Posts Tagged With: folklife

2013 Governor’s Awards in the Arts: International Bluegrass Music Museum

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

Categories: Performing Arts | Tags: , , , , , , ,

My Journey Through a Storytelling Apprenticeship

Thanks to a Folk and Traditional Arts Apprenticeship grant from the Kentucky Arts Council, I started on a journey in July that has taken me to worlds I had never before visited. It’s a journey through storytelling. Although I’ve just traveled a short way down the first trail, I’m amazed at what I’ve learned. I’m enjoying this expedition with my friend and guide, Appalachian storyteller Pam Holcomb. She has shown me the way to places I never would have visited on my own. Worlds of fables, imagination and creativity are all ready to come into your life if you open your mind. With Pam’s guidance, I have learned that anything is possible through stories. Teaching youth the truth about difficult topics, talking to an audience about complicated issues, or getting the attention of those you never thought would listen to you; they’re all possible through storytelling.


Pam Holcomb and Gwenda Adkins during their apprenticeship site visit

A spur off our main trail has taken me into an unlit land I never realized was so amazing and misunderstood. Sometimes dark places appear evil and forbidden, but if you conquer your fears and enter the passage, there may be a bright spot waiting for someone to find it. This life event has opened my eyes and my world to a condition that approximately 10,000 babies born in the United States each year will develop. Its name is cerebral palsy (CP), a group of disorders that can involve brain and nervous system functions such as movement, learning, hearing, seeing and thinking.

Why did Pam lead me to CP? It wasn’t just the condition that took us to this place, it was the person. She was born in January 1972 and weighed just a bit more than two pounds. She tried to come before Christmas, but the doctors talked her into waiting a bit. Even so, she was born two months early. She, like Pam, is a native of Harlan County Kentucky. Her name is Kristy “Bee” Barrett, one of Pam’s very dear high school students.

Kristy’s mom felt her daughter’s growth and development wasn’t on time with other babies. The doctors kept saying, “Its because she was a preemie. She just has to catch up.” Kristy didn’t catch up; she was diagnosed with CP at 18 months old. She and her family also began an amazing life journey. Although she didn’t “catch up” with age developmental expectations, Kristy has flown past most people her age when it comes to lifelong achievements.

Kristy is now 41 years old. She and Pam are very close friends. Kristy refers to her CP as her gift from God. She says,”I am the way He wanted me to be.”

Pam tells a story titled “Three Steps.” Through emotional words and expressions, Pam explains how excited Kristy was when she took three steps without the assistance of a walker, wheelchair or other device. She couldn’t wait to tell Pam and all her other friends at school. Just three steps, that’s all she has ever taken. But the races she has won are countless. Those races—along with Kristy’s attitude toward life, people and her gift—encouraged Pam to ask me to join her in telling Kristy’s story as the culminating project for my storytelling apprenticeship.

So this unknown land called cerebral palsy is more than something to pass through. Its a place to pause and reflect, a place to learn and share, a place to listen and grow. I have learned about CP, but my short time with Kristy really taught me about life and how to live it to the fullest. From her, I learned you have to conquer your fears and take chances. Kristy has done both. She can show the world that a person is not defined by a condition, the person defines the condition. Kristy has chosen “Bee Still, Embrace My Gift” as the title for her life story.

I have written four short stories about Kristy and have a couple of others in my mind. I fear there are way too many great things to tell than 90 minutes will allow. What I hope is that Pam and I can wrap our arms around Kristy’s many accomplishments and relay them to the public as an inspirational production that makes her proud and celebrates her life and her gift.

The CP spur is only one pause in my journey, it certainly didn’t stop it. On February 23, I joined my mentor and other Kentucky storytellers for a program in Harlan, Ky. Harlan County extension agents Jeremy and Theresa understand the importance of storytelling, so they host events for the public and invite storytellers to participate. I helped with the Storytelling in the Mountains” spring event and also told a story for the first time to a public audience. Learning by doing is wonderful, but learning by watching Kentucky’s great storytellers perform…priceless.

Only half of my storytelling apprenticeship journey remains. Where will it take me…I dare not imagine because my guide is creative and doesn’t mind to enter untamed territory. Perhaps you and I will bump into each other on the trail. Thank you, Kentucky Arts Council, for the opportunity to blaze a new life trail.

