History of Joel Ray Sprowls and Lincoln Jamboree
JOEL RAY SPROWLS
Joel Ray Sprowls Owner, Operator, Producer, Emcee, & Comedian of Lincoln Jamboree since 1954. Plus owner of Joel Ray’s Lincoln Village Restaurant since 1959
Joel Ray Sprowls was born 2 miles east of Buffalo, Kentucky on land his parents farmed. His father suffered a massive stroke leaving him completely paralyzed on the left side when Joel Ray was just 5 years old. “I never remember him walking, talking, or having any kind of mobility,” Sprowls said. Joel Ray attended Mt. Tabor School in a one room schoolhouse. “You know those stories you hear about people walking a mile to school, in the rain, in the snow, hot weather, cold weather, no matter what? Well, I did that and I was only in the first grade,” Sprowls chuckled. When Joel Ray was 8 years old, the Sprowls family moved to town. Sadly, when Joel Ray was 15, his father passed away at the age of 77. By then, Joel Ray had entered high school and was an avid basketball player. He and 17 other students graduated from Buffalo High School in 1946. But during those younger years, Joel Ray was listening to the Renfro Valley Barn Dance and the Grand Ole Opry. His appreciation for music developed at an early age, as did his love for talking and performing comedy routines to large crowds of people. During his teenage years, Joel Ray was already a regular toastmaster for all the local banquets and festivals. And yet while listening to the Renfro Valley Barn Dance and the Grand Ole Opry his entire life, Joel Ray has never attended a Saturday night performance at either venue. After graduation, Joel Ray had several different jobs, including working for E.S. Ferrill Wholesale Grocery as a business salesman and as a radio disc jockey for two different stations, just to name a few. Joel Ray joined the Masonic Lodge in 1952. By 1954, Joel Ray, now secretary of the lodge, found the local order in dire need for money. He suggested a talent show at the high school gymnasium to raise money. He told the other members, “I’ll get the talent and emcee the show and it won’t cost you a penny.” The benefit show proved to be a success. The band that won, “The Kentucky Rangers,” a 5 piece bluegrass band, quickly approached Joel Ray about becoming the band’s manager. He accepted. During that summer, he booked the Kentucky Rangers at local fairs and picnics. The talent contest in May 1954 was the first the world would see of Joel Ray Sprowls in show business, but certainly not the last.
On September 11, 1954, Joel Ray went out on a limb and rented the Cardinal Theatre for 20 weeks. Naysayers warned him, “You’ll never live up to your contract.” He proved them wrong, and the Lincoln Jamboree was born. The Cardinal Theatre was home to the Jamboree for the next 7 years. Not long after opening night, Joel Ray and the Jamboree gang were performing two shows every Saturday night, because the 310 seat theatre would not hold the crowds that lined up early on Saturday afternoons to get a ticket. Admission then was 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for children. On June 6, 1959, Joel Ray purchased the Lincoln Village Restaurant and adjacent property. He wasn’t looking to run a restaurant as much he was interested in the buying the land in hopes of building of his own theater. During these years the restaurant was open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. For 14 years, the doors were never locked. The first Lincoln Jamboree theater was built on the adjacent restaurant property and opened for the first time on Saturday, December 2, 1961. The building held 700 people. The Lincoln Jamboree went from being a little show downtown on Saturday nights to a statewide entertainment venue. The new building literally made the show explode. People everywhere were talking about the Jamboree as the place to be on Saturday nights.
Besides being the proprietor of two businesses now, the Lincoln Jamboree and Joel Ray’s Lincoln Village Restaurant, Joel Ray remained working as disc jockey at WTCO for 2 years and then WLOC for 8 years. Joel Ray also had another dream he wanted to fulfill – becoming a pilot. He began training in 1964 and obtained his pilot license on January 12, 1965. The sky was the limit. “If the weather was good, I flew at least 4 times a week,” Sprowls recalled.
