Bluegrass Museum Aims to Open Next March

Closed for a major upgrading in February 2000, the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, Ky., is now targeting March 2002 for its grand reopening.

The $3 million, state-funded facility occupies three floors in RiverPark Center, an arts and entertainment complex. At present, work is proceeding on only the two lower floors where the public exhibits will be housed. There are plans to convert the third floor into administrative offices for the museum and the International Bluegrass Music Association. (Although they share common purposes — and, until last summer, adjacent quarters — the IBMM and IBMA are two separate non-profit organizations.)

"Our vision is that we’re not only a museum," says IBMM board chairman Steve Brechter, "but also a world center for the music, a place where we can bring people together to do research and have conferences and meetings. We want this to be a very alive place. … We want people to walk out of it with an experience — a very personal experience."

Brechter reports that the museum will be made up of galleries, each with a distinct theme. The first one on the tour will recreate a bluegrass festival setting, complete with trees, a camper, lawn chairs and a stage. The next will be devoted to the pioneers of bluegrass music. The "Walls of Time" gallery (which takes its name from the Bill Monroe /Peter Rowan standard) will trace the development of bluegrass music from early Scottish and Irish fiddle tunes through early black and country music, folk music and the creation of bluegrass festivals up to its current forms. There will be a "general store" area for live performances. The final gallery will be the Hall of Honor, which will display the plaques of all those inducted into this institution.

"As you walk along," Brechter explains, "there will be sound domes overhead that focus bluegrass music right on you. So you can walk through a relatively short portion of the museum and hear the sound change quite a few times." Adjacent to the Hall of Honor will be an exhibit that enables the visitor to create distinctive bluegrass music electronically. "We got the idea from the Museum of Jazz in Kansas City," Brechter says. "You put on a set of headphones and take, say, a banjo from this style and a guitar from another style and mix your own bluegrass. You can even change the tempo."

The average tour, Brechter estimates, will take around an hour to complete. Except for holidays and slow seasons, the museum will be open seven days a week. Ticket prices have yet to be set. The museum board is still searching for an executive director, a task that should be completed by late summer, Brechter says. Until the facility begins generating income, its staff will consist of the executive director, an administrative assistant and volunteers.

Brechter says he welcomes the impending creation of the Bill Monroe Museum in Rosine, Ky., a mere 30 miles southeast of Owensboro. "I’m excited about it," he says. "I think there’s a tremendous opportunity to develop western Kentucky as the cradle of old-time country and bluegrass music. I don’t think that we’ve even scratched the surface yet doing that. What I see is these two projects complementing each other. … Owensboro is a little bit out of the way — as is Rosine. So having them together with a couple of attractions in each location will help each other out in the long run. When you come up from Nashville or Bowling Green [Kentucky] or down from Louisville or somewhere else, you’ll have more than one thing to see."

LaPaglia & Associates of Murfreesboro, Tenn., is the primary consultant for the museum. The firm also has done similar work for the National Cowboy Hall of Fame & Western Heritage Center in Oklahoma City, Okla., and the Louisville Slugger Museum in Louisville. The 1717 Design Group of Richmond, Va., is designing the exhibits.

"The next phase after we get the museum open," Brechter continues, "is the archive aspect. We don’t have archiving [of research material] in our initial plans, but it’s something the board does want to take on. We’ll probably do that in conjunction with a college or university."

Brechter notes that Woodward’s Café, a small restaurant and performance venue beside the museum, is being renovated and will again be used to stage live music. He says the museum has not yet set up a system for booking musical acts. A banjo player, Brechter was for several years a member of the group Grass Routes in Hartford, Conn. He now lives in Columbus, Ohio.

"This is a home for bluegrass music," he says, summarizing what he sees as the museum’s significance. "In the future, it’s a place we can all go to look back with reverence and say, ’Here’s what we’re all about.’"

Whatever the museum’s appeal, it will probably not be sufficient to bring the IBMA convention and awards show back to Owensboro from Louisville, where it has been held since 1997. "But we have an open mind that there might be other possibilities," says IBMA’s executive director, Dan Hays. He points out that his organization is contracted to hold its annual convention in Louisville through 2003 and will soon be deciding about extending the contract possibly as far as 2006. Hays says the IBMA would have to cut its convention attendance in half to fit it back into Owensboro.

"But we certainly support [the museum’s] development and want to offer everything we can to make sure they’re successful," Hays adds. "What we have offered is to help them create their own signature event. And there’s been some discussion about an academic conference and a grand opening event that might develop into something annual. Camps, workshops and those kinds of things could enhance the presence of the museum throughout the year."

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to