Opening the front door of the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, Ky. (pop. 54,067), is like lifting the lid of a music box. The high-spirited sounds of fiddle and banjo welcome visitors with a tune that practically translates “Come on in!”
The 22,000-square-foot museum, located in Owensboro’s RiverPark Center Complex and open year-round, celebrates the spirit of the music that bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe once said “has brought more people together and made more friends than any music in the world.”
Packed with treasures, the museum opened in 1995 after the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) and others involved in the bluegrass industry expressed concern that the genre’s “first-generation musicians were becoming an endangered species,” says Gabrielle Gray, the museum’s executive director.
Owensboro was selected as the museum’s location because of its proximity to Bill Monroe’s birthplace, home and final resting place in the Kentucky community of Rosine (pop. 417). One of the museum’s many permanent exhibits is dedicated to Monroe, the universally acknowledged “Father of Bluegrass,” who named his unique style of high harmony and nimble instrumental licks after Kentucky’s nickname, the Bluegrass State.
“In bluegrass music, there has never been much of a barrier between the audience and the performer,” says award-winning bluegrass musician Tim O’Brien, a former president of the IBMA. That friendly atmosphere is depicted in the museum’s display of a campground jam session with a circle of life-size sculptures of musicians, illustrated by panoramic photo murals of fan-filled crowds at bluegrass festivals and encouraged on a rustic stage complete with instruments ready to be played by visiting musicians.
The second floor tracks the story of bluegrass from 1945 through 1960 on the Wall of Time and salutes the music’s founders in the Hall of Honor. A 1946 Wurlitzer jukebox is stocked with bluegrass classics such as Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” “The Fields Have Turned Brown” by The Stanley Brothers and Jimmy Martin’s “You Don’t Know My Mind,” and touch-screen computers invite visitors to become sound engineers in a virtual recording studio.
Other displays showcase thousands of record albums and singles, vintage bluegrass posters and playbills from around the world, and dozens of treasured instruments, such as Kenny Baker’s fiddle, Pete Seeger’s banjo and Josh Graves’ Dobro.
Kristi Harrison, program coordinator of Girl Scouts of Kentuckiana in Louisville, Ky., brought 36 of her scouts to the museum last year to earn their History of Bluegrass Badge. “They were totally captivated,” she says. “They got to play instruments and all came away bluegrass fans.”
The museum’s annual River of Music Party (ROMP) is a three-day celebration of live performances and other activities. More than 6,000 people are expected to attend this year’s ROMP, scheduled from June 21 to 23, to hear The Grascals, Marty Stuart, The Del McCoury Band, Jesse McReynolds and some 25 other acts. The ROMP event is just one way the museum helps visitors connect with the performers, instruments, sounds and history of a music that continues to find new fans.
“Bluegrass goes back to the roots of where country music started,” says Jesse McReynolds, 78, honored in the museum along with his late brother, Jim, his longtime partner in the pioneering bluegrass duo Jim & Jesse. “When we started out, we didn’t think we’d ever be recognized like this. We were just doing what we were doing, making a living. We never thought about being in a museum.”
The museum is a fitting tribute to the careers of artists who devoted their lives to the music so near and dear to their hearts. “It honors all the people who spent years and years on the road, recording and traveling and entertaining people around the world,” McReynolds says. “It tells the story of bluegrass.”