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The Burl: From Independent Upstart to the Center of Kentucky Music

September 6, 2023 10:37 am GMT

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It’s hard to pin down a single place at the heart of Kentucky’s music revival, but if any one spot has a good claim to it, it’s The Burl.

When the venue opened in July 2016, eyes were already on the state thanks to the recent releases of Chris Stapleton’s Traveller and Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth.

Momentum was also continuing to build for Tyler Childers, who had dropped Purgatory just over a year prior. His three-night run of shows at The Burl the following October that helped to elevate the room to a national level. Artists like Billy Strings, Lost Dog Street Band, Charley Crockett, 49 Winchester, Hailey Whitters and countless others have followed, further cementing it as a go-to venue for fans and artists alike.

“Suddenly Nashville wasn’t the place anymore for raw and intimate songwriting,” says Burl co-owner Will Harvey. “A lot of that attention had been pushed to Kentucky, and somehow the timing worked out where we were at the epicenter of that.”

But music is just a part of The Burl’s recipe for success. Much of what makes it so special are the people that frequent it, from the bartenders and sound crew to the fans themselves.

One such fan whose name has grown synonymous with the club is Roger Combs, a retired 70-year-old who can almost always be seen riding the rail at shows and dancing with every woman in sight. According to Combs, he’d been regularly attending bluegrass concerts for over a decade before visiting The Burl shortly after its opening, crediting the venue for expanding his musical palette into the rock and Americana sounds that now dominate his schedule.

“The Burl has become my second home,” says Combs. “I used to tell people when I was going there three days a week that I had a cot in the attic there to sleep in. They really opened their arms and took me in.”

Holler Country Music
Holler Country Music
Holler Country Music

One of the Burl family’s many members to embrace Combs is Abby Hamilton, who can often be found singing from the stage when she’s not serving drinks from behind the bar. She first began hanging out at The Burl five years ago and quickly became enamored with local acts like Justin Wells, Nolan Taylor, Sean Whiting and Magnolia Boulevard that she saw opening up for bigger acts, a role she soon worked herself into.

After growing on its stage in the years since, Hamilton is now hitting her musical stride, having performed at South by South West and Luck Reunion along with Oregon’s Fairwell Festival already in 2023, with a handful of slots opening up for Tyler Childers still on the horizon.

“They’ve been so consistent in supporting me, from throwing me on those opening slots five years ago to the pandemic, when I got to open for Wynonna Judd during one of their first outdoor shows,” says Hamilton. “They’ve provided a ton of opportunities for me to explore, grow and be a part of some shows that are just really, really cool.”

The latest Hamilton will be a part of is the inaugural Burl County Fair, set to take place in The Burl’s parking lot from Sept. 8-10. The three-day music festival and fair mash-up will also feature performances from Margo Price, Hayes Carll, Madison Cunningham, Rayland Baxter, Del McCoury and western Kentucky-native S.G. Goodman.

Goodman was most recently there on July 20 to speak and play a handful of songs solo during a premiere of the new PBS program Southern Storytellers, at which time she also reflected on what she appreciates about the venue so much that keeps her coming back: the amenities.

“The owners have been working hard to make the artist experience here as good as they possibly can, and that means a lot,” says Goodman. “Touring is really hard, so having a nice place to sleep locked in is huge. They’re putting the artists and their patrons first and it shows in every building on the property.”

From a green room offering couches, bunk beds, a pool table and more available free-of-charge to a retro game arcade and on-site food kitchen, The Burl and its team are always looking to adapt and innovate. When the pandemic shut down the music industry for months on end, ownership decided to set up tables in its parking lot to host socially distanced shows, something it now does 15-20 times per year on a general admission basis.

When the Live Nation-owned Railbird Festival came to Lexington in 2019, the venue didn’t throw shade but instead embraced it, leading to it having curated the event’s “Burl” stage each year. During the festival’s 2023 iteration the stage was prime real estate, with fans flocking to it to hear Appalachian all-stars and Burl alumni like Morgan Wade, Cole Chaney, The Local Honeys, Town Mountain and Charles Wesley Godwin, the latter of whom welcomed 2021 Burl stage performer and 2023 headliner Zach Bryan to the stage for a performance of their hit song ‘Jamie’.

“Railbird has become the premiere Kentucky music festival, and we’re very fortunate to have a big hand in how that connects with our local community,” owner Will Harvey commented. “In 2019 we had Billy Strings and in 2021 we had Zach Bryan, but this past year of The Burl stage at Railbird was our best yet.”

Kicking off the second day of Railbird 2023 from The Burl stage was rising country star Brit Taylor. The show marked the biggest crowd played in front of to date for the Eastern Kentucky-born, Nashville-based Taylor, who went into the festival fresh off the release of her Sturgill Simpson and Dave Ferguson produced album Kentucky Blue. It also came only a year and a half after making her debut at The Burl itself, having performed during back-to-back benefit shows to kick off 2022. Those led to playing flood benefit shows there later in the year in addition to an opening for Kelsey Waldon and eventually headlining the room herself.

“It’s the perfect venue to play, no matter where you’re from,” says Taylor. “The owners and everyone else involved give off such a good vibe, and I think that your vibe attracts your tribe. Every time I’m there there’s such a good feeling in the room. Everybody’s there to have a good time and party, but they’re there to listen first and foremost.”

With an average of 250-300 shows per year and more expansion projects — like a microbrewery — in the works, The Burl shows no signs of slowing down in its mission to deliver music and community to the people of Central Kentucky in whatever manner it sees fit. What it's done in such a short amount of time is a testament to the magic of smaller music venues and the space they offer the stars of tomorrow to flourish.

Sure, you can see your favorite act at a massive arena show, but you can also see them at your local bar or club before they hit the big time. Those more intimate settings are where the real memories are made, and The Burl is the epitome of that.

For more information on The Burl visit TheBurlKy.com. Listen and subscribe to Holler's The Best Country Songs About Kentucky playlist below:

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Written by Matt Wickstrom
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