Gwenda Huff -Johnson, storyteller

Learn more about he rjourney on her  blog “Gwenda’s Storytelling Trail”

Categories: Folk and Traditional Arts, Literary Arts | Tags: , , , , ,

The crowd goes wild – for dog sled makers

I was excited to join other state folk arts coordinators in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 4 for the National Heritage Fellowship Awards Concert. The night before the concert, the National Endowment for the Arts held an awards ceremony and banquet for the recipients in the Library of Congress. What a spectacular and fitting place to honor living national treasures.

Library of Congress great hall

Andy Statman of Brooklyn is a master klezmer musician. This emotionally charged music developed for generations in eastern European Jewish communities and nearly disappeared, but it made a comeback in the U.S. in the mid-20th century. Andy was invited to play a piece during the banquet in the Great Hall, where the reverberating tones of his clarinet fell on a rapt audience that included his children and grandchildren. 

In addition to klezmer, Andy has mastered a musical style familiar to many Kentuckians: bluegrass mandolin.  At the concert, he played several numbers with his band and with other honorees like accordionist Flaco Jiménez and slide guitarist Mike Auldridge. Together, they played traditional standards and some surprises, like the surf classic “Walk, Don’t Run.”

Fervent applause followed these performances.  Surprisingly, the non-musical artists were met with equal excitement. A shipwright, a basket maker and, yes, dog sled makers Paul and Darlene Bergren each got their moment in the spotlight with folklorist/emcee Nick Spitzer.

Several Kentuckians won National Heritage Fellowships in the past, including Bill Monroe, Lily May Ledford, Jean Ritchie and Eddie Pennington. Though no Kentuckians received an award this year, it was impossible not to feel some connection with the honorees.  Among this audience, many probably felt proud to live in the nation that produced these masters. The audience’s enthusiasm crossed cultural, geographic, ethnic and social boundaries we all live with most of the time.

The National Heritage Fellowship is the highest honor for traditional artists in the nation. As soon as I returned to Kentucky, I joined the arts council staff in coordinating the Governor’s Awards in the Arts ceremony, where the highest artistic honors in the Commonwealth are presented. The Oct. 9 ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda had the same energy I experienced a few days before in the nation’s capital: “These are our people, the bearers of our culture.” Family and friends of master basket maker Leona Waddell were thrilled to see her receive the Folk Heritage Award. In addition, people she had never met before were captivated by her presence, her sincerity and her gratitude at being recognized for her life’s work.

Maybe you or someone you know deserves one of these awards.  To learn more about the cultural heroes of Kentucky and the U.S., visit these links:

Mark Brown, Folk and Traditional Arts Program Director

Categories: Folk and Traditional Arts | Tags: , , , , ,

An apprentice’s dream

When things “don’t go according to plan,” it typically invokes a negative thought. But my unplanned adventures with Grand Ol’ Opry star Bobby Osborne, through the Kentucky Arts Council’s Folk and Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program, were quite the opposite.

What were going to be bimonthly mandolin lessons and history chats turned into performing with one of the most famous artists in bluegrass music history.

I was able to perform at venues and locations throughout the South including: the Ohio Valley Opry; Mount Airy, North Carolina; the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History; the Kentucky Coal Rally; and the highlight, the world famous Bean Blossom Bluegrass Music Festival.

Bobby and Cory perform during the “Makings of a Master” debut at the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History.

My experiences with Bobby were not limited to just musical ones. I believe it would be safe to say that I learned just as much, or even more, about the history of the music I was playing than the music itself. I was able to learn about the history and source of some of the most popular songs in bluegrass and country music. Also, I learned facts, stories and legends about some of the most famous icons in music; all told from a first-person perspective by a man who was there.

My experience with Bobby Osborne, through the generosity of the Kentucky Arts Council’s apprenticeship grant, has been a literal dream come true. I was able to be a part of something that many young musicians only dream of, and I am humbly thankful.

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to: Mark Brown, Bob Gates and everyone at the Kentucky Arts Council; Bobby Osborne and all the members of the Rocky Top Express, and all of the other countless friends and family who have supported me through the amazing twelve months of my apprenticeship. You all have my deepest heartfelt thanks and gratitude.

And to all the other young musicians out there, dreams do come true.

God Bless and keep on picking!

