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Kenlake Blues Festival still strong after all these years

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Posted: Saturday, August 11, 2012 8:00 am

AURORA, Ky. - Ideas have formed in the strangest places throughout time.

Air travel was planned in a bicycle shop in Ohio. Fireworks were formed by accident in a Chinese kitchen. And many people may not know it, but the Slinky was created during research for an engineering project on naval battleships.

Gloria Hargrove’s idea to bring a blues festival to Kentucky Lake was hatched in two places - a Murray State University classroom and the waiting room of a dentist’s office.

“I was taking a philosophy class under Dr. Wayne Sheeks and he was talking one day about how music is able to transcend the socio-economic scale of culture,” said Hargrove, who was taking the class while working as sales manager of Kenlake State Resort Park in Aurora. “He talked about the blues in his class a lot and he said people gravitate to this kind of thing, and I remember being struck by that.

“Well, a few weeks later, I’m at a dentist’s office and reading a magazine that said blues festivals were real popular. I then knew I wanted to start one.”

With one last bit of inspiration, courtesy of an album by pop music legend Neil Diamond (Hot August Nights), the Hot August Blues Festival was born, featuring blues legend Junior Wells in its debut year of 1989. Now, it is gearing up for its 23rd renewal this year at its home from the start - the Kenlake amphitheater.

“She’s something else,” said Murray’s Debbie Howard of Hargrove, who created the festival with assistance from then-Kenlake park manager Bill Hainesworth. Howard has since taken over as coordinator.

“They turned this into something great for this area and, now, we’re continuing it and it’s still strong. They were doing something right back then and it looks like we’re still doing something right,” Howard said.

Hot August Blues now ranks as one of the top 10 must-see events of the summer in the Commonwealth, attracting fans from such places as Canada, Virginia, Michigan, Florida and Georgia with many making the festival an annual vacation destination.

“This has become a family tradition,” Howard said. “You see families come each year and watch as their kids grow and then their kids start bringing their kids.

“Then you notice others. I have a guy that has each and every arm band he has from this attached to his sunglasses, you see people wear the same clothes, a certain hat, each year. We even have one lady, and she does this every year, who swims into the amphitheater area while wearing a backpack. She then buys about 15 T-shirts, stuffs them into her backpack, then swims back out into the lake to her pontoon boat. It really is amazing what you see here.”

The list of artists has been amazing as well. Including Wells, fellow blues legends KoKo Taylor and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown have graced the stage along Kentucky Lake. This year, powerhouse acts the Tee Dee Young Band and the Tony Spinner Band, featuring Spinner, who has toured with well-known musicians Pat Travers and Paul Gilbert (guitarist for the metal band Mr. Big) along with serving a stint as a member of the rock band Toto.

“You’re just impressed by the abilities of these artists,” Hargrove said, explaining that relations with such people as Bob Danielson, former owner of the Big Apple Cafe, helped pave the road to landing much of the talent that has played at Aurora. “You get to knowing those folks and, pretty soon, they’re telling the musicians playing at their venues about us, and that’s getting the musicians interested and thinking of making this a stop.”

That was just one part of the chain that pulls acts to Aurora.

“Here’s the thing, though. We’ve had artists come through here who go back to their places and tell their people about us and, sure enough, later, we’ll have artists come here and tell us how someone they knew that came here told them about this festival,” Howard said. “They see Aurora, Ky. on a map, they’re probably thinking it’s just a spot on the road. Then they get here, and they’re shocked.

“They see this beautiful amphitheater on the lake, and everyone knows water is the perfect backdrop for sound. It doesn’t get any better.”

Howard said, along with several surprises (all secret for now), the festival will have its first presenting sponsor ever - H&R Agri-Power, based in Hopkinsville. She said, along with the many, many other entities that offer assistance, should strengthen this event for many years to come.

“And we are very, very thankful for all of the people we have working on this. Without them, it doesn’t happen,” she said.

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