Long before Country music became a fad of designer-ripped jeans & cowboy hats, the Shoal Creek Country Music Park in Lavonia, Ga offered folks of the surrounding areas, a front-row glimpse at what would become arguably the biggest Country music stars of all time.
It was indeed, the place to be every Saturday night.
Founded in 1961 by husband & wife, Alton & Bertha Mae Walters, the Shoal Creek Music Park continues today to host the origins of many a Country music legend & tales, such as Johnny Cash rolling out Folsom Prison Blues, Dolly Parton shaving her legs on the banks of Shoal Creek, (allegedly with Porter Wagoner’s razor), Conway Twitty performing to a crowd of 6,000 fans or Jerry Lee Lewis pushing a loaner piano off of the stage.
One alleged event was Tammy Wynette leaving George Jones, for the final time, drunk on his tour bus at the music park.
Two days later, George woke up and wondered where everyone was.
“Entrepreneur” is a word that described Alton Walters long before he was old enough to consult Webster as to its meaning.
At age nine, Alton sold garden seeds to his neighbors & purchased a 1939 Gene Autry guitar.
By the early 60’s Alton and wife, Bertha Mae, were already owners of the successful Janice Eskimo Queen diner in Lavonia, Georgia.
On many Sundays, the Walters would serve 400-500 people at noon for $1.00 a plate at the all-you-can-eat restaurant.
In addition to the diner, the family also owned Walters Poultry Company, Walters Ice Company, & the Carolina Poultry Company in Anderson, South Carolina, respectfully.
The husband & wife team had been country music fans even before they began to date & their love of music only increased over the years.
Through word of mouth, the couple’s restaurant became a place where Country music entertainers would stop in while traveling on the road.
Bill Anderson was one musician who stopped by often.
While Anderson was in the restaurant one night, he told Alton about the outdoor parks up in Pennsylvania, that held big concerts.
Alton thought that was a pretty interesting idea. But would it even be feasible, that a music park could take shape, and be successful in a little known corner of the world called Shoal Creek?
A few of his neighbors said it couldn’t be done. Alton said it could.
The Walters had recently purchased a 162-acre farm in the Shoal Creek/Parkertown community of Hart County.
Whenever possible, Alton & Bertha Mae with children, Janice, Butch, & Steve, would slip off to spend time camping in an old concrete sand-house located on the property.
Several times as the family laid on the hard floor wrapped in quilts that protected them from the dampness of the creek’s night air, Alton shared his idea to build an outdoor music park with his family.
It would be the first of its kind in the state of Georgia.
With faith and determination, the Walters launched the dream.
On a Sunday afternoon, May 5th, 1962, the Walters watched as Mel Tillis christened Shoal Creek Country Music Park on a 12 x 30 foot stage constructed from the old sand-house on the bank of the creek. (supposedly, his fee for the event was $150.00).
Admission for the show was 75 cents for adults & 40 cents for kids.
Only about 50 people showed up to watch the show.
Seating was rough boards, supported by concrete blocks.
Billy Dilworth said, in a 1971 news article:
“The only road leading past the place was dirt, electric lights were few and civilization seemed right far away.”
But Alton wasn’t discouraged. He believed the park could be successful but it would take time.
When crowds failed to pick up for Sunday afternoon shows, Alton decided to switch to Saturday.
After all, during this era, Blue Laws prevented many businesses from opening on Sunday.
The first year was good. The second & third, even better.
Playground equipment, including swings for kids, were added & six giant outdoor lights made the park glow as bright as daylight.
A new up-to-date sound system was installed and regular shows on Saturday night were at 8:30pm & 10.30pm.
In 1963, a three-day Bluegrass festival was born.
Eventually, the festival evolved into a nine-day event and attracted up to 35,000 people per festival from all over the world.
It lasted 18 years and became known as the nation’s top annual Bluegrass music festival.
– Alton Walters
“We packed them in every year – They came in from all over the country. You’d see license plates from New York, California and Florida. We had some people from Japan one year and they loved it,”
In 1967, a covered shelter was built in the concert area to protect fans in case of rain and the dirt road surrounding the park was paved which eliminated acres and acres of dust (or red mud).
The park was really a family affair.
Alton directed the bookings, talent, & business arrangements. Bertha Mae and daughter, Janice, were in charge of the concession stand while sons, Butch and Steve, along with their grandfather, Willie Walters, pitched in at the concession stand, behind the stage, parking cars, & directing fans to the seating area.
Consider some of the lineup at Shoal Creek during the 1960’s & 70’s:
Bill Monroe, Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, Porter Wagoner, Dolly Parton, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ray Price, Mel Tillis, Hank Williams Jr., Ricky Scaggs, Grandpa & Ramona Jones, Connie Smith, Ernest Tubb, The Osborne Brothers, Bill Anderson, Sonny James, Carl Smith, Ralph Stanley, Jim & Jesse, Mac Wiseman, Carl Story , George Jones, Tammy Wynette & Larry Sparks.
