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Master Musicians Git Down

Colorful Caves

Master Musicians Git Down

Every summer for the past 10 years, the hills of southern Kentucky have reverberated with the music of every conceivable variety for two full days.

Held in Somerset the third weekend of July, the Master Musicians Festival begins with a Thursday night classical concert that segues on Friday and Saturday into a mind-boggling mix of constant performances on two stages where Kentucky musicians get to play next to big-name performers, and workshops taught by master musicians are available to everyone. There’s even a loud, rockin’ youth stage for the 25-and-under crowd.

According to Gabrielle Gray, the Somerset-raised, classically trained violinist and composer who—thanks to a Kentucky Arts Council grant—conceived, birthed, and directed the festival until this year, master musicians are “those to whom we owe our musical heritage.” Some have won National Heritage Awards, others the Living Blues Award. Think icons like American folk music legend Doc Watson and first lady of American folk Odetta. Both have appeared here.

Invited musicians hail from the state, the nation, and around the world, thanks to a huge network of musical eyes and ears set up by Gray. “We don’t look for who’s hot and will draw the biggest crowd,” she says, “but for who’s doing the most magnificent music on the planet!”

From day one, explains Robyn Zimmerman who, as president of the Master Musicians Festival board of directors, is running this year’s event, “The festival’s mission has been diversity in music, race, and culture.”

Jerry Baldassaro and his partner Charley Fraley, brother of KISS rocker Ace Fraley, make up two-thirds of an acoustic folk group, The Bridge, new to the Master Musicians Festival in 2002.

“My thoughts were, it’s in Kentucky. It’s kind of rural. It’s probably going to be a lot of bluegrass and country and not much else,” Baldassaro recalls. “But when we got there, we found it was really an interesting cross-section of carefully picked artists playing all kinds of music. There was Celtic. There were blues. There was a band from New York playing salsa music. It was a real eclectic event.”

And not a highly publicized one. Marketing is kept to a minimum to keep what’s billed as a “family festival” down to a manageable size, clean, and well-organized. In 2002 around 14,000 people from 30 states and three or four countries attended.

In addition to a $75 three-day family pass, attendees can purchase a second family pass for folks who can’t afford a ticket. Families who buy these, says Zimmerman, become owners of the festival. There are also arts and crafts workshops and a slew of activities for kids (who get in free). “It’s like a new Woodstock,” says Patti Swallow, executive director of the Somerset-Pulaski County Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Bring your blanket and chairs, and duck in the big shade tent if you get hot.”


July 17-19 • Somerset

Tickets: (888) FUN-JULY

Travel/lodging: (800) 642-6287


The festival takes place at two locations. Thursday evening’s classical concert is at the Center Theater in the Center for Rural Development, Highway 27.
Friday and Saturday events are at Somerset Park on Pumphouse Road, Highway 3260 off Highway 80 East Bypass.

Friday and Saturday events are outdoors, so bring sunscreen and water. Concessions are available or bring a picnic. Onsite parking is free, but camping is available only at nearby state park campgrounds, Lake Cumberland State Resort Park, and General Burnside Island State Park, (800) 255-PARK.


A few of the nearly 200 performers invited to this year’s event include:

  • Living Blues Award winner and master harmonica player Wallace Coleman
  • Former New Grass Revival member John Cowan and fiddling master musician Vassar Clements
  • Award-winning Grammy nominee, Canadian fiddler/stepdancer Natalie MacMaster
  • NRBQ (New Rhythm & Blues Quartet), hot ’70s band that inspired the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Elvis Costello, and Los Lobos
  • Cherokee elder Walker Calhoun, with Native American songs, dancing, and storytelling
  • Four-time audience favorites The Kettle-heads, bluegrass and “jazzgrass”
  • Two-time audience favorites Zoe Speaks, contemporary Appalachian and folk
  • Sultry blues artist Jonell Mosser with Enough Rope
  • Rowdy Southern rock and blues band Goose Creek Symphony
  • The Bridge, acoustic folk
  • Petra Tabor, Hungarian-born classical cellist
  • Frostburg College Quartet, classical and Broadway selections

Katherine Tandy Brown is a regular contributor to the Traveling Kentucky column.

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Colorful Caves

The cave region of Barren, Hart, and Edmonson counties offers several options for an educational, family vacation both above and below ground.

Mammoth Cave is the most popular cave in the area, boasting its status as the longest cave system in the world, but there are several other area caves in its shadows, ready to welcome visitors.

Diamond Caverns, near I-65 at exit 48 on the Mammoth Cave Parkway in Park City, has been welcoming visitors to the area for more than 140 years. The cave was discovered by a slave of Jesse James on July 14, 1859. It became known as Diamond Caverns because of its calcite deposits that resemble diamonds.

