The Levitt Foundation, based out of Los Angeles, CA, has just made a major commitment to live music in eastern Kentucky. Before we get into that, let me provide you with a little background information on their amazing foundation. They were formed in 1963 by Mortimer and Mimi Levitt to support the arts, culture and education. Their mission statement is “to strengthen the social fabric of America. We empower communities to transform neglected outdoor spaces into welcoming destinations where the power of free, live music brings people together and invigorates community life”. They have enabled cities both small and large to harness the power of free, live music and use it as a catalyst for positive change. In our case, it has been the best thing to happen to our downtown in a long, long time. Our entire community has been so supportive of it as well, and having something that’s universally supported is a rare thing. It’s helping breathe new life into our downtown and we’re hoping to parlay the positive momentum into progress in other areas. It’s a game-changer for the communities that have it. The foundation awards 15 cities across the country a $25,000 matching grant which they use to host a free, ten-week concert series throughout the year (usually from late spring until early fall). The grant series has several phases, including the grant writing and submission, voting (which starts now), then selection. More info is available at www.levitt.org.
In the running for the matching grants include Kentucky towns Berea, Whitesburg, Harlan, and Ashland.
The grant also enables the community to build a thriving community space with frequent live music. When we started in year one, we had makeshift stage and a venue space that needed a lot of TLC placed in a vacant lot in the middle of our downtown. Four years later and we have an amazing metal stage constructed and donated by JR Hoe and Sons and an outdoor venue that rivals any I have seen in a town our size anywhere. Our crowds in the beginning were meager, but each year they’ve grown tremendously. This past year we had several rainy event days, but the crowds weren’t deterred and we packed the house most every night.
One of the great things about the Levitt AMP Middlesboro Music Series grants is they put a real emphasis on creating a quality, diverse line up. So while we’ve featured some amazing country/Americana/folk/bluegrass acts like John Moreland, Arlo McKinley, Mo Pitney, Nick Dittmeir, George Molton, Mark O’Connor, The Black Lilies, and Caleb Caudle – our shows feature genres of all kinds. Blues, gospel, R&B, rock n roll, mariachi, hip-hop and everything in between have seen some unforgettable evenings in our downtown, here in the shadow of the Cumberland Gap. This diversity keeps the concert series from becoming stale, but most importantly it helps expose our people to new music and cultures. You may think there would be way that a town in southeast Kentucky could pack the house for an all-female Mariachi band from New York, but you’d be wrong. Our crowds come out regardless of genre, because they know we bring in top-quality acts regardless of what style of music they play.
We here in Middlesboro are proud to announce that we are one of three cities in the COUNTRY who just received a multi-year Levitt grant to ensure amazing, free live music in our downtown through 2021. The $75,000 commitment is absolutely mind-blowing…we were speechless when we got the news. But not only has the Levitt Foundation committed to Middlesboro; they’ve been committed to our entire region. Berea, KY has been a two-year recipient of the Levitt AMP Music Series grant award, and Whitesburg was a first-year recipient last year. This year, there are FOUR eastern Kentucky cities that have made it through to the voting phase: Berea, Whitesburg, Harlan, and Ashland.
We in Middlesboro are excluded from the voting phase since we are now a multi-year recipient. Now, this is not saying that all four of those cities will make it. There’s still a ways to go until the awards are handed out, but my point is that it is amazing to see our region so well represented, and the support that the Levitt Foundation has provided our region with to this point has been remarkable.
Right now, our Commonwealth is alive with music. We have established a scene that’s akin to some of the greatest ever…but not only are we seeing an abundance of musical talent coming from our great state, we’re also seeing music events and festivals spring up all over, from the rivers in the west to the mountains in the east. Some have been around a while, and some are brand new. Eastern Kentucky is home to the Master Musicians Festival (Somerset), Kickin’ It On The Creek (Irvine), Poppy Mountain Bluegrass Festival (Morehead), Manchester Music Festival (Manchester) and ton of other festivals that incorporate live music. Seeing these grow each year does nothing but help foster our young talent, develop our downtowns, and helps make us known as a destination for live music. That’s why its so great to have the opportunity that the Levitt Foundation has given us coincide with this amazing explosion of music from Kentucky right now.
Eastern Kentucky owes the Levitt Foundation a huge “thank you”. Because these grants put the power in the hands of the community to better itself. It’s not a situation where a company or foundation does everything and doesn’t enlist the community…the exact opposite, actually. That is true empowerment, and it’s something that’s a rare thing in today’s world. It’s a major reason why the Levitt Foundation is so special. We honestly can’t thank them enough.
I encourage all of you to go vote for our fellow eastern Kentucky towns of Harlan, Whitesburg, Ashland, and Berea. It just takes a minute, just go to https://grant.levittamp.org/voter-registration-page/ and check out the Voting Guide link. It will tell you how register, login, and vote.
This past year could be hard to top as far as live music in the Commonwealth is concerned, but 2019 looks like it’s got a great shot of doing just that.
Stay tuned for updates on the Levitt AMP Middlesboro Music Series at www.facebook.com/LevittAMP
(Special thanks to Jon Grace, Bell County Tourism Director, for providing this article on the Levitt AMP Middlesboro Music Series.)
Jessica Bray is the owner and founder of Kentucky Country Music website. Jessica has been a music journalist and historian for over 20 years. She enjoys providing concert photography, reviews, red carpet event coverage, and exclusive interviews of your favorite country music singers. She is a Kentucky Colonel, as well as a collector of Volkswagen and Gnome items. Most recently, she was named Laurel County’s Ten Under 40 Award Recipients for 2018.