The crisp, lightning-fast finger-picking sounds of Earl Scruggs’ bluegrass classic, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” emanate from the banjo played by Chris Joslin. The distinctive ringing twang reaches the ear of a visitor who joins in with a Dobro. Another musician starts strumming a mandolin, and soon the impromptu ensemble is in the midst of an all-out jam session.
That’s the kind of scene Joslin, executive director of the new $15.3 million Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum in Owensboro, Ky., imagines as he continues pickin’ in this rare moment of leisure.
“Something unique to bluegrass is the high rate of participation,” Joslin said. “There’s a repertoire most bluegrass musicians know, so they can produce authentic, organic music with no rehearsal. It’s easy to participate, and that’s what we want to promote.”
The stringed instruments near the museum entrance are meant to be played, not viewed as hands-off artifacts. Visitors are encouraged to sit a spell and lay down their favorite bluegrass licks.
When the former International Bluegrass Music Museum outgrew its home in RiverPark Center, the city of Owensboro decided to think big – envisioning a facility that would serve as the worldwide destination for the genre, like the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
After all, the Father of Bluegrass Bill Monroe was born and raised in the nearby hamlet of Rosine, so it seemed fitting the region should have an institution that pays homage to the musical genre he founded and named after his band, “The Blue Grass Boys.”
Open since October, the museum already feels like a cornerstone of the community.
Setting it apart from its predecessor are the abundant opportunities to hear bluegrass music. Woodward Theatre, a 450-seat indoor performance venue, is the centerpiece of the museum complex. Every Saturday night, the theater reverberates with the buoyant music that is as much a part of Kentucky’s heritage as bourbon and thoroughbreds.
Recent performances have featured such legendary acts as Del McCoury Band, Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives and Ricky Skaggs, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in September. But there’s also room for burgeoning talent that could be tomorrow’s Hall-of-Famers.
A second performance space, the Michael Horn Family Foundation Stage, is a nod to the long tradition of summer bluegrass festivals. The outdoor venue overlooks the Ohio River, providing a scenic spot for bluegrass fans to sing along to their favorite music in a festival-like setting long after ROMP, Owensboro’s annual June bluegrass festival, is over.
Next year, a series of Downtown Romps will keep the riverfront echoing with bluegrass all summer long.
Museum visitors will want to start their visit at the Dawn of Bluegrass exhibit that chronicles the history of the music from its nascence in the early 1900s to the proliferation of outdoor festivals in the 1960s, and into the modern era, highlighting contemporary newgrass bands that bend the original rules by infusing their music with rock and pop to produce something that is simultaneously fresh and familiar.
It details how this uniquely American music, celebrated for its “high, lonesome sound” epitomized by Monroe’s high tenor, sprung from an amalgam of styles pervasive in the South at the beginning of the 20th century, predominantly ballads, gospel, blues, country and old-time string bands.
A replica of an early radio station demonstrates how the proliferation of stations throughout the Southeast in the 1920s and ‘30s made it possible for these diverse styles to reach a new audience and influence an up-and-coming generation of musicians.
Bluegrass as a new genre was born on Dec. 8, 1945, at the Grand Ole Opry, a live weekly radio show in Nashville. That’s when virtuoso banjo player Earl Scruggs made his debut with The Blue Grass Boys, completing the historic line-up that included Lester Flatt on guitar, Chubby Wise on fiddle and Howard Watts on bass. They unleashed a polished, sophisticated sound that debunked the myth that country music was played by moonshine-fueled hillbillies and required little real talent.
On display are artifacts from those pioneer days, including a show poster promoting Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys at the Opry, Monroe’s bass that he played during many live shows and recording sessions, and a Flatt and Scruggs song book.
Alongside them is the banjo belonging to Ralph Stanley, who, along with his brother Carter, was among the seminal players of bluegrass. They were famous for hits such as “Mountain Dew” and “I’m a Man of Constant Sorrow.”
“If there were a Mount Rushmore of bluegrass, it would have Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers,” Joslin said.
After Carter’s death in 1966, Ralph went on to become a bluegrass icon that mesmerized audiences with his high tenor crooning of unsettling murder ballads (“Pretty Polly”) and other dark songs about spurned lovers. But he didn’t always sing about sinners. He also regaled saints and had an impressive repertoire of gospel songs.
Other exhibits follow the waxing and waning of bluegrass’s popularity over the decades.
On the second level of the museum, visitors can virtually meet a host of bluegrass titans, such as Del McCoury, Doyle Lawson and Mac Wiseman in the Video Oral History Project, a multi-media exhibit that features interviews with 220 bluegrass pioneers. Enthusiasts could spend hours scrolling through the vast catalogue of accomplished musicians.
The International Bluegrass Music Association Hall of Fame is a pantheon of bluegrass “gods,” featuring rows of plaques commemorating the achievements of many of the luminaries featured in the oral history exhibit.
Whether visitors were raised hearing bluegrass or just recently discovered it, they are sure to come away with a deeper insight into the fabric of the music.
“The museum’s goal is to educate visitors on the source of their music,” Joslin said. “The fact is, it’s all rooted in a time, place and person. Bill Monroe’s experiences in this region shaped his music, and now it’s an international phenomenon loved by people around the world.”
IF YOU GO
Where to Stay
Courtyard by Marriott. 3120 Highland Pointe Drive, Owensboro, Ky. 270-685-4140, www.marriott.com
Where to Eat