The Growing Legacy of Paducah’s Carson Center

The Growing Legacy of Paducah’s Carson Center

J.T. Crawford
Photos by Bill Fox

“Wow. This place is really beautiful. Somebody really cared.” 

David Crosby stood in awe of the magnificence of Paducah’s Carson Center. He and Graham Nash stood just offstage, peering around a curtain at the fans awaiting their entrance. They’ve seen innumerable venues in their years together. Their second appearance as Crosby, Stills, and Nash was at Woodstock. Yet even after thousands of shows, they never tire of playing special venues. And they recognized The Carson Center as one of them.

Last year, The Carson Center celebrated the anniversary of its 15th season. Built primarily as a home for the Paducah Symphony Orchestra, the performance venue has become known as one of the best settings of its size for live shows and concerts. In recent years, several traveling productions have recognized its qualities, tech-ing their shows here before going on the road. And The Carson Center bridges the gap between the past, present, and future when it comes to hosting concerts from national touring artists.

When its doors first opened for the inaugural season in 2003-2004, the tone was set immediately with the first performers—Vince Gill and B.B. King. Since then, the venue has played host to a list of notable artists.

“Paducah is on the way to everywhere,” says Mary Katz, Executive Director. “We can get people coming through. It’s an advantage. And Nashville has really changed, even since The Carson Center opened. It’s become a hub for agencies that represent a lot of talent. Those agents know Paducah whereas someone in L.A. or New York wouldn’t.”

Many times, the staff have been amazed at those they saw coming through the doors—people like Itzhak Perlman, Merle Haggard, Bo Diddley, Hootie and the Blowfish, Jerry Seinfeld, Willie Nelson, George Jones, Micheal Bolton, Boston, and more.

The biggest star to perform at The Carson Center was Bob Dylan just two seasons ago. But according to Mary, he was also one of the least memorable for the staff. “Nobody ever saw him,” she says. “He didn’t talk to anyone. He just came in, did his thing, and left. We do have some of those like that who will stay on their bus and just come in to perform.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, a memorable moment came last year when the POP 2000 tour came to Paducah. Hosted by Lance Bass of NSYNC, one of the artists, Aaron Carter was visited by police twice during the night. Embroiled in a family drama that included a restraining order, the added attention and serving of papers landed photos from his performance here on multiple news sites. “I had to get him out of the meet and greet,” says Mary. “That was unique. Then he wouldn’t do his post-show meet and greet. I went and said, ‘You are going to do this and not embarrass me.’ He was about 90 pounds dripping wet. There was even a stalker there that night. It was just so weird. You don’t get that with the classic rock-and-rollers.”

Most celebrity visits are rather routine, according to Mary. There are the occasional odd requests—like only using a brand new toilet seat that a personal assistant had to witness being installed or the complete juicing bar with a huge variety of fresh fruits. 

“And then there are those artists that are just so wonderful,” says Mary, “like America when they came. I just wanted to go on tour with them after I met them. They were sweet, kind, and engaging. Lynyrd Skynyrd was the same way.”

A highlight for Mary was The Beach Boys. “I was backstage, just doing stuff, and they were like, ‘Hey, do you have any Halloween costumes?’” It was October 29, and The Beach Boys had come up with an idea. “They wanted to do the Monster Mash at the end of show. They asked if we could get some costumes and come out in them.” Mary called her daughter, and they set about rounding up costumes. At the end of the night, Mary and others appeared on stage. “I put on some frog costume. I guess everyone thought we were part of the act. They were so much fun.” The moment even sparked the annual fundraiser, the Monster Mash 5K.

Others exhibit a strong interest in Paducah and want to take in what the the city has to offer. Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top made his way around downtown one afternoon. And Ron White considers Doe’s a must-visit every time he is in town. “So many of the acts are great and they are so appreciative of their fans here,” says Mary. “That makes for some very special shows.” 

Mary is always on the lookout for opportunities to schedule music throughout the year. But, she, says, the task has gotten more difficult. One of the challenges has been the resurgence in popularity of classic acts, causing appearance fees to rise sharply. Additionally, many acts are now banding together to do stadium and arena tours. “Even Foreigner, who were my first concert back in ’82, by the way, has doubled their fee since they have been here a couple of times,” says Mary. “But we can still pick up some of these shows thanks to our advantages.” Most recently, The Carson Center played hosts to artists such as Boz Scaggs, Foghat, and Pat Benatar.

“The Carson Center is a special place. It is very intimate,” she adds. “Sure, there is something to playing an arena. Everybody is screaming and going crazy. But it’s not very personal. That’s what we have here. A more personal connection. Artists love it. Most of them cannot believe that it’s even here. And the acoustics are so great. We just upgraded our sound system. And the artists love the audiences here. People are so excited and appreciative to be on this stage.”

The Carson Center represents a long history of treasuring the performing arts in Paducah. It is a culmination of the dreams of many who envisioned a world-class facility for not only our symphony but for those who tour. It is a crown jewel for our region and beyond. 

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