The cave is open year-round except on Christmas and Thanksgiving. Tours are offered every 20 to 30 minutes. Tours cover about half a mile in around an hour. The first tour of the day begins at the gift shop at 9 a.m. CT daily. Last tour times vary throughout the year. Reservations are not necessary. For more information, call (270) 749-2233 or go online to

Crystal Onyx Cave at 8709 Happy Valley Road in Cave City, two and a half miles off I-65 at exit 53, is one of the newer caves in the area, being discovered in 1960. Hour-long tours are offered year-round, except for January, at Crystal Onyx Cave. Guided tours are offered from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. CT June 1 to August 1, and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. CT August 2 to May 2, except, of course, in January. For more information, call (270) 773-2359 or go online to and click on “Cave Tours.”

Also located in Cave City is Onyx Cave. Thirty-minute tours at Onyx Cave start often by demand. The tours are not handicapped-accessible. For information, call (270) 773-3530.

Cave Connections

In honor of the man who brought exposure to the region, Cave City will celebrate Floyd Collins Good Ole Days from September 6–7 at the Cave City Convention Center and in downtown Cave City. Activities planned include children’s rides, a crafts fair, 5K and 1K runs, a children’s parade, and gospel singing. For a detailed schedule call (270) 773-2188 or e-mail

An aboveground study of caves is just a few miles up either I-65 or U.S. 31-W in Horse Cave at the American Cave Museum.

Visitors to the museum can also explore Hidden River Cave from 150 feet below the museum and the city of Horse Cave. The museum is self-guided, but guided cave tours leave hourly from the museum. The regular tour includes 230 stairs in and out of the cave, but a handicapped-accessible tour with an elevator ride into the sinkhole is available. Reservations are not required, but call the museum at (270) 786-1466 for a current cave tour schedule.

Not all learning destinations in the area involve caves. The Mammoth Cave Wildlife Museum in Cave City and Kentucky Down Under in Horse Cave teach visitors about several different animals, ones found in the local habitat and some species that make their homes in foreign locations.

Mammoth Cave Wildlife Museum on Kentucky 90, three-fourths of a mile east of I-65 at exit 53 in Cave City, boasts 14,000 square feet of exhibit area housing stuffed rare and exotic animals in their native habitat, including a snow leopard, one of the rarest cats in the world, and animals more common to the area, like deer.

For additional information on exhibits or current operating hours, call the museum at (270) 773-2255.

Kentucky Down Under, near Kentucky Caverns in Horse Cave, is an Australian-themed animal park, home to animals such as kangaroos and koalas. For a complete detailed schedule, call (270) 786-2634 or e-mail


•Camping seems to be the most popular way to spend the night in the area. Campgrounds are scattered throughout Mammoth Cave National Park, Crystal Onyx Cave also has an onsite campground, and several other independent campgrounds dot the local map.

•The opportunity even exists to camp at the home of a celebrity. Jellystone Park Camp Resort, the home of Yogi Bear, is located at 1002 Mammoth Cave Road in Cave City and allows its guests to sleep under the stars at one of its campsites or in one of its more cozy cabins. The staff at Jellystone takes guests back to the days of childhood summer camps with planned recreation activities, including arts and crafts, outdoor movies, sports activities, etc. Visitors planning a stay with Yogi are required to make reservations by calling (270) 773-3840. A recreation event schedule is available either by phone or online at

•Another creative lodging option available in the area involves sleeping in a wigwam. Wigwam Village, located at 601 North Dixie Highway (U.S. 31-W) in Cave City, offers visitors the unique opportunity to sleep like the Native Americans did. Well, not exactly. These wigwams are constructed of concrete, have air conditioning and heating, and contain 25″ color televisions with cable TV service. The commons area of the wigwam community features a large playground, a covered picnic shelter, grills, and Indian gift shop. Reservations to sleep like a modern, comfortable Native American can be made by calling Wigwam Village at (270) 773-3381. Wigwam Village is open from March 1 to November 30.

Guntown Mountain’s park area at the bottom of the mountains features several amusement park-type rides, and a chairlift or train ride to the top of the mountain takes visitors to a “wild west” town complete with gun fights and cancan shows. Park hours vary throughout the year, so call (270) 773-3530 for a current schedule.

Horse Cave Theatre on Kentucky 218 in downtown Horse Cave offers both matinee and evening play times, featuring several plays per season. For a play schedule call the theater ticket office at (270) 786-2177 or (800) 342-2177.

Amanda Vincent is a regular contributor to the Traveling Kentucky column.

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