Keep On Shining: The Bluegrass Legacy Of Kentucky
Grass in the ‘bluegrass state’ of Kentucky is not blue. There is not a hint of azure, cobalt or even cerulean in the smooth poa pratensis that you see growing on lawns and meadows around here. It’s just green, like everywhere else. But if anyone should ever dare let their lawn grow wild and unmanicured, to around two or three feet, then when spring turns to summer, they would soon see the seed heads that give the plantae its name.
“An unmown field of seeding poa pratensis waving in a June breeze is unmistakably blue,” wrote a Kentucky-based reader into the New York Times in 1993. “If it appears otherwise, something is wrong with the eye of the beholder, and he or she should consult an ophthalmologist.” For an entire state to be named after such a romantic reverie of how wild and poignant the world can be if we would just leave it alone now and again goes a long way to explaining the melancholic yet frenetic essence of bluegrass music.
They say the sound came down from the Appalachian Mountains: a mixture of folk songs from the Scottish and Irish settlers, mixed with the banjo playing of the black labourers working on the railroads. “Add in the harmonies and call-and-response of the Baptist Church, the thumb-picking guitar and down-home lyrics of Depression-era old-time and country music, the improvisation of jazz,” wrote Tony Rehagen for The Bitter Southerner. “Speed it up like a moonshine runner’s car, and you have something that speaks directly to a mountain boy’s soul.”
You play bluegrass with a banjo, guitar, fiddle, bass and mandolin. Anything else is not bluegrass. It’s an entirely acoustic music; amplification is deeply frowned upon. And there is a core repertoire of songs that all lovers know by heart, almost like hymns. You don’t get many ‘Hey baby!’ lyrics in these hymns. “Death,” replied one expert, when I asked him about the most common lyrical themes. “Death or drinking. Bluegrass is a lot like opera: everybody dies and never pleasantly.” And when you sing these lyrics, you do so in a tall and plaintive style; what’s commonly known as “the high lonesome sound.”
What’s the difference between bluegrass and country? There is a distinct bluegrass atmosphere that is hard to put your finger on, sort of sad and lonely yet desperately happy to be alive. It’s nostalgic and whimsical, like you’re listening in on an old man’s daydreams as he rocks on a porch chair in the afternoon sun.
The bluegrass style spread throughout America from the 1940s onwards. While studying it for Esquire in 1959, the legendary folklorist Alan Lomax described it as the “freshest sound” that “played on the heartstrings of America.” It would go on to infiltrate seminal artists like Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead, whose endless jams were inspired by the free-flowing nature of the genre. But the spiritual home of bluegrass would always remain Kentucky, at the altar of its homegrown inventor: Bill Monroe. And that’s why I’m here in Owensboro, Kentucky: to visit the city’s 21,000 square feet Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum, which tells the story of this ethereal folk tradition from past to future.
The people of Owensboro assure me that the city is built upon three Bs: barbecue, bourbon and bluegrass. I tasted the bourbon at O.Z. Tyler Distillery, where their experimentations are creating whole new flavours. Then I found barbecue, up on West Parrish Avenue at Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn, where I ate hickory smoked mutton with the co-owner Pat. His family have run this joint since the 1940s. From Presidents to Hollywood actors, everyone passes through Moonlite. During the Cold War, two Russian diplomats came for lunch to sample “real America”. Pat is serious about mutton. Before I leave, he even recommends me a book called Much Ado About Mutton.
It’s easy to see how Kentucky’s heritage of barbecue and bluegrass entwine. Both are communal and informal activities without too many rules or distinctions. When I walk into the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum at 6pm, the staff are sat in a circle, jamming on banjos, guitars, bass, fiddles and mandolins. These instruments hang on the walls and anyone is allowed to just pick one up and join in. Which they do, every day, giving the museum the feel of a never ending thumb-picking jamboree. There’s even a classic recreated bluegrass bar where visitors can jam.
“The core bedrock repertoire of material enables bluegrass musicians to just get together and jam,” explains Chris Joslin, the executive director. “We have international people come in here all the time who I can’t speak English with, and I say ‘Blue Moon Of Kentucky?’ and they nod and we start playing. If you can play two chords, you can join in a bluegrass jam.”
One of the biggest misconceptions that the museum looks to tackle early in the exhibition is that bluegrass is just pure white Americana - hillbillies, hayseed and overalls. In fact, the genre has a distinctly multicultural background. Streams from blues, jazz, gospel and ballads all fed into this bluegrass river, along with the aforementioned folk traditions of Scotland and Ireland. Bill Monroe often cited the black fiddler and guitarist, Arnold Shultz, as one of his key influences. And even the world famous Nudie suits, worn by so many bluegrass and country stars on shows like the Grand Ole Opry, were the vision of a Ukrainian Jewish immigrant called Nuta ‘Nudie’ Kotlyarenko. Bluegrass may remain a distinctly rural American sound, but it’s one that thrums with diversity.
Now, as the museum displays through posters and videos, this quintessential Kentucky sound has spread across the world. In Japan, the bluegrass tradition is thriving. Even Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of Mario, The Legend of Zelda and Donkey Kong, is a confessed bluegrass superfan. Each year, Owensboro welcomes thousands of visitors from across the globe to ROMP Fest, a knees-up celebration of all of bluegrass’ roots and branches, and one that gets bigger and bigger each year. Along with the appeal of bourbon and barbecue food, Owensboro is fast becoming a pilgrimage stop for American South culture fans.
In fact, Owensboro at large can often feel like one never-ending music jam. As I leave the museum and head down to watch the sunset over the swampy Ohio River, a summer tradition called ‘Friday After 5’ is in full flight. Thousands of people of all ages flood up and down the riverbanks, visiting the numerous stages on which musicians play everything from heavy metal to soul to, yes, bluegrass. Hot food and cold beer is flying out of the door, an axe-throwing competition has kicked off, and bikers are revving their neon-lit Harleys, freshly polished for the onlookers.
The sun goes down, the moon rises and the party continues, now at the furthest stage along the riverbank, where a DJ caters for the younger audience. Just like the grass, the moon is not blue, as Bill Monroe insisted in his classic ‘Blue Moon Of Kentucky’, but I have to give it to him: it certainly is a-shining bright.
Owensboro’s Must Sees
Reid’s Orchard: A picturesque family-run farm on the edge of town where visitors are invited to pick their own fruit and try homemade ice cream.
The Miller House Restaurant: A restaurant and live music venue in a traditional old Kentucky house. Downstairs in the basement, you’ll find one of the most astounding bourbon collections in America.
Owensboro Museum of Fine Art: Beyond bluegrass, Kentucky has a long tradition of people picking things up and trying to make something interesting. This museum explores that deeply with a big focus on outsider art made in the local area.
Bill’s Restaurant: This independently owned restaurant has an eccentric and talented chef who cooks forward thinking American cuisine with local produce.
For more information, please visit visittheusa.co.uk/music and visitowensboro.com.
Words and Photos: Joe Zadeh
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