Bluegrass Museum Thriving in Kentucky

In the early 1990s, it appeared that Owensboro, Ky., would be to bluegrass music what Memphis was to the blues. The International Bluegrass Music Association had established itself there as an effective trade association. The organization’s annual World of Bluegrass convention and awards show drew thousands of musicians and fans to the region. And there was even the modest beginnings of a bluegrass museum housed next door to IBMA headquarters.

But in 1997, having outgrown Owensboro’s strained amenities, the convention and awards show moved to Louisville, Ky. Then, in February of this year, the IBMA itself relocated to Nashville, the better to take advantage of the city’s concentrated music industry. Happily for Owensboro, though, the International Bluegrass Music Museum stills stands where it started and is already a beehive of bluegrass activities. Located in RiverPark Center, the much-expanded museum reopened in April 2002 after having been closed for four years for rethinking and renovation.

“When they moved the festival to Louisville, I think that made a substantial drop in bluegrass activity in this area at that time,” says Gabrielle Gray, who became the museum’s executive director in January 2003. “However, that was exactly the time that the museum went into renovation. … From what I can tell, the traffic is definitely picking up. There’s a lot more going on.” A classically trained violinist who also plays “some bluegrass,” Gray has a background in overseeing musical events. In 1994, she founded the Master Musicians Festival in Somerset, Ky.

The museum houses the bluegrass Hall of Honor — a thematic parallel to the Country Music Hall of Fame. There are also instrument and costume displays, a gallery of historic photographs, interactive educational exhibits, performance spaces and a gift shop. “Men seem really interested in the historical elements,” Gray observes, “and women in the photographic exhibits. Children like the interactive computers.”

The museum recently hosted three major activities, taking advantage of a weekend bluegrass festival being held at the nearby Executive Inn hotel. These included a “battle of the bands” contest and show, a ticketed Bluegrass Masters Storytelling session featuring veteran musicians Ronnie Reno and J. D. Crowe, and the Hall of Honor inductees celebration which officially welcomed into the Hall the Lilly Brothers, Don Stover and record executive Dave Freeman.

In August, the museum will commence its Bluegrass in the Schools campaign. Initially it will involve buying and distributing four bluegrass musical instruments to each of 26 local schools. After that, the museum will send bluegrass musicians into the schools to work directly with teachers. Students will also be brought to the museum for musical workshops. If a grant application is approved as expected, Gray says, the museum will host a workshop in September by Crowe and Bill Evans. Singer Valerie Smith and her band, Liberty Pike, have already been secured for two weeks of school activity in January 2004. The group will present 26 assembly programs, provide classroom instruction and conduct two in-museum workshops each weekend of the band’s residence, which it will conclude with a concert.

Between April 1 and April 29 of this year, the museum had a sparse 228 paid admissions. Gray points out, however, that this number doesn’t include visits by museum members (who pay a $50 annual fee for unlimited visits) or by special guests and groups. “The museum is not ever going to support itself with admissions,” she says. Besides ticket sales and membership fees, the facility is funded by private donations and grants. Including Gray, the museum has two full-time paid employees, plus two full-time and three part-time volunteers.

The museum has not installed any new exhibits in its first year of operation, but Gray promises there will be one coming soon on Hall of Honor members Don Reno and Red Smiley. Free bluegrass jam sessions are held every Friday night at the Woodward Café adjacent to the museum and every Saturday afternoon in the museum’s gift shop.

Continuing every Friday night through Sept. 19, the museum will host free bluegrass concerts by “bands on their way up” in the RiverPark Center courtyard.

The International Bluegrass Music Museum is open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p. m. and on Saturday and Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. Ticket prices are $5 for adults and $2 for students. Children under 6 are admitted free.

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