SALEM - For many years, the way to Nashville went through Ponderosa Park, just north of Salem.
Dolly Parton, Johnny and June Cash, Boxcar Willie, the Oak Ridge Boys, Barbara Mandrell, Alison Kraus, Lee Greenwood, Randy Travis and Billy Ray Cyrus are among a long list of stars that once played the old wooden stage.
For a musician like Kerry Smolira, who is now the entertainment director at Ponderosa Park, the stage is "hallow ground." Smolira once played on the stage and now is volunteering to help get things back on track at the park.
"It's still a thrill," Smolira said standing backstage this week. "Johnny Cash stood here. Boxcar Willie walked up here and signed (his name)."
While Smolira and the other new people operating the park know it may never return as the destination for the premier stars, they still hope the outdoor stage, campground and Red Garter saloon may soon be again considered one of the area's best places for local and regional entertainment.
With a four-year plan in place for making all the needed clean up and repairs, they are polishing the place up a little bit at a time. The indoor swimming pool that is in the shape of a guitar has been repainted and filled. Sections of the park are being worked on a bit at a time to remove dead trees and clean up camping areas.
Small cabins can be rented for as little as $28 per night, $32 for a larger cabin and $45 for trailers. There is electrical and water hook up for campers and even tent campsites available. A package is in the works for those wanting to camp during the Steel Valley Super Nationals. A long list of activities for campers is planned for both June and July.
"We want people to know the park is open," said Jim Beery, who is managing the campground and facilities.
The Red Garter saloon is open Thursdays through Saturdays and holding special events, like a steak fry the third Saturdays of each month. There are open mic nights and bands playing on the indoor stage there. Car cruises are being held on Thursdays and one held on May 17 was a Salvation Army Fundraiser that brought in $1,500 to help the charity.
"We're trying to do a lot of stuff for the community," Smolira said.
One of those benefit events was a concert Saturday for the family of a woman who died recently at age 32, leaving behind five children. The musicians are donating their time and talent to help out the family.
Smolira said with some corporate sponsors, he hopes to be able to invite more acts to the main stage this year and next. Knowing the history of the place as he does, Smolira said other musicians are starting to contact him about returning to play again at Ponderosa Park.
"It will never be what it was. It will never support two or three big acts a week," Smolira said. "But it's such a nice venue. It needs some care."