Arson Destroyed Little Nashville Opry

Someone set the fire that destroyed the Little Nashville Opry concert hall in southern Indiana earlier this month, authorities said Monday.

No one has been blamed for the arson, and investigators made a request for tips about the fire, which leveled the venue that had hosted many of country music’s most famous acts since it opened in 1975.

The Sept. 19 blaze started near the stage area and electrical causes have been ruled out, said Wayne Dixie of the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms.

Investigators declined to give additional details about the fire, which started hours after a concert finished at the hall. No injuries were reported at the facility in Nashville, a small town in rural Brown County known for its artists’ colony, bed and breakfasts, and rolling hills.

State Fire Marshal James Greeson asked for the public’s help in reporting tips “so we can hold criminals accountable for their violent and costly actions.”

Records show that the building’s owner, Esther Hamilton, owed about $70,000 in back taxes, and the Opry did not apply for a required entertainment permit this year, authorities said. A message seeking comment left by The Associated Press at a Morgantown phone number listed in Hamilton’s name was not immediately returned.

Brown County Prosecutor Jim Oliver said Hamilton was among dozens of people who had been interviewed by investigators but cautioned that it was too soon to start naming suspects.

“The investigation is continuing,” Oliver said. “It’s too early to start naming names. It’s too early to start talking about what charges might be available.”

Media outlets have reported that the Brown County Volunteer Fire Department has responded to two other fires since 2002 at properties Hamilton owned, but officials at a news conference Monday said they would not look into past incidents.

“We won’t be reinvestigating the old fires,” said Scott Southerland of the Brown County Sheriff’s Department. “We have the fire reports from the fire departments that were on the scene at the time. But given that they were several years ago, there won’t be any additional investigation.”

The Associated Press left a message seeking comment with the volunteer fire department, which had a representative at the news conference who declined to talk about the past fires.

Chief Deputy Treasurer Marty Davidson of the Brown County Treasurer’s Office said Hamilton owned nearly $44,000 on the Opry building itself, $11,300 on the land and nearly $15,000 on the building’s contents. Some of the taxes had gone unpaid since 2001, she said. If the taxes are not paid, the property could be offered in a tax sale next year.

Rachel Meyer, a spokeswoman for the Indiana Department of Homeland Security, said the Opry did not apply for an entertainment permit for 2009. A permit requires an inspection by the state fire marshal’s office. Operating without one is illegal and can cost the owner $750 per day of violation in county and state fines.

The Opry also went without a permit in 2003 but wasn’t fined, Meyer said.

The last time the building was inspected was in April 2008, when two exit signs were found not to light up. The Opry replaced the bulbs and complied the same day, Meyer said.

The fire caused the Opry, now a burned out shell of a building, to cancel its upcoming shows, including scheduled November concerts by Loretta Lynn and George Jones.

Nearby business owners hope someone will rebuild quickly and draw more visitors to the area.

Stanley Lucas, who owns the Red Bud Inn next door to the Opry, said he’s already had to cancel 20 room reservations over several weekends because visitors are no longer coming to the concert venue. He hopes the fall leaf-watching season will attract more people to his 15-room facility.

“There’s more to do in Nashville than just the Opry,” he said. “As long as the leaves are here, people will come.”