On 15th anniversary, Penn’s Peak is prestigious CMA venue nominee
When Pencor Services, Inc., took a chance on a concert hall in the mountains of Penn Forest Township, general manager Craig Stelling never dreamed the site would one day be in the company of legendary country music venues like Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium and Austin City Limits Live.
But as Penn’s Peak embarked on its 15th anniversary this year, Stelling learned that the Carbon County concert hall is one of five nominees for the Venue of the Year - Small Capacity in the Industry Award and Studio Recording division for the 53rd Academy Of Country Music Awards (CMA).
The winner will be announced at the 12th annual ACM Honors ceremony Aug. 22 in Ryman Auditorium, Nashville.
It’s been a heady ride for the rustic all-wood venue near Jim Thorpe which holds 1,800 concertgoers for shows ranging from Trace Adkins to REO Speedwagon.
“We are thrilled just to be nominated and humbled by the whole experience,” Stelling says. “The Ryman Auditorium is like the Holy Grail.”
Ryman Auditorium was the home of the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 to 1974 and was designated a National Historic Landmark for its role in country music. It has won the CMA venue award multiple times.
“When we started Penn’s Peak 15 years ago, we never thought we would end up this way,” Stelling says. “It’s a testament to all the hard work year in and year out.”
Industry professionals choose the CMA nominations. Penn’s Peak is the only nominee from Pennsylvania. Stelling admits he didn’t quite believe it when he got the email about the nomination last month until he double-checked the official website.
“We are very honored to be part of the conversation,” he says. “We think the number of smaller events we have done has been cumulative. We have a solid reputation.”
Penn’s Peak is competing against the Aura in Portland, Maine; The Georgia Theatre in Athens, Ga.; Iron City in Birmingham, Ala., and Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, N.J.
Over the years, Penn’s Peak, a picturesque site with 50-mile views from the Delaware Water Gap to the Lehigh Valley, has hosted more than 1,000 concerts, including country greats such as George Jones, Loretta Lynn, Martina McBride, Willie Nelson and Dwight Yoakam.
However, Penn’s Peak is not only a country music venue. The Peak, as it’s dubbed, also has hosted rockers like Blue Oyster Cult, Greg Allman and Peter Frampton, as well as oldies groups like Tommy James and the Shondells and blues performers such as Buddy Guy and Jonny Lang.
The concert hall, which features a soaring ceiling with wooden rafters, was originally opened as Rambler’s Ranch in 1998 by local country musician Tommy Schafer. Pencor, a media company that owns the Times-News, The Press, Blue Ridge Cable TV and other entities, was one of the investors.
When the venue went into foreclosure in 2000, Penncor decided to cut its losses and sell the site.
But it was “the worst possible time to sell real estate,” Stelling says.
The company had no choice but to “give it a go,” he says.
Pencor dipped its toes in the water by holding a benefit concert for Palmerton Hospital with The Lettermen. The event was a success, which encouraged the company to move forward with the venue.
Roadies Restaurant opened in January 2003. In February 2003, the first concert at Penn’s Peak featured country star Brad Paisley. The concert sold out. It seemed Penn’s Peak was on its way. But it wasn’t to be that easy.
“The first couple years were daunting,” Stelling says. “It was trial and error. I had a restaurant background, but virtually no experience in concert promotion.”
As Rambler’s Ranch, the venue had been exclusively country, complete with line-dancing, but as Penn’s Peak, it was opened up to other music genres from rock ‘n’ roll to doo-wop.
“It is still an inexact science predicting what will sell tickets,” Stelling says. “In the early days, there was less competition. Now there are places like the Sherman Theater and the Sands Event Center.”
He says Penn’s Peak doesn’t even try to compete against heavy-hitters like Musikfest.
“It has become a game of content,” he says. “We have had success in just about every genre, but have to spread it out.”
Stelling says one of the things that makes Penn’s Peak competitive is its versatility. Since it doesn’t have fixed seating, it can be a “chameleon,” he says.
The site hosts deck parties on its expansive outdoor deck that has a view of Beltsville Lake; hosts 25 weddings annually, and welcomes private events such as fundraisers and dance recitals.
It also has luncheon shows by acts such as the Glenn Miller Orchestra and Bill Hailey’s Comets.
In 2005, Penn’s Peak Radio debuted, playing a mix of country and classic rock. The Internet radio station, which broadcasts from Penn’s Peak, is available through Blue Ridge Communications television and online at pennspeakradio.com.
“We had to crawl before we could walk,” Stelling says. “It continues to be a breathing dynamic.”
Roadies Restaurant and Bar at Penn’s Peak is open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday.
Penn’s Peak concert tickets: Penn’s Peak box office, 325 Maury Road, Jim Thorpe; pennspeak.com; ticketmaster.com; 800-745-3000