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Historic Magazine 'Bluegrass Unlimited' Has A Future, Thanks To A Museum

Dan Miller, new editor of Bluegrass Unlimited, which has been acqiured by the Bluegrass Hall of Fame and Museum.

This week’s online World of Bluegrass convention epitomizes the global network that supports the business and cultural ecosystem of a core American genre. Before the 1985 formation of the International Bluegrass Music Association, that connectivity was made over rotary phones, at festivals, and immeasurably through the pages of Bluegrass Unlimited magazine, which as of this month is under new management.

As primarily a print publication with dwindling circulation and whose founding editor/owner died in 2017, the future of Bluegrass Unlimited looked uncertain. But in late August, the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Owensboro, KY announced that it had acquired the 54-year-old publication known to many as the “bible of bluegrass.” Days later, it named Dan Miller, founding publisher of Flatpicking Guitar Magazine, as editor.

“We don’t want to stop publishing it as a print magazine because a lot of our subscribers like and appreciate that,” Miller said last week. “But as far as our digital presence we’re going to overhaul and upgrade that.” He said the first Museum-published issue will be November’s, with a series of complimentary digital outlets rolling out about the same time, including a weekly e-mail newsletter, a podcast, more aggressive use of social media and a YouTube channel that can take advantage of the combined voluminous archives of magazine and museum, which opened in a new $15 million home in late 2018.

“It’s very exciting that the magazine is now going to be part of the museum,” Miller said of the synergies he expects. “There’s a lot of people that want to see it succeed, and I think we will.”

Bill Monroe on the cover of an early BU.

Museum Executive Director Chris Joslin told WMOT that magazine founder Pete Kuykendall was on the museum’s board of trustees when he passed away and that his widow Kitsy remains involved. “Without Pete running the day-to-day, the magazine did not see a clear path forward for growth, and that’s one of the reasons why Kitsy Kuykendall and the current BU staff felt the transition to the Hall of Fame and Museum made a lot of sense. Partly because we are a growth organization with a lot of momentum and a strong staff. The timing was right for both organizations...and we intend to grow the audience for BU and to innovate with this iconic publication.”

Kuykendall was a part-time musician, DJ and radio technician in the D.C. area, where a bluegrass and old-time culture took root in the 1950s and 60s. He and some friends who would become eminent authorities and historians of the music started Bluegrass Unlimited in 1966 as a volunteer-supported newsletter. Before long, Kuykendall quit his day job to develop the magazine full time. It became a tribune and talent development outlet for a genre that got little support from mainstream media. He and the magazine also became promoter and sponsor of the influential Indian Springs Bluegrass Festival near Hagerstown, MD between 1972 and 1980. Kuykendall was inducted into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame in 1996.

The influence of BU is hard to over-state, at the macro and micro level, where it helped fans become artists and artists become stars. Award-winning band leader, journalist and SiriusXM radio host Chris Jones says he read the monthly cover to cover as a teenager. Then he made use of its classifieds section to launch his professional career. “I was 20 years old and ran an ad as being available, and Special Consensus called me up and set up an audition,” he said. “And the rest is history.” Some of that history was documented in the publication itself. Getting his first cover story was a landmark; he keeps copies in his archives. As for Miller, with whom he’s worked as a writer, Jones says, “He has combination of sincere love and knowledge of the music but also knowledge of the publishing business. I feel good about the magazine being in good hands.”

Kitsy Kuykendall remains a high-profile bluegrass booster; her name along with husband Pete is on the museum’s research library. She says BU was “foundering” before the deal was reached with the Bluegrass Museum. It’s a plan that honors the spirit Pete Kuykendall brought to the publication for a half century, she says. “Anything and everything he ever did was because he loved the music. He loved the industry. He loved the fans. He wanted everybody in the world to know and appreciate his music, which really was his life,” she said. “He played it. He wrote about it. He was one of the main people who wanted to have IBMA and the museum. He was passionate about his music.”

The new Bluegrass Unlimited masthead.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's music news producer and host of The String, a show featuring conversations on culture, media and American music. New episodes of The String air on WMOT 89.5 in Middle Tennessee on Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. Twitter and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org
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