Lincoln Jamboree Thru the Years
The Jamboree was a huge success by the mid-1960s, selling out every Saturday night. In 1966, a couple from Ontario, Canada came to eat at the restaurant and to see the show. That particular Saturday a 14” snow storm forced to Joel Ray to close. When he went to the restaurant, the man from Canada asked why in the world he canceled the show. Sprowls replied, “Are you kidding? Look outside!” “This wouldn’t stop us in Canada,” said the Canadian. Sprowls responded, “Well, you’ve got those high tech snow plows up there. Have you ever seen the way they clean our roads here?” “No,” said the Canadian. Sprowls said, “Just sit here, they’ll be by in a few minutes. They come through every 45 minutes.” About that time, they looked up and the Canadian couple witnessed Hodgenville’s way of treating the roads in 1966 – an old pickup truck with a chain tied to the bumper with a big log tied horizontal to the chain. “The couple was amused,” Sprowls laughed.
After a show on a stormy Saturday night in 1968, Donald “Boogie” Sherrard lingered around on stage to pick on his steel guitar. He yelled for Joel Ray and said he smelled something odd. Boogie and Joel Ray, both cigarette smokers at the time, decided it must be a cigarette butt in an ashtray somewhere. Little did they know that during the storm, lightning had struck the attic. Sherrard and Joel Ray both went home, but just a few hours later they would learn that the building was engulfed in flames and was a total loss. Fans worried, could this be the end of their favorite Saturday night show place? However, Joel Ray knew that the show had to go on.
Monday morning after the fire, Joel Ray called Louisville Tent Company. They informed him they had a tent but it leaked. That wouldn’t work. Still not ready to throw in the towel, Sprowls located a tent company in Chattanooga, TN. The company had a tent that was big enough to accommodate a large crowd but thought it was too windy to bring to Kentucky and leave for the summer. Joel Ray begged the company to rent him the tent. The company finally relented provided that Joel Ray would use chains so secure instead of rope and would have $500 cash waiting when they pulled in the driveway. Joel Ray immediately replied, “Load it up and get rolling here now.” School was out so the local Boy Scout troop brought chairs from the local schools. The Jamboree never missed a Saturday night in 3 months. “Coca-Cola supplied a portable soda machine and a popcorn machine for the three month interval,” recalled Jamboree employee Naomi Gardner. “They kept on playing and we kept on having refreshments just like we had a building. Here I am 46 years later back selling popcorn and Cokes again,” Gardner remarked. On the Jamboree’s 14th Anniversary, the rebuilt Jamboree opened its doors to the patrons. The new auditorium accommodated 842 people, and that night, September 14, 1968, all 842 seats were filled. Also that year, Joel Ray started the Camporee where patrons that camped could come and have a free place to set up as long as they ate at the restaurant and took in the show on Saturday night. “Camporee” still exists today. Customers during the camping season can bring their campers, RVs or tents and set up free any Friday and Saturday night as long as they come to the show on Saturday night and eat in the restaurant on Saturday night or Sunday lunch.
During the 1970s besides preparing for the show on Saturday night, Joel Ray also hosted a live radio broadcast for an hour every Saturday afternoon on then local station WLCB. Naomi Gardner recalls turning the radio on and listening to Joel Ray’s radio show as she got dressed for work that night. “He played the best of the best records at the time. Everyone that could pick up the station tuned in,” Gardner recalled. “By the time the radio show ended each Saturday, I was dressed and headed out to go work for the guy I had just listened to for the last hour on the radio, Joel Ray Sprowls,” recalled Gardner. In 1971, Joel Ray started the annual Easter Egg Hunt. That year he had a co-sponsor, radio station WINN, that advertised the event commercial breaks for two weeks. 5,000 people attended the first egg hunt, and the tradition carried on for 30 years. Joel Ray added events such as the Easter Egg Hunt, the annual pig roast and the flea market to draw every type of person to the Jamboree. By the early 70s, Joel Ray had expanded the Jamboree’s front by adding a museum of costumes and memorabilia of the stars of country music. A gift shop selling Jamboree souvenirs was added.
After Elvis died in 1977, Joel Ray added a theater room addition to the restaurant. People would then come from the Jamboree show, the restaurant, and would buy tickets for special Elvis tribute shows. Joel Ray even showed old western movies. In those days after the show was over, people didn’t just leave and go home. They congregated at the restaurant, visited and drank coffee. Many Saturday nights Joel Ray provided talent for the restaurant customers to listen to after the show. There was entertainment in every direction.