In August 1970, six-thousand people came to hear & see the nation’s top recording artist, Conway Twitty & The Twitty Birds.
At that time, it was the largest crowd ever to gather on the banks of Shoal Creek to see a single entertainer.
“We have struggled for several years to make this park a success & a place where Country music lovers could come & hear the greats and it seems we have finally reached this point.”– Alton Walters – Hartwell Sun – August 27, 1970
Through out the 1960’s, concerts were held in the open-air, down by the creek.
The covered shelter, built in 1967, had long since proven too small to accommodate the large crowds when it rained.
“And you know I can remember a lot of times I’d have something like $150,000 tied up in a concert & I’d look up and see those rain clouds rolling in,”– Alton Walters
On Halloween 1971, Georgia governor Lester Maddox, with Lt. Gov. Zell Miller, presided at the opening ceremonies dedicating a new, 3500 seat capacity building known as Shoal Creek Entertainment Center.
Following the ceremony, Ralph Emery emceed the Country music show featuring Dolly Parton & Porter Wagoner.
Thousands were in attendance, requiring two shows, one at 2:30 & another at 6:00 pm.
The new facility allowed shows at Shoal Creek to continue during the winter months & through rainy weather.
One guest of the 1971 Sunday dedication, claims that Dolly Parton busted the zipper on her dress & had to wear a sweater for the rest of the show.
As things were leveling out for the family business, Walters’ son, Butch was tragically killed in an automobile accident just days from his 19th birthday in 1974.
Butch was Alton’s right-hand-man in Walters Poultry Company & at the music park.
Sources close to Walters at this time claim the trauma of losing a loved one, combined with heavy alcohol consumption, left Alton a changed person.
On July 9th of 1976, in recognition of honor that the festivals at Shoal Creek had brought to the state, Georgia governor George Busbee by proclamation declared July 15 – 28, 1976, as the “EIGHT ANNUAL GEORGIA STATE BLUEGRASS FESTIVAL DAYS.”
Alton was nominated to the County Music Association, on August 12, 1975. The plaque read:
FOR HIS GENEROUS CONTRIBUTION OF TIME AND TALENT IN OUR MUTUAL CAUSE FOR THE BROADER ACCEPTANCE AND PROGRESS OF COUNTRY MUSIC.– Country Music Association, Inc.
It has been said that no man contributed more to the growth of Country music in the state of Georgia than Alton Walters & family.
In the early 1980s, the Music Park fell on hard times.
It’s decline, attributed to several things, one being the Country music entertainers (& their management) requiring a lot more than a small park owner could afford to pay.
“The last time we had Mel (Tillis) it cost us $30,000,”– Alton Walters
About this time, the price of gasoline started steadily rising to $1.00 per gallon.
“Things were just changing, & I was having some health problems, so it was hard. It’s a little sad in some ways when I go out there. Sometimes I miss the way it use to be, but then sometimes, it was a headache.”– Alton Walters
Walters claimed he could relate to Porter Wagoner’s song “That Was Then and This is Now”.
During the last few years of Alton’s life, weeds grew on the once manicured field, & ruts were unavoidable on the dirt driveway leading up to the metal building that once provided shelter to thousands during events at Shoal Creek.
The Music Park was no longer a must-stop destination point for music fans. But the land was not vacant.
Walters transitioned into hosting a variety of events including a small Flea market, Country music dances & Wrestling matches were held in the building atop of the hill.
Alton & grandson, Marty, were co-owners of the A & M Funny Farm & had incubators set up in the building.
At one time, they owned about 100-different varieties of rare breed chickens.
Alton was an entrepreneur until the very end.
Alton Walters passed away on February 2nd 1988, with complications from pneumonia.
Through good times & bad, Alton’s most loyal supporter was his wife, Bertha Mae.
After Alton’s passing, she, in failing health, went to live with their daughter, Janice.
Bertha Mae Walters passed away on January 3rd, 1991.
The Walters family had taken a plot of land in the scarcely populated community called Shoal Creek (sometimes referred as Big Shoal Creek, or Parkertown) & brought the world to its banks.
In early 1989, Shoal Creek Music Park lay in ruin waiting for the next chapter.
Hart county musician, Clem Sayer passed the park one morning and noticed the overgrown For-Sale sign in the field.
A Hartwell, GA venue called Bluegrass Express (now High Cotton Music Hall), was founded in the early 1980s, hosting Sayer & other local musicians most Saturday nights but with their venue capacity beginning to overflow, the venue owners were considering a larger facility.
Bertha Mae Walters & Clem Sayer reached an agreement & in May of 1989, with only 29 of the original 162 original acres remaining, the park officially became Clem’s Shoal Creek Music Park.
