Joel Ray Sprowls, 93, owner and operator of The Lincoln Jamboree and Joel Ray’s Lincoln Village Restaurant of Hodgenville, passed away Saturday, December 5, 2020 at Signature Healthcare in Bowling Green, KY.
Joel Ray was born 2 miles east of Buffalo, KY to the late Will & Sarah Houston Sprowls on October 18, 1927. Joel Ray attended Mt. Tabor School then later Buffalo High School and was an avid basketball player. Joel Ray graduated high school in 1946. In high school, Sprowls was a regular toastmaster for all the banquets and festivals.
After graduation, Sprowls worked several different jobs, including working for E.S. Ferrill wholesale grocery as a business salesman and as a radio disc jockey.
On September 11, 1954, Joel Ray went out on a limb and rented the Cardinal Theatre for 20 weeks. As far as people could talk, he kept hearing, “You’ll never live up to your contract.” He proved naysayers wrong and, in fact, the Cardinal Theatre was home to the Lincoln Jamboree for the next 7 years.
On June 6, 1959, Joel Ray purchased the Lincoln Village Restaurant and adjoining property. Sprowls wasn’t looking to run a restaurant as much as he was interested in the land in hopes to build a building of his own and move out of the theatre.
The first jamboree building was built on land that adjoined the restaurant property and opened for the first time on Saturday night, December 2, 1961. The building held 700 people. This is when Lincoln Jamboree went from being a little show downtown on Saturday nights to a statewide known venue. The new building literally made the show go viral.
The Jamboree was going strong and selling out every Saturday night. It was a true success by the mid 60s but faced a hard hit in 1968 when the building burned to the ground after a performance on a stormy Saturday night.
The Jamboree never missed a Saturday night in 3 months it took to build the current auditorium. It kept on going outside under a tent.
On the Jamboree’s 14th anniversary the current Jamboree opened its doors to the patrons.
Joel Ray was passionate about flying. He started training in 1964 and got his pilot license on January 12, 1965. He flew until he was 75 years of age.
Father’s Day Weekend 1984 was never forgotten by Joel Ray because of an almost deadly plane crash. Unconscious Sprowls was trapped inside the upside down plane for over 30 minutes when rescued and taken by ambulance to Hardin Memorial Hospital and then on to Louisville where he had numerous surgeries and was told he would never walk again. Joel Ray proved them all wrong and returned to the show in September full time for the 30th Anniversary.
In the 90s Sprowls suffered another loss. Joel Ray’s original Lincoln Village Restaurant burned to the ground. A few months later, Joel Ray’s Restaurant was back in business inside the former gift shop/museum.
Joel Ray had more health scares in 1998 when he had his first of a series of mini strokes. In 2008 Sprowls suffered another light stroke, but 2009 would be much worse. Sprowls was hospitalized for this stroke and had to take therapy to learn how to walk and how to talk again. On January 16, 2010, Joel Ray returned to the show. Sprowls continued to produce and emcee the show until December 15, 2018. After that show he suffered more strokes and required 24 hour care, which he has received at Sunrise Manor Nursing Home in Hodgenville. Sprowls made three appearances on stage in 2019. First for the Jamboree’s 65th Anniversary Show, then a Celebration for his 92nd birthday, and his final appearance was at the 2019 Christmas Show where he was able to deliver the punch line to a familiar joke he had told with Ricky Puckett for over 30 years. Ronnie Benningfield and Charles Durham shared the stage with Joel Ray that night. Benningfield and Durham dedicated 50 and 61 years of service respectively to Sprowls Enterprises. He was unable to attend the anniversary show or his birthday celebration this year due to COVID-19 restrictions at the nursing home. However, he was able to listen live on ABE 93.7 and watch the show online.
Joel Ray’s passion in life was show business and making people laugh. His wishes were for the show to continue on in his name with things done his way. That’s what has been done since his sickness and will continue on. Joel Ray was quoted saying, “Renfro Valley didn’t close when John Lair died and The Lincoln Jamboree won’t when I’m gone either.” Per Sprowls’ request, the show is still going strong after 66 years in business. It is temporarily closed because of COVID. It is planned for the Jamboree to reopen on Valentine’s Day weekend.
Joel Ray is survived by a host of family, friends, entertainers, employees and his special best friend and companion, Mary Lois Morris, who worked the restaurant for 59 years and has been his primary bookkeeper, secretary, and caregiver for the past decade. Without the care from Morris, Joel Ray couldn’t have existed the last years of his life. He is also survived by his beloved dog, Snowball.
To honor Joel Ray’s wishes there was a procession on Wednesday, December 9, 2020, leaving at 1 p.m. (ET) from Bennett-Bertram Funeral Home through the square in Hodgenville to The Lincoln Jamboree at 2579 Lincoln Farm Road. All businesses and patrons were welcome to come outside to pay their respects. A drive through public viewing followed at The Lincoln Jamboree from 2 until 7 p.m. (ET).
Private graveside services were held at Buffalo Cemetery on Thursday, December 10.
To carry out Joel Ray’s wishes, the celebration of life he had pre-planned for his funeral will be held at 2 p.m. (ET) on Sunday, May 2, 2021 at The Lincoln Jamboree.
In lieu of flowers, expressions of sympathy can be made for the care of wild animals and feeding stray animals. Also, a Joel Ray Sprowls Scholarship will be awarded to a 2021 graduate of LaRue County High School, donations can be made to: The Joel Ray Sprowls Memorial Foundation, c/o The Bank of Buffalo, 2441 Greensburg Road, Buffalo, KY 42716.
The Lincoln Jamboree, now renamed Joel Ray’s Lincoln Jamboree, will continue to go on for decades to honor his legacy, a legacy that set the bar for many other venues not just locally, but nationally.
Bennett-Bertram Funeral Home in Hodgenville is in charge of the arrangements.
Condolences may be expressed online at www.bennett-bertram.com.