The History of the International Bluegrass Music Museum
By Fred Bartenstein, Lance LeRoy & others
Bluegrass music arose in the late 1930s and early 1940s. It took much the form it has today between 1945 and 1947, when the classic edition of the Blue Grass Boys included Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, Chubby Wise, and Howard Mills. Use of the term “bluegrass” to describe the sound first occurred in the mid 1950s, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that bluegrass came to be viewed as an independent genre rather than a part of country or folk music. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the notion of a “home” or “museum” for bluegrass wouldn’t have much traction until the middle 1980s, four decades after Bill Monroe started putting the style together. And although the history, board and management of the museum is indeed separate from that of the trade association for bluegrass music, their histories are closely interwoven as follows...
The International Bluegrass Music Association was founded at meetings in Nashville during June and August of 1985. Its board of directors immediately accepted an offer from the City of Owensboro, Kentucky to locate its office there. After locating in Owensboro in 1985, an annual trade exposition (1987) and awards show (1990) for the music industry were established there, and space was set aside in the RiverPark Center for an International Bluegrass Music Museum (incorporated as a nonprofit organization in 1991). Ralph Stanley and Ricky Skaggs were honorary co-chairs of the initial fund raising campaign, and Peter Kuykendall of Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine rallied support from the rest of the industry. The State of Kentucky came on board with significant financial support, and soon a high-quality, two-story museum complex began to take shape, with the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and the Bill Vernon Collection of recordings as its crown jewels.
Major historians, patrons, long-term fans, and performing artists pitched in to contribute attractive displays, collections, and interpretive materials that were both authoritative and engaging. A steady stream of visitors from the entire world began to make pilgrimages to Owensboro, the International Bluegrass Music Museum, its gift shop, and attractions in nearby Rosine which chronicle the Monroe family, Bill Monroe’s childhood, musical influences, and his grave. Early staff leaders at the Museum included Tom Adler, Bill Evans, Beck Glenn, and Chuck Hayes.
In 2002, the International Bluegrass Music Museum engaged in its first strategic plan. The board established as a Vision: "to be the world center for the presentation of the history, culture, and future of bluegrass music" and as a Mission: "to develop and maintain an environment in which people of all ages can discover the richness of bluegrass music through an exciting and educational experience."
It became clear that it would take more than a building in Owensboro for the Museum to achieve its lofty goals. Ambitious programs were launched. One was the Video Oral History Project (chronicling several hundred pioneers of bluegrass while they are still with us to tell the creation story). Another was the River of Music Party (ROMP), an extravaganza event that combines amazing live performances, film, food, a gathering of legends, and participants from all over the world in indoor and outdoor locations for four days every June. A third was the Bluegrass In The Schools Project (BITS) which ensures that thousands of young people in Western Kentucky learn about the living legacy of bluegrass and have their first intimate contact with its instruments. A fourth was an annual Monroe-Style Mandolin Camp at which the leading proponents of the bluegrass mandolin impart its secrets to select apprentices from emerging generations. A fifth was Radio Bluegrass International (RBI), a 24-hour internet radio station. There are still other projects, and details about them can be found elsewhere on this site.
Although the International Bluegrass Music Association moved its headquarters to Nashville, Tennessee in 2003, the International Bluegrass Music Museum remained in Owensboro. Under the executive leadership of Gabrielle Gray since January 2003, the museum has become a magnet, a leader, and the essential force in the world for preserving and interpreting a vital and growing cultural form. Barely an adolescent, the museum already has an impact far greater than its physical space, small staff, and limited budget would imply. What does the future hold? Dream with us, become a member, visit, and pitch in your hand toward building that future.
"The International Bluegrass Music Museum is of tremendous importance in establishing the prestige and preserving the history of the music."
Lance LeRoy, Hall of Fame Member
"Bluegrass has a rich and colorful history. Our people are a collection of humor, tragedy, romance, sorrow and every other story you could imagine. The fabric of some fascinating stories is portrayed at the IBMM and it's a place as vital to securing our music's future as it is in preserving our history."
Dan Hays, IBMA