“He was one of those people that only had to sleep about four hours a night,” says Lynn Sill as she sorts through stacks of aging papers, posters, and photos piled up on her kitchen table. The heap of memories reflects just a small fraction of what her father Walter Sill accomplished in his lifetime. Lynn has much more memorabilia, but this is all we could get through today.
Walter’s parents were in the oil business in Texas. His father, who loved to fish, bought a home on Kentucky Lake. And Walter fell in love with the area. “And dad’s mind was always going,” adds Lynn. “He was always thinking, coming up with new things he wanted to do.” In the 1960s, that included building an 1800s western theme park in Marshall County. “He really wanted to do something special there to draw more visitors to partake in the beauty and wonder that the lake area had to offer.”
On 100+ acres, Walter built Kaintuck Territory just about a mile from Draffenville. It included everything you might imagine in the old west—a general store, a blacksmith shop, a saloon (for soda), a print shop where you could get your face on a wanted poster, a jail, Ma’s Restaurant, and more. Visitors could watch gunfights, take a ride on the train, or go on a canoe trip. “We didn’t watch westerns on TV,” says Lynn. “We LIVED the westerns. There were cowboys and Indians, a stagecoach, and saloon shows. It was a marvelous time to be a kid.”
Walter, in his survey of all he’d built at Kaintuck, noticed a small plot of land that was situated on a gentle slope. It was a natural amphitheater. Concerts, he thought, were another way to draw people to Kaintuck. Nothing Walter did was modest, so he headed down to Nashville to find the best artists. He struck up a close friendship with Chet Atkins, one of the most celebrated guitarists, performers, and producers who had ushered in a golden age of country music in the 50s and 60s. “We’d go to Nashville in the winter,” says Lynn. “That started in the late 60s. He knew a lot of movers and shakers down there.”
Walter also established a three-day, three-stage music festival in a field nearby Kaintuck. Held the same year as Woodstock (1969), Music Festival U.S.A. brought together pop, rock, and country musicians who performed and competed for an RCA recording session with Chet. From there, Walter began booking a steady stream of big names to perform at the amphitheater. One of the first was Loretta Lynn, who became a Kaintuck regular over the next decade. In 1971, The Porter Wagoner Show make their first of many appearances. That included performances by a young Dolly Parton who was an integral part of Porter’s show for many years.
During the 1970s, the park played host to a litany of big names—artists such as The Platters, The Monkees, Marty Robbins, Hank Williams Jr., Johnny Cash, Brenda Lee, Barbara Mandrell, Buck Owens, and Merle Haggard, which only comprise a small fraction of those who appeared there.
Walter and his family lived in the park as did some of those who worked there. Many of the buildings were two-story with lower floors being used as part of the attractions and the upper floors used as living spaces. When artists visited Kaintuck, they used the Sill residence as their green room. Walter would make trips to Paducah liquor stores and load the back of a pickup truck to get ready. Jerry Lee Lewis, who performed at Kaintuck regularly, became a common sight in the Sill household. Walter later wrote about one of Jerry’s most memorable visits.
“His musical prowess was exceptional,” said Walter. “He was most assuredly a ‘Killer’ performer (his nickname), but he also excelled in living up to his wild man infamy. I will not disclose all instances of his times at Kaintuck since some things are best left up to your own imagination.”
In one instance, a reporter came to interview Jerry who was resting. “When the reporter arrived, Jerry Lee was still in his room. So I went and knocked on the door letting him know the gentleman was waiting for him in our living room. A few minutes later, Jerry Lee made his entrance—completely in the buff—au naturel—butt naked! I knew, at this point, he WOULD be living up to his ‘wild man’ reputation.”
For the show that night, Walter had to rent the piano and bench. “I should have never been so naive,” recalled Walter. Jerry gave a tremendous performance, as always. “But then,” continued Walter, “as the time neared to wrap up the concert, he amped up his collection of skills and abilities which included, but were not limited to, taking off his shirt, climbing up on top of the piano, whipping out a can of lighter fluid from his pants pocket, dousing the top of the piano with it, and ceremoniously lighting it on fire. After the fact, I thought of it as the rockabilly version of Jimi Hendrix torching his guitar. Jerry Lee then hopped off the piano, ripped a leg off of the piano bench, and commenced to ‘playing’ his wooden leg guitar, after which, he heaved it and the rest of the bench off of the stage towards the audience area. What more could I possibly ask for in having my guests experience an unforgettable execution of a Jerry Lee Lewis concert?” Even though Jerry was often destructive, Lynn remembers that he always made good, paying for whatever he annihilated.
The popularity of the show often meant sold-out, standing room only crowds which numbered in the thousands. The first time the Statler Brothers played Kaintuck, traffic backed up for miles in either direction on HWY 641. All Walter could do was stand on the side of the road and help direct. “During this predicament, a new, classy, white Cadillac crawled forward,” recalled Water. “The front passenger window rolled down, and an elderly woman with a large cup of soda was sitting in the seat. She looked at me & said, ‘Who’s responsible for this terrible traffic problem?’ With my friendliest smile, I answered, ‘Well, I guess I am ma’am.’ She looked at me, started cussin’ me out, and immediately threw that entire large soda with ice into my face. As I stood there with the sting from the ice cubes bouncing off my forehead and face, my shirt clinging to my skin from the sticky soda, and a deer-in-the-headlights look in my eyes, I said, ‘Thank you, ma’am. I needed that on this very hot day.’ Then I started thinking about how much I was looking forward to directing traffic at the next big concert we were going to have at Kaintuck.”
Walter had so much success in booking shows that, in 1978, he sold Kaintuck and moved to Nashville to be a concert promoter. One of his first clients was Randy Travis. He also established the World Talent Search with Chet and friend Johnny Cash who became the face of the competition. And Walter’s move to Nashville left a void in the musical landscape of west Kentucky.
Greg Travis, who was a budding photographer for the Marshall County Tribune, was a mainstay at most of the shows. “I spent hours and hours photographing the various stars,” says Greg, “but I also had the opportunity to spend time talking with them—whether it was attending a pre-concert reception with Wet Willie, waiting at the side of the stage with Marty Robbins, or relaxing on a tour bus after a concert with Loretta Lynn or the Oak Ridge Boys. Every star was incredibly friendly and accommodating. They were all great, but if I had to pick a few of my favorite concerts and favorite experiences I would have to pick Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, Marty Robbins, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Oak Ridge Boys, and Black Oak Arkansas. Jim “Dandy “ Mangrum, the lead singer of Black Oak Arkansas, had me on stage with the band. I remember him telling me something on the order of You can’t get good pictures over there at the side; get out here with us.”
Greg credits Walter, of course, for giving him such opportunities. Walter brought a sense of adventure and a roster of musical stars to west Kentucky in a way no one else could.
“If he could give something a thought, he’d give it a whirl,” adds Lynn. “He was quite the character. He had all these stars here, but he was just as fun and entertaining to be around. I always tell people he was dinner and a show.”