Founding the Kentucky Opry

Hometown Heroes, On the Road, People, Travel Destinations
on March 18, 2001

When Billie Jean Osborne, a retired music teacher, attended a musical revue in Myrtle Beach, S.C., she was just another vacationing tourist looking for an evening’s entertainment.

But as she watched the performers that night, she remembered the young people she had taught over the years in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Kentucky—children who had extraordinary musical talent, but no place to perform.

When the show was over, Osborne remained in her seat, tears streaming down her face.

“I cried because I remembered all these talented kids back home that I knew we could put onstage,” Osborne says. “And I knew that I could come up with anything as good as what I had just seen in Myrtle Beach, and it would all be local.”

With that thought, Osborne dried her eyes and walked out of the theater, her retirement at a sudden end.

Now, nearly a dozen years later, Osborne’s dream has taken root in the form of a sprawling $7 million complex known as the Mountain Arts Center, located in Prestonsburg, Ky., (pop. 3,554). The state-of-the-art facility, a testament to Osborne’s philosophy of “dreaming big,” boasts a 1,050-seat auditorium, a gift shop, classrooms, rehearsal space, and a fully equipped digital recording studio.

The center, funded through a combination of government grants and private and corporate donations, serves as home base to Osborne’s two musical troupes—The Kentucky Opry and The Kentucky Opry Junior Pros (a younger “farm-team” for the Opry)—which perform and tour throughout the year to showcase local talent. The theater also has hosted performers ranging from the likes of country star Billy Ray Cyrus to classical ballet companies and philharmonic orchestras.

But it’s the center’s educational mission that makes Osborne most proud.

The facility offers instruction in music, voice, drama, and audio/video production, and provides an educational performance series for area students. The series—attended by more than 20,000 school children from throughout the region—features theatrical performances, dance, and classical music in special matinees.

It is, for Osborne, a dream come true. But it was by no means an easy sell.

When she began to lobby legislators and local businesses for the funds to build the center, many of her would-be benefactors agreed that it was a fine idea, but some had the view that, as Osborne puts it, “We just can’t build something that big in a place like Prestonsburg.”

She wasn’t discouraged. “Once I made my mind up, I just said to myself, ‘If I can’t do it one way, then I’ll just figure out another way to get it done.’”

She barnstormed the offices of every government and business leader she could find, winning over the naysayers with her take-no-prisoners style. Slowly, she began to piece together the money she needed to make the project a reality.

She formed a musical group from local singers and musicians—a group which became the original Kentucky Opry—to demonstrate the type of talent she was hoping to develop and showcase at the as-yet-unfunded center.

As the group’s popularity increased, Osborne made certain that she invited potential contributors to the performances held at a local summer theater.

“I invited (U.S. Congressman) Hal Rogers to a performance, and I got him onstage and told him right out, ‘I need your help, sir. I need a permanent home for this Kentucky Opry, and you’re the man who can help me.’”

Rogers came through, helping Osborne put together federal grant money for the center. He calls Osborne a “personal inspiration.”

“Billie Jean was the driving force behind the creation of this spectacular performing arts showplace,” he says. “She had more than just a dream—she had a vision for her community and the tenacity to make it a reality.”

And it appears that the community shares Osborne’s vision. The Kentucky Opry and Kentucky Opry Junior Pros shows often are sold out, and she receives many calls from performers who wish to audition for the groups. As a matter of fact, she says, it’s not unusual for entire families to get into the act.

She points to the Kainney family of Pikeville, Ky., as an example. Sixteen-year-old Crystal Kainney and her sister, Rachel, 13, both fiddlers with the show, sometimes share the stage with mom Carolyn. The three began taking fiddle lessons at the arts center around seven years ago and eventually found the lure of the Opry Junior Pros irresistible.

Carolyn says the rehearsals and performances are hard work, but they’ve been well worth it. “I’ve enjoyed it, and the kids have, too,” she says. “We’ve played at places all over the country. And every time we’ve had a trip, we’ve learned more.”

Crystal agrees. “It’s been a blessing. We’re always dealing with changing situations, and performing has helped me learn how to be flexible. It’s helped to shape me as a person.”

Comments like that bring a smile to Osborne’s face. “For me,” she says, “being a part of the Mountain Arts Center means a new adventure every day.”