Still dreaming,

Cory May, folk arts apprentice 

To learn more about folk arts apprenticeships in Kentucky, visit the Makings of a Master exhibition when it travels near you. The next application deadline for the apprenticeship grant program is February 15, 2013.

Categories: Folk and Traditional Arts, Performing Arts | Tags: , , , , , , ,

What Happens To The Stories When The Project’s Done?

With three oral history/photography projects under my belt, I’ve been able to see that they don’t simply disappear into the archives. There is so much life left in them!

My first project I completed on my own simply because as a Michigan girl in Kentucky, I was fascinated by the subject. It took several years, in several places, as I followed tobacco farmers through the year as they raised their crops. My research wasn’t about the technical aspects of growing tobacco, nor did it focus on the history of tobacco or health issues.  It concentrated on family and community and how everyone became immersed in producing a crop that for generations had put food on tables, shoes on feet and sent children to school.  It wasn’t about smoking or big business. It was about survival and working together to help our friends and neighbors.  And it’s changing. Today’s growers want a way to show their grandchildren and future generations what they did to earn an honest living and provide for their families, often for five or six generations or more.

“Friends” by Carol Shutt

Some of the images from this research have been sold as art pieces. People either have fond memories of their years helping raise the crops, or they want nothing to remind them of the backbreaking work. Most people tell us they like the memories and owe more than we can imagine to the money raised from selling tobacco. These images and many others are going into a book so that families can share this heritage with family members. This research will live on for a long time.

My first official Community Scholars research involved quilters in a nearby county. The research didn’t focus on patterns or techniques. Instead, I looked at the quilters themselves, their quilting history, family quilting memories, why they quilted and what they did with their quilts.  No one had looked at it quite this way before.

Their stories were all very different, but they all quilted so they could give this symbol of love to friends and families. A few sold a quilt on occasion, but most had never sold a single one. Many made quilts from their children’s favorite clothes. Some turned tattered quilts made by loved ones into things like stuffed teddy bears for the family when the quilt could no longer be patched. Their gifts of love were handed down from one generation to another, even when they could no longer serve their original purpose.  The quilters said they were so happy that someone appreciated them and their history, rather than just the pattern or the skill. Each and every one held special memories of their quilting experiences. Their stories and pictures were made into a book, which was given to each quilter I had interviewed. The area arts council has the rest to sell, so the story can be passed on.

My third project is definitely my most unusual one. I received a grant to research funeral traditions in a county in southeastern Kentucky. The experiences with this research have been amazing!  It’s not a topic that many people like to talk about…or so I thought.  I carried this research out in an area that has often been stereotyped in the media and never in a good way. Again, as a Michigan girl who after 20 years in Kentucky still talks like a Michigan girl, I was an outsider and talking about an unpleasant topic. The first week we tried to do interviews, no one showed up even when they had an appointment. We tried again a month later and this time, through a great deal of help from my fiscal agents and some local people I had met the month before, we were able to find folks willing to talk to us. Over the course of a year and a half, we compiled interviews from a good representation of people from the area. Word spread that it was okay to talk with us, and we ended up with wonderful pictures and information. The project has since expanded beyond the area of my funded research, simply because it’s been so fascinating that I can’t stop. It’s now “Funeral Traditions of The South” and has turned into a touring exhibit shown in a college, two churches, to a camera club and in a public library. It is scheduled for other venues in the coming year, including the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park as part of a larger oral history event. This research will also become a book, simply because people really are interested in the topic. In this research, the goal was not only to preserve our heritage but also to educate. Across the board, we all seem to think everyone “does it” the same way. That is oh, so wrong!  There are as many different traditions as there are people!  This research will also be around for a long, long time and in this case, the research itself will never end until I do. I’m always finding new information to investigate and preserve.

Community Scholar projects document folklife in our state. We have many cultural traditions that differ from one group to another and need to be preserved and shared, to educate us about each other and to pass on to future generations. Understanding what lies behind our actions and customs helps us live better with our neighbors.

So what will I do now? I’m going back to the beginning, because the stories keep changing with the times! The projects may never be done.

If you have interest in learning more about any of this research, please contact me at or call 606-780-9440. Examples of my photography, and my personal blog can be found at

Carol Shutt, photographer and Community Scholar

Categories: Folk and Traditional Arts | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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