They can, and did, relocate but they can’t rewrite history.
While the immediate environs of the new museum may be different, we doubt many, if any, of the dynamic displays and interactive exhibits we remember fondly from our 2016 visit to the old museum failed to make the short trip down the street to the new Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum.
The core of the museum presents several permanent exhibits that explore a chronological history of bluegrass music. From the early sources to contemporary interpretations, it presents the definitive story of bluegrass music via documentary-style films, artifacts, images, punchy displays, and hands-on experiences with bluegrass instruments. And of course there’s the hallowed Hall of Fame shrine itself, the industry’s tribute to the genre’s pioneers.
The whole experience is fun, informative, and educational, even to bluegrass devotees like us.
Our visit stared by taking in the Welcome/Introductory Video before progressing through the museum’s chronological exhibits.
Exploring the roots of the genre, the ‘Cultures & Influences’ exhibit explores the Scots-Irish and West African influences in the formation of bluegrass as well as the blues and jazz influences commonplace in the bluegrass sound.
BANJO / BANJAR | ‘Cultures & Influences’ exhibit, Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum, Owensboro, KY. September 28, 2016.
Exhibits dedicated to the early years, the sources and dawn of the bluegrass era, obviously focus on Bill Monroe. His upbringing and his legacy are covered, as are his early influences. And there were fewer bigger musical influences on a young Bill Monroe than that of his Uncle Pen.
UNCLE PEN’S FIDDLE | Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum, Owensboro, KY. September 28, 2016.
Originally part of the Bill Monroe Centennial Exhibit, Uncle Pen’s fiddle is now on permanent display in the museum, although information on how the museum came to be in possession of one of the most famous instruments in the annals of the bluegrass story is curiously lacking. As highlighted in our dedicated Bill Monroe | Rosine, KY, entry, the renowned fiddler James Pendleton Vandiver, aka Uncle Pen (1869-1932), is a now legendary figure who provided a massive positive influence on a young Bill Monroe when growing up in rural Rosine. Nephew Bill would credit his Uncle Pen, who he famously immortalised in a song of the same name, with instilling in him the all-important ability to keep time when playing music. Bill’s mother Malissa, Uncle Pen’s sister, died when he was nine and his father passed away when he was sixteen. Hard times in the late 1920s eventually drove the rest of the Monroe siblings (Bill Monroe was the youngest of six sons and two daughters) north to Indiana to seek employment, but Bill stayed behind for two years and lived with Uncle Pen in his cabin on Jerusalem Ridge. These two years, from his sixteenth until his eighteenth year, proved to be the most crucial to Bill’s musical training. The rest, as they say, is history.
My Uncle Pen was one of Kentucky’s old-time fiddlers, and he had the best shuffle with the bow that I’d ever seen, and kept the best time. That’s one reason people asked him to play for the dances around Rosine, Kentucky. In his later years he was a crippled man. He had been thrown by a mule and had to use crutches the rest of his life. My last years in Kentucky were spent with him. He done the cooking for the two of us. We had fatback, sorghum molasses, and hoe cakes for breakfast, followed up with black-eyed peas with fatback, and cornbread and sorghum for dinner and supper. I can remember those days so very well. There were hard times and money was scarce, but also there were good times. If it was to do over, I’d live them again.
– Bill Monroe commenting on his Uncle Pen
‘The Classic Band’ exhibit covers the original Blue Grass Boys ensemble of Monroe, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Chubby Wise, and Howard Watts; while ‘Tools of the Trade’ displays the instruments of the original Blue Grass Boys, including a replica of Lester Flatt’s Martin D-28 guitar, a Gibson reproduction Monroe’s F-5 mandolin, Howard Watts’ bass, Chubby Wise’s fiddle, and a reproduction of Earl Scruggs’ Gibson RB-75.
Finally, crucial events and dates of the early years are summarised via the awesome ‘Walls of Time – The Story of Bluegrass (1945-1960)’ timeline.
The ‘Festivals’ exhibit covers the history of the bluegrass festival and the festival experience (the music, the jam sessions, and the selling & trading) that is a central part of the bluegrass experience today, one that started with the September 3-5 1965 gathering at Cantrell’s Horse Farm outside the town of Fincastle, VA, the 1st multi-day festival (Bean Blossom, which the museum claims ‘might be the best-known of them all’ also gets some display space).
‘FESTIVALS‘ | Festival jam mock-up in the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum, Owensboro, KY. September 28, 2016.
Covering the spread and progression of bluegrass through the generations, the folk revival of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s is covered in the ‘The Folk Revival’ exhibit, which leads to ‘The Changing Face of Bluegrass’ exhibit detailing the ’70s emergence of more progressive bands such as New Grass Revival.
‘The Songs’ exhibit covers elements of the bluegrass song (rhythm, instrumental virtuosity, that ‘High Lonesome Sound’) with reference to, and audio samples of, some traditional bluegrass and gospel standards.
The ‘Banjokes’ exhibit brings a smile as it, em, picks, if you’ll pardon the oh-so obvious pun, on the loveable banjo player.
‘BANJOKES‘ | Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum, Owensboro, KY. September 28, 2016.
‘Bluegrass Backstage’ tips its hat to the promoters, managers, agents, sponsors, and trade organisations etc. that work behind the scenes, while the ‘Spreading The Music’ exhibit explores bluegrass exposure on TV/film, radio, and in recordings, all of which leads us to the ‘Bluegrass & The World’ exhibit which highlights how the bluegrass sound and influence has spread worldwide and how the genre now boasts ardent followings in such regions as far away as Europe 🇪🇺 and the Far East, especially Japan 🇯🇵.
‘BLUEGRASS & THE WORLD‘ | The ‘Bluegrass & The World’ display in the then International Bluegrass Music Museum, Owensboro, KY. September 28, 2016.
Finally, the Hall of Fame Inductee Room displays the bronze biography plaques of all those enshrined in the Bluegrass Hall of Fame since the first ‘Class of 1991’ inductees, Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, and Lester Flatt.
In bluegrass, we respect our elders.
HALL OF FAME / HONOR | Outside the Hall of Honor of the old International Bluegrass Music Museum, Owensboro, KY. September 28, 2016.
A venerated space, ‘The crown jewel of the museum’ is how the museum itself describes its Hall of Fame inductee room, which went by the name Hall of Honor in the old museum, seen here. Displaying the bronze plaques of all Hall of Fame inductees, it’s a space designed to pay homage to the artists who ‘conceived, shaped and influenced this unique American art form’, the bluegrass music industry’s tribute to the pioneers of the music and the people who have made it as great as it is. You could spend a lot of time in here hopping from plaque to plaque. But don’t worry if time — or fatigue — catches up on you – all bios are posted to the awesome Inductees page of the museum’s website (see below) enabling you to peruse at your leisure and pay your respects at any time.
So there you have it, a brief overview of some of the highlights of what is actually a rather in-depth look at the world of bluegrass.
A lot has changed in the bluegrass scene in Owensboro since we were last in town. We’ve fond memories of the ‘old’ so we’re looking forward to getting back to experience the ‘new’ for ourselves.