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“Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes?” Singers And Dancers Discuss The Future Of Traditional Country Music

Dalton York

The parking lot of the Music Barn is full this Saturday evening with the Just Breakin’ Even Band playing traditional country music. The band is just one of the few groups in west Kentucky dedicated to playing these tunes.

71 year old Jimmy Henson is the band’s lead singer. He’s a retired English teacher, but now spends a lot of his time playing music with the band. I’ve been attending dances like this since before I could talk, or dance. Just Breakin’ Even has played halls like this for twenty years. 

About one hundred dancers are spread out at tables or on The Music Barn’s 2,000 square foot dance floor. They’re dressed in cowboy hats, boots, and fringe-lined shirts. Henson estimates the average dancer’s age is over sixty. He said the shows evoke nostalgia among many dancers.

Credit Dalton York / WKMS
Jimmy Henson (center) and the Just Breakin' Even band play country tunes at the Music Barn.

“It’s a social event for so many of these seniors. It brings back the memories from when they were younger going to dances and sock hops and spending time with their friends,” said Henson. “And we give them a chance to relive that during their golden years.”

One of those seniors reliving their memories is Buddie Winfrey. He’s a member of the Night Moves. 

“We come here every other week for the last month or two,” said Winfrey.

They’re one of the region’s largest dance groups. Clubs like Night Moves frequent the local country music circuit. Buddie has been dancing with them for fifteen years. He’s a traditionalist when it comes to country music and he gets a little mad when describing how dancing has evolved for today’s youth. Although he wasn’t familiar with the concept, he railed against what is widely known as a “rave.”

“They’ll get right up on the dance floor and stand there,” said Winfrey. “They don’t dance, they jump up and down and raise their hands and they don’t dance at all.” 

Many dancers at the Music Barn echo that sentiment. Despite their concern for the younger generation’s attitude toward country music, these traditional dancers recognize that an aging demographic means their kind are becoming sort of an endangered species. Jimmy Henson said a large number of his band’s followers have already passed away.

“It’s a sad thing, but we’re losing part of our audience. They’re just passing away. My wife and I tried to sit one day and count up how many people we’d lost and it was just -- we just quit,” Henson said. “It’s just happening. And it’s sad for us as a band when we realize somebody's not coming back again. ”

It isn’t just the Music Barn where Henson performs anymore. He’s also playing at funerals.

One of our fans for many years was a Merle Haggard fan. And his favorite song was Silver Wings. His wife asked me to come play that at his funeral. I’d never really thought about it being a funeral song, but if you know the words to it- slowly fading away, out of sight- and it was just perfect for that funeral,” said Henson.

Henson’s played around 15 funerals thus far. The cloud of uncertainty for the coming decades hangs over this crowd as they waltz across the floor, but it doesn’t stop them from enjoying the time they have together.  It isn’t surprising to know that among the crowd there’s a considerable amount of widows and widowers. This leads to a vibrant dating scene at the Music Barn.

“I think people just enjoy a good time coming out, dancing, people get lonely,” said Tomi Warren. “I think young people forget that older people are exactly like them only with age. They’ve just gotten older, that’s all.”

Warren said dance halls like this are one of the few safe, alcohol-free entertainment options available for older couples. This is clear as married and unmarried couples boot scoot across the dance floor in harmony. 

But, as the crowds dwindle Warren and everyone at the barn mourn for the people and traditions lost, and anxiously look to the future.

“It doesn’t make me worry, it makes me sad,” Warren said.

Country artist George Jones had a hit in 1985 with the song “Who's Gonna Fill Their shoes?” The lingering question at the Music Barn and at dance halls throughout America, is who’s going to fill the shoes of the traditional dancers on their dance floors? 

Disclosure: Jimmy Henson is the grandfather of the author. 

Dalton York is a Morning Edition host and reporter for WKYU in Bowling Green. He is a graduate of Murray State University, where he majored in History with a minor in Nonprofit Leadership Studies. While attending Murray State, he worked as a student reporter at WKMS. A native of Marshall County, he is a proud product of his tight-knit community.
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