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A New Shrine For Bluegrass Shines On The Banks Of The Ohio

A freak autumn wind storm didn’t blow out the fire of the fans and artists who gathered Saturday along the banks of the Ohio River to cap off a three-day grand opening of the new Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Owensboro KY.

Thursday’s first-ever concert in the indoor Woodward Theater focused on legends from the Bluegrass Hall of Fame. On Friday, the Sam Bush Band performed in the same space. Saturday, the windy one, presented High Fidelity, Front Country, Town Mountain and the Yonder Mountain String Band under otherwise clear skies on a bespoke outdoor stage, free for the public. Visitors mingled in the exhibits, lobby and museum store throughout the long weekend.

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The Picking Parlor is a permanent part of the facility, with instruments to borrow.

The $15 million facility completes a massive overhaul of the city’s riverfront, embracing a commitment to cultural tourism. The northeast Kentucky location makes sense geographically and historically, says the museum’s executive director Chris Joslin: “We like to think of it as being close to the source.”

Bill Monroe, the genre’s founding father, grew up a few miles away in Rosine, while Owensboro, population 60,000, was the birthplace of the International Bluegrass Music Association, which has guided the industry’s agenda since 1985.

“Part of that strategic plan was establishing a hall of fame and museum, so here we are seeing that dream come together with this new building here in 2018,” Joslin said.

The retiring museum operated in a civic center a few blocks away since 2002. The new freestanding building doubles its exhibit space and adds a 450 seat theater and an outdoor stage to present the music in live settings, arguably the best recruitment tool for new fans.

Even before visitors enter the formal exhibits, they may linger in a Picking Parlor, where they can bring their own instruments or borrow one off a wall of banjos, fiddles, guitars and more. The space will play host to a regular open jam session on the first Thursday of each month.

Then the formal story begins with how core influences such as blues, gospel, jazz and old-time fiddle tunes came together to give rise to bluegrass as a distinct branch of country music in the 1940s and 50s. Chapters of the story - radio broadcasting, the folk revival and festival culture - are given colorful treatment.

Key artifacts include a fiddle that belonged to Bill Monroe’s uncle Pendleton Vandiver, his core musical inspiration growing up and the source for the song “Uncle Pen.” A John Hartford case includes a bowler hat, a banjo and a well-used metronome that belonged to probably the most influential artist on today’s string band scene.

Today’s top bluegrass bands and artists are extended honors by way of a changing gallery with a two-wall mosaic of photos and selected artifacts, such as the signature cat eye glasses of fiddler, songwriter, singer and bandleader Becky Buller. 

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The contemporary artist gallery.

Joslin said illuminating today’s diverse bluegrass scene is a key part of the museum’s mission: “It’s so great that we can honor the roots of this music, but we can also celebrate where this music is and where it’s going. Bluegrass is so textured today that you can’t contain it or define it in a narrow fashion anymore. And I love that about it.”

Upcoming shows at the Woodward Theater include:

Saturday, Nov. 3                     Hot Rize

Friday, Nov. 9                          The Infamous Stringdusters w/ The Wooks

Fri. & Sat., Nov. 16/17            Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder

Friday Nov. 30                         Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives

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