By Matt Wickstrom
Downtown Owensboro has undergone a facelift and revitalization in the last few years, with much of the focus revolving around tourism, specifically the region’s rich history in bluegrass music. Driven by $15.3 million in private, local and state government funding, the latest addition to Owensboro’s downtown is the expanded and renovated Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum.
The city orchestrated a grand-reopening ceremony Oct. 18-20 that included induction of a special Hall of Fame class, a sold-out show by Kentucky mandolin master Sam Bush and a free outdoor show featuring Yonder Mountain String Band, Town Mountain, Front Country and High Fidelity.
Originally opened in 1991 as the International Bluegrass Music Museum, the new facility on a former state government office site doubles the size to 50,000 s.f. and includes the 447-seat Woodward Theatre, along with a 1,500-seat outdoor amphitheater. The two-floor museum features exhibits documenting the history of bluegrass from the genre’s roots with Bill Monroe to its golden age, its association with the Grand Ole Opry, the rise of festivals and how they’ve transformed the genre, and background into both the genre’s traditional and progressive veins and methodologies.
Tying all the exhibits together are video interviews. The videos come from a special partnership with the University of Kentucky’s Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, which created a transcribed, searchable database.
The Nunn Center’s contribution is much appreciated at the new facility, where Carly Smith, director of marketing, said such a task would’ve been daunting for the museum staff of eight to tackle on its own.
Aiding the museum’s expansion in downtown Owensboro is the ROMP Festival, an annual fundraiser for the nonprofit venue that celebrated its 15-year anniversary in June with a record 30,000 in attendance to see Alison Krauss, Rhiannon Giddens, Ricky Skaggs and others. Originally named the River of Music Party, Visit Owensboro reports the festival generates an economic impact of $2.8 million for the region, with those numbers expected to rise now that the museum is re-opened.
Throughout ROMP, typically held the final weekend in June, the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum partners with the city and Visit Owensboro to provide free shuttle rides to and from the festival. The shuttle lets festival goers explore the new museum and everything else downtown Owensboro has to offer, including the new O.Z. Tyler Distillery, which joined the Kentucky Bourbon Trail on June 1. To celebrate both their new statuses, the museum and the distillery have partnered on a special-label bluegrass bourbon, available only in the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum gift shop.
With its expanded exhibit and concert space, the museum plans live music every other week on a year-round basis with upcoming shows from The Del McCoury Band (Dec. 8), Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver: A Bluegrass Christmas (Dec. 15) and The Grascals (Jan. 19, 2019). For events now on its calendar, the museum already has ticket buyers from 23 states and 175 zip codes, illustrating that the hunger for bluegrass music is far-reaching and brings much needed tax dollars to the state.
On show nights, the museum plans to open at 6 p.m. prior to the 8 p.m. shows, with discounted museum admission on those nights. The museum has partnered with two new downtown Owensboro hotels, a Hampton Inn & Suites and Holiday Inn, to offer discounted admission and room rates for those looking to spend a night or two exploring the area.
For more information visit bluegrassmuseum.org.