I got chills at least three different times while visiting the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Owensboro, Kentucky. It's not everyday you get to see Uncle Pen's fiddle, Minnie Pearl's infamous straw hat and Maybelle Carter's autoharp all under one roof. But the newly opened 21,000 square foot facility, a must-see keeper of American music iconography, has it all.
The museum traces the story of bluegrass music, from early string band musicians through the birth of the genre with Bill Monroe -- the Father of Bluegrass Music -- and the rise of legends such as Ralph Stanley, Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt. As fascinating as it was to see artifacts of larger than life artists in the genre, I had just as much fun reading about the often unsung heroes of Old-time music like the Coon Creek Girls (one of the earliest all-woman string bands) and pioneering singer and banjo player Cousin Emmy.
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Not only does the Hall of Fame celebrate the rich tradition of bluegrass music, the roots and branches of bluegrass are also highlighted. One featured artifact from the folk genre is a Pete Seeger banjo with the inscription "This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender."
The top floor houses the Hall of Fame, which offers plenty of space to pause and honor bluegrass icons of the past and present. Be sure to stop by the gift shop on your way out to pick up a "Pick Banjos Not Fights" t-shirt.
Between the Hall of Fame and Museum and the town's annual Romp Fest, Owensboro has positioned itself as a prime destination for fans of bluegrass music. This year's ROMP featured Trampled By Turtles, Billy Strings, Rhonda Vincent, Steve Earle, Della Mae, Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder featuring Patty Loveless, The Travelin' McCourys, Sam Bush and more. I arrived Saturday afternoon just in time to see string-band quartet Della Mae, who brought me to tears with their stunning song "Headlight," a tribute to Christine Blasey Ford and Anita Hill -- a reminder of the progressive roots and branches of bluegrass. Steve Earle and the Dukes followed, performing a string of songs from Earle's recent Guy Clark tribute album, along with hits "Guitar Town" and "Copperhead Road." Earle's rollicking rendition of Eastern Kentucky anthem "Harlan Man" was a high point of the set and made me feel like an extra in Justified (in a good way).
Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder took the stage at twilight, honoring Bill Monroe and Skaggs' former boss Ralph Stanley. Skaggs then invited country and bluegrass superstar (and this writer's all time favorite) Patty Loveless to the stage. Along with fellow country artist and Kentuckian Vicki Vaughn, Loveless performed songs from her bluegrass opus Mountain Soul as well as '80s and '90s country hits "Timber, I'm Falling in Love," "If My Heart Had Windows" and "Blame It On Your Heart."
Newgrass pioneer Sam Bush closed out the night, providing a soundtrack for legions of music fans to dance under the Kentucky stars.
Whether you're an avid bluegrass junkie or just have the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack on repeat , Owensboro, Kentucky should be on your road trip list.
Next year's ROMP Fest will be held from June 24 through June 27.
The Downtown ROMP: Air Show After Party will be held on Sept. 14 and features performances from Dustbowl Revival, Hogslop String Band, Scythian and Rumpke Mountain Boys.