The Grascals – Country Crossings Grand Opening in Alabama

Nancy Cardwell, Special Projects Director for the IBMA – and a talented free lance musician and journalist – spent last weekend with The Grascals in Dothan, AL. They were there to kick-off a new venture with great possibilities for the band, and for bluegrass music.

Nancy prepared this detailed report for Bluegrass Today.

The Grascals, currently headed west on their new Mobil Delvac tour bus, played Denver last night and are headed for dates in Utah, Idaho, Oregon and California through the end of January. Last weekend they were honored to take part in the grand opening and ribbon cutting ceremony for a new country music entertainment destination in Dothan, Alabama called Country Crossing.

The Grascals Bluegrass Hollow RV Park, where the band will be parking the Delvac bus and performing 20 times during 2010, is located next to the George Jones Bed & Breakfast. The RV park named after The Grascals offers 78 spaces with electrical hookups, water, sewer and Wi-Fi internet and cable TV hookups. Each 70 x 17 foot space is available for $40, with special discounts available.

In addition to venues that bear Jones and The Grascals’ names, the following attractions are included at the new entertainment venue: Lorrie Morgan’s Hot Chicken, John Anderson’s Seminole Wind Cafeteria, and Darryl Worley’s Worley Bird Saloon, along with the Bingo Pavilion, with 1,703 electronic Bingo machines.

Twenty artists presented concerts free to the public last Friday – Sunday at the new, state-of-the-art Bingo Pavilion stage, including Tracy Lawrence, Joe Nichols, Lorrie Morgan and John Anderson, who all have interests in the development. The Grascals kicked off the show on Saturday, and also played Lorrie Morgan’s restaurant stage that night, before cutting the ribbon to open their RV park. Also on the bill for the weekend were Neal McCoy, Pam Tillis, The Commodores, Aaron Tippin, The Bellamy Brothers, Confederate Railroad, Restless Heart, Little Texas, John Conlee, Blackhawk, Blackberry Smoke and more. The concerts were filmed for future broadcast on television.

The Grascals are pleased to be involved in the new venture. Jamie Johnson says…

“This is a big country getaway, and the good thing about this place is that they celebrate traditional country music, which is what we love.”

Country Crossing, developed by Ronnie Gilley, president of Ronnie Gilley Entertainment and Ronnie Gilley Properties, is funded by profits from electronic Bingo machines, which are legal in Alabama. Dothan, Alabama has an unemployment rate of nearly 9%, so most in the local community are thrilled to see 1,500 new jobs at Country Crossing, with the promise of 6,000 more in stage two of the project. Alabama Governor Bob Riley, who is less than enthusiastic about the new attraction, is not convinced that the new electronic machines should be classified as “Bingo.”

Interestingly enough, David Barber, the appointed Commander of the Governor’s Task Force on Illegal Gambling, resigned his post January 13, after he reported winning $2,300 from a legal casino in Mississippi. Local critics point out that Governor Riley received campaign contributions from Native American-run casinos in Mississippi who are not anxious to have competition in Alabama. The governor denies the allegations, although it’s unclear if there were PAC to PAC (Political Action Committee) donations involved, according to a Nov. 6 article by Phillip Rawls for the Associated Press.

The Dothan Eagle reported plans to raid Country Crossings last Wednesday, which were thwarted by an injunction filed by local county officials. Yesterday, January 20, a bill was passed by the House Tourism and Travel Committee which would provide casinos with amnesty from all taxes, criminal prosecution and civil lawsuits and also allow casinos to be operated anywhere in Alabama. This is Governor Riley’s last year in office, so it will be up to the citizens of the state of Alabama to vote on the bill if it continues through the House and Senate.

Jamie Johnson says that politics aside, the music is the issue for the band.

“A lot of people are talking about the controversy about the Bingo issue here. Well, the bottom line is if you love country music, that’s why we’re here. We’re providing the only bluegrass music here, for this crowd. [Also, Country Crossing] has already donated almost two million dollars to Houston County, to be used by the community in any way they like.

We’re going to come down here during the year and bring our music. We’re also going to bring our friends; other bluegrass artists will get to come down here, too. We’re going to host a bluegrass event here sometime this summer, and we’ll also be a part of Bama Jam and some other country festivals. We’ll be doing our shows for all these folks here, and bringing bluegrass music to people who have never heard it.”

The Grascals will also be playing a Hank Williams, Jr. tour in April, and each group will include collaborations with each other on upcoming albums. The new Grascals album, on Rounder Records, will be released March 30. According to Johnson:

“I think the good thing about us is that we try to keep it real. We do our music the way we would on any other show. We do Flatt & Scruggs and we do The Osborne Brothers and we do Grascals stuff, and we do The Monkees.

We are so grateful to the bluegrass fans for everything they’ve done for us. We’ve been incredibly blessed with our career. We’re planning to do the same stuff we’ve always done on the Hank, Jr. tour. We’re just taking it to a new audience—exactly how we did when we played with Dolly Parton. We’re still doing as many bluegrass venues as we’ve ever done; we’re just a little busier than we used to be.”

Developer Ronnie Gilley is a bluegrass fan, himself as he asserted last Sunday after the ribbon cutting ceremony for the Grascals Bluegrass Hollow RV Park.

