NASHVILLE, Tenn. (Havighurst) -- The superhero origin story of bluegrass music typically focuses on the night that Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt first performed together on the Grand Ole Opry at the Ryman Auditorium in December, 1945. But since Bill Monroe is the father of bluegrass, then his own origins are even closer to the source. And that's to be found in Northwestern Kentucky in the towns of Rosine and Owensboro. There's a lot of activity and investment there that will give musical pilgrims a lot to see and learn about in the years to come.
Judge David Johnson stands in front of a field of bulldozed dirt in the tiny but famous town of Rosine, KY on a pretty May morning. "We're proud to be here today. It's been a long time coming,” he says into a microphone. “We've been talking about this for many, many years." Johnson is part of an assembly of locals and assorted dignitaries on hand to break ground for a new Bill Monroe Museum, the latest addition to a set of landmarks that have been luring national and international visitors to this area for years.
"When they come to Ohio County, first they'll see his boyhood home,” says Jody Flener, the county's tourism director. She's referring to the Bill Monroe Homeplace, a 1917 house that was renovated and opened to the public in 2001. "That's the birth of bluegrass. They'll come to our (new) museum to see Bill's life, his history, his story of how the genre was created. It's really a small sleepy town with a diamond in the rough, and it's an exciting thing to develop."
There's also a barn with Friday night jams and a reconstruction of the cabin that belonged to Monroe's mentor and Uncle Pendleton Vandiver, who was enshrined in the hit "Uncle Pen.” State Senator C.B. Embry points out that Monroe and Uncle Pen are in fact laid to rest right here. "And of course Rosine Cemetery has that huge monument to Bill Monroe and to Uncle Pen, who he wrote a great song about. Step by step, Rosine will become more of a stop for tourism, yes it will."
After some remarks and performances by a local youth string band, eight men stand by with eight gold painted shovels. They answer the order to “shovel dirt!”
An even more ambitious bluegrass destination is in the works 30 miles to the north on the banks of the Ohio River. Here in Owensboro, KY the construction is industrial scale.
“This is the north side of the museum and theater,” says Chris Joslin, executive director of the International Bluegrass Music Museum, an Owensboro based institution established in 1991. He's orienting me to a $15.4 million dollar construction of a new building that will double the current museum's exhibit space, add a 450 seat theater plus an outdoor venue for 1500. It's all part of an Owensboro partnership and master plan.
"What used to be an eroding river bank is now six city blocks of cascading fountains, outdoor performance venues, a world class playground, and that gives way to a performing arts center down next to the bridge. It's just a beautiful thing to see it all take shape."
The city of Owensboro found its way into bluegrass history in 1985 when it played host to the organization of and the first conventions by the International Bluegrass Music Association. Over at the current museum a few blocks away, Joslin says even though the IBMA has moved on Nashville, the area remains dedicated to telling the story of one of America's greatest musical genres.
"One of the things we're trying to create here and in Rosine is place. Bluegrass has become an international phenomenon and that is awesome. But we also want to give bluegrass a place. We want to give it an anchor. And I think that’s what we’re doing with the Bluegrass Museum and Hall of Fame."
The museum tracks the story of bluegrass music from its initial influences - string band music, the blues, big band swing and even polka - through the big bang of Bill Monroe and on to decades of gradual and sometimes dramatic evolution.
"Bluegrass music continues to evolve so important to talk about the roots and sources of this music and its evolution through the 30s, the 40s, the 50s, the 60s and on. But the story continues to be written today. There are artists right now that are pushing the envelope and contributing to this music. And I think about myself. It wasn’t that long ago that I was just a kid, but now I'm watching a new generation come embrace this music and bring such creativity to it. Certainly through exhibits we can tell that story. Through film. It’s a multi media experience. That's the key. We want people to come not just be a spectator but come and experience this music.”
One way to do that is to attend ROMP, the official fund-raising bluegrass festival that's been staged by the bluegrass museum for fourteen years. It's coming up June 21-24. Danny Clark, the museum's manager of special events, says ROMP has gone through its own renovation in recent years.
"I know the first couple years that they had a festival here it was a smaller, traditional bluegrass festival. And of course we want to kind of update that. We want to have one foot in the past. We want to have one foot in the future. So in order to do that you’ve got to kind of change up your lineup. That was done six or seven years ago.”
Clark and other organizers invited cutting edge bands and new bluegrass stars with the potential to truly draw big crowds. the game changer was the Steep Canyon Rangers fronted by banjo playing actor Steve Martin.
“The explosion hit right there. It ignited. And ROMP just continues to sell more and more tickets every year. You could stand up there on that stage on a Saturday night and overlook ten to fifteen thousand people easily.”
The synergies made possible by a major bluegrass festival and an expanded museum in Owensboro, plus the cluster of Bill Monroe attractions in nearby Rosine, are setting up the region for the kind of music-driven tourism that's been developed in Virginia, Mississippi and Louisiana. Chris Joslin will be here ready to put an instrument in your hand.
"As I've said before, I don't think bluegrass is a great spectator sport. But it's an awesome sport to participate in. That's what we want to do is invite people to engage and participate with us."
And sure enough, before I know it, Joslin, Clark and I are in the current museum's community room, picking a couple of songs.
The 2017 ROMP festival takes place June 21-21 in Owensboro, KY and features the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Punch Brothers, Rhiannon Giddens, Yonder Mountain String Band, The Steeldrivers, The Jerry Douglas Band, Dailey & Vincent, Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper and many more. Information is HERE.