The Jamboree continued to sell out in the 80s. Fans young and old eagerly waited for the Saturday night shows.
Father’s Day 1984 was a day that Joel Ray Sprowls will never forget. He had been to the doctor before the show on Saturday night and received a shot and a prescription for Actifed allergy medication, which at that time was not an over the counter drug, nor a non-drowsy medicine. He made it through the show and back up Sunday morning to church and to the restaurant for the Father’s Day luncheon. Feeling worse, Joel Ray took an Actifed and headed for the couch when the phone rang. It was a call from his photographer friend from Florida who wanted Joel Ray to fly him up in his airplane. Joel Ray peeled himself off the couch and took the photographer up in his plane so they could get aerial shots of Hodgenville. At dusk Joel Ray told the photographer’s daughter that if she wanted to fly with him, they would have time to make a quick trip before dark. The two made it up fine, but as Joel Ray was preparing to land, the Actifed kicked in full strength. Joel Ray passed out, and the plane fell 200 feet head first and flipped over. The photography’s daughter was not injured. However, Joel Ray was trapped inside the upside down plane for over 30 minutes until he was rescued and taken by ambulance to Hardin Memorial Hospital and later transferred to the old Methodist Hospital in Louisville. The doctors said he would be paralyzed, because there was a bone driven through his spinal cord. Then the doctor told him they could try and operate and keep him from being paralyzed, but that it was a very risky surgery with no guarantee. Sprowls said, “Let’s operate. I’m going to walk again.” Meanwhile, news had already spread of the accident and Jamboree fans flooded the hospital and tied up the phone lines up to find out his condition. The operation lasted 6 hours. Joel Ray admits the hardest thing he’s ever done in his life was to get up and try to walk again, but with persistence, he proved that he could. Joel Ray came back to the Jamboree on a walker after being hospitalized 20 days and home for only 2 weeks. He thanked his many fans and patrons for their prayers, calls & concerns. Benny Puckett , then the Jamboree bass player, emceed the show during Joel Ray’s absence. Four weeks later, Joel Ray returned to the stage without a walker.
In the 90s the Jamboree endured another fire. One night while asleep in his office, a lady knocked on Joel Ray’s door and warned him that his restaurant was on fire. The lady was camping that weekend and could see the smoke from her campsite. Joel Ray pried open the door and when oxygen hit the blazes, the restaurant exploded. Joel Ray narrowly escaped death. Firefighters could not save the fire engulfed building. Joel Ray recalled looking over and seeing restaurant manager, Mary Lois Morris, in tears as she watched the restaurant go up in smoke. Insured by Lloyd’s of London, England, the fire marshal and insurance adjuster determined that the fire was caused by a faulty cord in the deep fryer. The restaurant remained closed while Joel Ray renovated the museum to accommodate the gift shop. A few months later, Joel Ray’s restaurant was back in business inside the former museum. The kitchen was located in the spot of the Jamboree’s concession stand, and the cafeteria line was placed where the gift shop checkout had been in previous years. The concession stand was relocated to the Jamboree lobby. Joel Ray endured a series of health crises which began in 1998 when he suffered the first of three strokes. In 2002, doctors found an aneurism that needed immediate removal. Joel Ray had the surgery and was off the show a few weeks. Ronnie Benningfield and Ricky Puckett managed and emceed the show until Sprowls once again made it back to the stage only a few weeks later. In 2008, Joel Ray suffered another light stroke, but 2009 would be the worst stroke of the three. Sprowls was hospitalized for this stroke and treated with physical and speech therapy to learn to walk and talk again. People speculated that Joel Ray would never return to the stage, but this Man of Steel proved them wrong once again. On January 16, 2010, he returned to the stage. The first few weeks back, Joel Ray emceed the first half of the show and turned it over to Ronnie Benningfield and Mike Ash, who kept the show running while Joel Ray was recovering. Within four weeks he resumed full time emceeing duties and hasn’t missed a performance since his return in 2010.
How many shows has Joel Ray missed over his 61 year run? Amazingly, only 15 shows! Forbes magazine deemed him the Cal Ripken of the music industry.