When I went to interview Gabrielle Gray, executive director of the International Bluegrass Music Museum, I had not visited Owensboro, Ky., for at least 20 years. Wow, was I blown away. I can tell you honestly that if I were looking for a place to make a new home at this point in time, I would give serious consideration to Owensboro. The city is alive with the arts. Much of this links back to the enthusiasm for bluegrass music that the museum has created through its numerous programs since it opened its doors in 1991.
Bluegrass has become part of the city’s brand, and its citizens embrace the genre as part of their culture. The International Bluegrass Music Museum will receive this year’s Governor’s Awards in the Arts Community Arts Award. Read excerpts of my interview with Gabrielle below to find out more about what’s happening in Owensboro.
Tell me about the programming you provide in the community.
Just to give you an example, ROMP (IBMM’s annual bluegrass festival) has grown to 20,000 visitors a year, which is a very nice-sized festival. We just had our 10th anniversary. The first one was in 2004. It was held in Peter English Park down the river. We had Earl Scruggs, Ricky Skaggs, Doc Watson, Sam Bush. It was a great event, but it only drew a few thousand people. That’s how ROMP was for the next seven years in a row; it was an intriguing but small festival. We invited the pioneers of bluegrass to play. Because bluegrass is a pretty new genre as genres go, most of the founders of it, the early practitioners, were still alive when I came here. Now it’s been 10 years, a very vital 10 years in that echelon. So many of them are not alive now. But we have filmed them. First person, in-depth, professional interviews with professional interviewers; we’ve done 268 of these. We’re developing them each into an individual documentary. We’ve got the history. Lock stock and barrel, we have captured it. There is no music genre in America that has been able to do that except bluegrass. So it’s a really astonishing archive, and it really tells the story, especially of the southeastern quadrant of the United States, but also all over the country.
The bluegrass in the schools project is ginormous. We’re in year 11 of that. We’re in all of the elementary schools. In order to preserve and sustain bluegrass music, and to grow it here in the home state — this is Kentucky’s official state music and it’s this area’s indigenous music — in order to preserve that culture and further it and put it to work for us both educationally and in tourism, you have to grow it. You have to sustain it. Everybody in your community needs to know about it, be aware of it, embrace it and be part of the process. And so, in order to get all that done you have to start at the beginning, start when they’re growing up.
We have this sustained program where we spend eight days in each elementary school. And all of the kids have an instrument — we’ve had to buy hundreds of instruments — so everybody is holding an instrument, the same instrument at the same time. You’ll have a whole sea of violins or fiddles and they’re all learning at the same time. They learn the history of bluegrass, its importance to the state, and then they learn about the fiddle, the mandolin, the banjo and the guitar, those four instruments.
That’s the first thing we do. Then the second thing we do is we hire a national act that performs in every one of these schools. They put on a concert. And that happens every year. The parents are invited and the teachers come and the administrators come and it’s always a very big deal because a band is here in town for two or three weeks. They’re in all of these schools and then do a concert for the general public. So after that, if you want to, if you have been turned on by that and trust me they are, big time, then you can come down here (to the museum) and take lessons on Saturdays. We provide the instruments on loan; you take them home and keep them with you as long as you’re in the music program. These are group music lessons and right now we have 414 students and it’s people of all ages. There’s a tiny tuition. If you don’t have that money, you just write an essay about why you want to take lessons and you’re included for free. It’s gigantic. You can’t believe what it looks like here on a Saturday. It’s a small museum and there are back-to-back people.
What is it about bluegrass music that transcends cultures?
Well, it’s an amalgamation of so many genres to start with. If you look at the Scots-Irish, the Celtic music, the African — I’m a classical musician, I definitely see Vivaldi and Bach in there — it’s black gospel, it’s white gospel, it’s blues, it’s jazz, it’s Cajun. It’s friendly; it doesn’t put on airs. And yet, it is the most virtuosic of all the genres because the musicianship in a premium bluegrass band is higher than, or as high as, you will find anywhere on Earth. Not only are they playing to the top skills of all other musicians, and in most cases far better, they’re also composing on the spot just like jazz. Bluegrass is incredible. But it puts on no airs. That’s why it has become a worldwide genre. It’s like a musical exchange program.
How has the community embraced and supported the museum?
Well, I think what happened is that ROMP turned the lake over, putting the programming in there that was broader than traditional bluegrass and opening it up to more people. One thing we did, anyone who was involved in a college bluegrass program throughout the country was invited to come for free, provided they brought their instrument and jammed, and stayed all three days. So, we were changing the atmosphere of the festival, making it into a jam session of really good musicians from all over. It’s creating a culture and creating a milieu and a place where everybody is comfortable. The festival is green. It’s well organized, the food is excellent. There’s a wonderful arts and crafts fair. We have tremendous arts all over the place.
So when the population of ROMP exploded like it did overnight, the city took notice and said “Wow.” What you’ve been saying to us all along, that this could be like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is to Cleveland, like the Country Music Hall of Fame is to Nashville, this could be an international center. This could be the biggest thing in Kentucky. They saw it.
How has the community supported the museum?
There is bluegrass being played everywhere now. It’s for weddings, it’s for funerals — it’s everywhere you go. It has changed the entire cultural landscape of this community.
The ROMP budget has grown to over a half a million dollars. With the exception of ticket sales and earned income, all of that money comes from support. Think of that. It’s enormous. We have close to $200,000 donated by businesses. Everybody’s coming. We’re in a $10 million capital campaign. We haven’t even gone to the bluegrass community yet. This has all been raised out of Owensboro, $8 million already. That’s gigantic. The city pledged $3 million to the new museum. How many cities do that?
Let’s get down to the grass roots level. Every single music teacher in the city and county and in the parochial school systems here, every single one helps us with the bluegrass in the schools program. We bought a set of instruments for every school. They teach them. They have after-school programs set-up. They’re teaching the kids how to play the instruments; they’re working with us, all of them. They all come and perform at ROMP.
And they’re part of it. That’s the key to everything — inclusivity. Making people part of a project, then it belongs to them. Then its success becomes integral to their being.
Emily B. Moses, communications director