, “Instead, it made me work harder at my craft, it fueled my fire and then when I was a 17-year-old in a local bluegrass band, we opened up for Doyle Lawson. It was there on that stage, where I got my first taste of what show business is about. I was hooked instantly.”
In the spirit of our musical family in Kentucky, Josh tells us how he got his shot at the MAC. “Through the Front Porch Pickin program, I was introduced to Keith Caudill (Kory’s Father), the former Executive Director, who really took a liking to my playing and gave me the opportunity to play a part in the Kentucky Opry summer show.
Talk about a learning experience, I had never even dreamed of everything it took to make a show of that caliber go off without a hitch. That experience though, really opened my eyes to the fact that hard work is always the secret to success.”
Martin concludes, “I guess in summation, the MAC has always been about education and giving the talent of East Kentucky a platform in which to showcase their gifts while offering up new experiences every time they open their doors.”
Sounds about right to me.
The MAC’s current budding star is Rachel Messer. Rachel continues her career as part of the Kentucky Opry at the MAC. Messer, who made it onto the show from NBC, ‘The Voice’ has nothing but praise for the venue and programs the MAC provides.
She adds, “The Mountain Arts Center has become such a special place to me. I started going to Front Porch Pickin’ back in 2016, and then I became a member of the Opry. The relationships and friendships I’ve made have been irreplaceable. They’ve given me so much opportunity and experience, and I believe played a big part in helping me build the confidence that I needed to pursue music even more!”
So if you’re interested in music, the MAC can help you with learning, recording and growing into an artist. Nowhere else in the country can you find a facility that harbors everything you need to grow as an artist and the MAC does all under one roof.
So there you have it. A story of hope, community, love, and inspiration. Eastern Kentucky owes Billie Jean Osborne an awful lot, but her spirit and dreams have fueled many careers and her dream is a reality that continues to live up to her vision.
God Bless you, Billie Jean Osborne. You are gone, but not forgotten.