Sayer was said to have favored dropping the word Country because he liked all kinds of music – especially Bluegrass.
After the sale became final, Bluegrass Express ultimately decided they were not going to relocate from the city of Hartwell out to rural Shoal Creek.
In 1989, Clem left the Saturday night show at Bluegrass Express, marking an end to years worth of Saturday night tradition that had begun at Hart county’s infamous “Grand Ole Chicken House”.
With a crew of carpenters, electricians, painters, & several volunteers working long hours each day, the music park was rebuilt.
The outside creek stage had its roof repaired and the entire structure was repainted.
The concession stand had to be lifted out of the dirt about 18” and the floor rebuilt.
The bathrooms were updated & showers with hot water added.
Since its construction in 1961, the Park’s water supply was furnished from a single spring.
Cisterns were added to insure an adequate amount of water for the bathrooms, concessions, campsites, auditorium, & to the caretaker’s residence.
When the Bluegrass festivals began in 1963, only rough camping was available.
By late summer of 1989, Sayer & team had added 50-campsites with water & power.
And oh, how camping had changed since the 1960s. ”Holiday Inn on wheels” comes to mind.
Additional lighting, as well as security, was added & installed.
Through spring & well into the summer, construction continued.
Roads were scraped and graveled, grass was cut, picnic tables placed around the grounds, & new planks were added on top of the old concrete blocks for seating.
As the old planks now splintered broken, were removed, Clem reminisced about all the famous butts that had graced those planks, through out the years.
Finally, the park was ready for an opening date of July 8th, 1989.
For the first show, several hundred people turned out.
Saturday night concerts were held down by the creek until September.
Then they were moved up into the auditorium for the colder, winter months.
Only one show during the summer was rained out, having to be moved to the auditorium.
Alton’s words kept ringing in our ears, “And I looked up and could see those rain clouds rolling in.”
By spring of 1990, Sayer had plans to put a roof over the entire outside seating facility with the help of local carpenter, Navy veteran, & music lover, Lee Carter.
No more watching the sky for rain clouds.
The first three-day “BLUEGRASS FESTIVAL, AGAIN” under Sayer’s management was held in July, 1992.
Alton & Bertha Mae had put so much sweat & certainly tears into the park. From the first day Clem acquired the music park, he knew he was stepping on to hallowed ground.
On May 13th, through the 15th of 1993, Sayer presented the first ALTON & BERTHA WALTERS BLUEGRASS FESTIVAL, dedicated to the founders of the music park.
When fellow music promoter, Charles Hamby sold his Baldwin, GA Bluegrass park, Shoal Creek’s July festival was finally able to shift into the 3rd weekend of September, a welcome change due to Georgia’s July heat.
In 1998 & 1999, approximately 10 additional creek-side campsites were added.
In 2000, a Thanksgiving festival was added to the annual lineup, totally three festivals each year. Although it continued for almost ten years, attendance was very low during the holiday time.
Those that did show up for the autumn event were served a plate of turkey with all the fixings to the sound of Bluegrass & Gospel songs.
But folks did turn out for Gospel concerts.
Most of these shows were held in the auditorium with the lineup including: the Lewis Family, Charles Johnson & the Revivers, The Chuckwagon Gang, The McKameys, Wendy Bagwell & the Sunlighters, Kevin Spencer Family, & several other groups.
In 2003, Sayer suffered congestive heart failure & was hospitalized for several weeks with a grim prognosis at that time.
Regular Saturday night programs at Shoal Creek were now few & far in between, reserved for special events. The Thanksgiving dates were cancelled after 2010’s festival.
“Life has gotten a little easier, & Clem will turn 73 in March of 2011, having managed the music park now for 21 years. Time to slow down, as they say “smell the flowers.”
– Janice Sayer
Of the countless achievements reached during those 21 years, two standouts are having the music park honored by the Atlanta Country Music Hall of Fame, as well as Sayer himself, being an honored inductee in 2007.
Update to this biography which was written in November, 2010:
On Tuesday, February 15th, 2011, Clem Sayer passed away in his sleep, at the music park.
In May 2011, a three-day memorial Bluegrass festival was held down by Shoal Creek in Sayer’s memory with all future events at the park postponed indefinitely.
As they say, “That train has left the station.”
Now what? The park once again awaits the next chapter.
SHOAL CREEK COUNTRY MUSIC PARK by Janice Sayer (2009,2010, 2011.)
Thanks to: Billy Dilworth for his news articles in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, The Franklin County Citizen, The Hartwell Sun, Special “Thanks” to the Walters Family who lived this history.
Edited by WJ JR for gypsyfarm.net (2020-2023)
The private property of Shoal Creek Music Park is today a nature conservation under the curation of Gypsy Farm Group & the Sayer family.
For questions, comments, or concerns please contact management via the field below.