“You can’t have a true country music entertainment extravaganza without including the bluegrass aspect of it, because that’s where it all began. Bluegrass fans are probably the most loyal fans on the planet. It doesn’t get any more hard core…. If you’re a bluegrass fan, you’re a bluegrass fan until you die. And you carry it on to heaven with you, in most cases.”

Gilley also explained what the next stage of development at Country Crossing will entail, and why they looked to The Grascals to represent bluegrass.

“This will grow to a 2000-spot RV park, and we’re going to build a very large stage out there and have continuous activities throughout the summer, hosting bluegrass events.

My God, The Grascals are incredible. That was an easy choice. But we’ve got some bluegrass legends involved in our project, too. Marty Stuart is involved, and what a great guy he is. The bluegrass community is really the heart and soul of country music, and they’re just great people.”

Some are calling Country Crossings “the new Branson, Missouri”—a place where hundreds of local musicians and entertainers find regular work at theaters and dozens of touring bluegrass bands perform annually at festivals hosted at the popular Silver Dollar City theme park, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.Gilley wants to bring this same energy and tourism to south Alabama.

“Branson, Missouri is a wonderful place to go and they’ve done a great job with their concept. The fact that they bring in 8 million people a year to visit their venues is just mind-boggling to me, especially considering that 65% of those people come from outside a 300 mile radius, which further reiterates the fact that country music—including bluegrass music—has a tendency to thrive, particularly the live aspect of it. Right now it’s the worst economy we’ve ever seen, but tourist numbers in Branson increased by 300,000 last year alone.

I think they have 62,000 theater seats, and it’s very affordable. That’s the key. It’s a value-packed punch, and it’s family oriented. We’re going to do the exact same thing here.”

Gilley says he will continue to host free concerts at Country Crossings, but with one big distinction.

“Where we’ll differentiate from Branson is we will be specifically country music themed. We’ll have country music and bluegrass artists, with their names and likenesses associated with our venues. There’s also a huge transient market here that’s non-existent in Branson, which is a destination specific location.

We are right in the middle of a 75 mile corridor here, where 6.9 million cars pass through on their way to Florida. You’ve also got 12 millions visitors who frequent the Panhandle of Florida every year, which we will also be able to pull from, so our business model has the potential to be very successful.

If you go back 50 years or so and look at that crazy guy who went down to Orlando, Florida and started buying up orange groves and swamp land, with the thought process of, ‘You know, I’ve got a theme park in mind. If I can capture a small percentage of this massive, transient market that’s passing down to the south Florida beaches every year, my business will become successful’…and you know the rest of the story!”

Gilley says he’s not trying to compare his venue to Disney World or Branson, but he sees elements of their success that may be possible for Country Crossings, particularly when it expands from 70 to 375 acres in phase 2.

“So far we’ve hired 1,500 people, and over the next four years we’ll employ another 6,000 people. That’s direct jobs. There will be 20-40,000 indirect jobs associated with this project, and we’re not asking the taxpayers for anything. We have a very unique catalyst, which will allow this project to come to fruition.

We all know you can’t build a four million dollar dinner theater and not put it in the black the first year you open. During that operational period of time the synergized cost structure that exists here will afford us that opportunity. But at the end of the day we’re not Bingo. We’re an entertainment tourist destination point, soon to be a world-class destination point and the country music entertainment capital of the world.  Having artists like The Grascals involved, just pole-vaults our project and differentiates us from anyone else in the country.”

Phase 2 of Country Crossing will include the Honky Tonk Harbor Music Park, a water park with an 80 foot guitar in the air and a zip slide coming around it. Gilley describes the plans he envisions.

“We’ll have a splash pool with piano keys. It’ll all be musically themed, and our demographic studies show the water park will pull in 480,000 visitors a year by itself. We’re going to have three resort hotels, over 8,000 square feet of retail space, and a multitude of entertainment venues—whether it be restaurants with stage venues in them or the new George Jones Dinner Theater with 1700 seats—a state of the art balcony dinner theater, which will be a spectacular destination in its own right. And the legend himself will be here on a regular basis.”

In addition to the new bluegrass stage at the Grascals RV Park, Gilley also has an interest in gospel music. In fact, gospel singings will be hosted every Sunday afternoon starting in February, on the John Anderson Cafeteria stage. He plans to host an annual gospel music festival, and they’re building The Forest Church, where gospel acts will perform throughout the year and regular services will be held. Gary Chapman has been appointed as the head of Forest Church Records, and he’ll also be the first artist to record for the label. Randy Owen, of the group Alabama, is also working on plans for a country music-themed, family entertainment park at Country Crossing.

Aside from the music and Bingo, Gilley wants bluegrass fans to know that…

“The greatest asset that the citizens of Alabama have are their Southern, hospitable ways. We would invite you to come and see that for yourself, and you will enjoy your stay. We’ll guarantee you that. And while you’re experiencing our great Southern hospitality, you’re going to hear the best bluegrass music on the planet right here in Houston County, Alabama, at Country Crossing.”

You can find more information about Country Crossing online, or you can contact them by phone (877-507-7779, 334-615-8600).