For this series, we’ll be following Paste’s own Curmudgeon, Geoffrey Himes, as he sets out on a massive road trip across the South, exploring musical landmarks, traditions and history along the way. First stop: Rosine, Ky.
Bluegrass is usually associated with southern Appalachia, the mountains between West Virginia and Georgia, where so many of its major figures lived. But the music was created and given its name a good distance from those mountains, in western Kentucky where the dark green grass does seem to have a blue tint when the sunlight hits it a certain way. That’s where Bill Monroe was born and raised.
That’s where young William, the youngest of eight children, learned Anglo-Celtic fiddle tunes from his Uncle Pendiver, who raised Bill after his parents died, and blues from Arnold Schultz, the African-American railroad worker who was passing through town. Eventually Bill would quit the old-time country duo with his older brother Charlie and fuse those fiddle tunes and blues into a revolutionary music that brought high-speed virtuosity to the old string-band instruments.
My traveling companion Ben and I were on a quest to find where it all started. We had begun our trip in Baltimore, had spent a wonderful evening and morning in Louisville, and now were tramping up a long one-and-a-half-lane blacktop in Rosine, Kentucky, looking for Bill’s childhood home. We climbed one ridge, found Charlie’s retirement house, went down a slope, climbed Pigeon Ridge, followed the curving ridgetop and more than a mile later, there it was—the green-and-white-painted home with the sandstone chimney and stone-slab walkway to the wide porch.
You could easily picture young Bill and Uncle Pen sitting on that porch after a long day of farm chores, picking out the notes that seemed all the sharper amid the immense stillness of the isolated ridgetop. It was the middle of February, so we were up there alone, and all we could hear was the wind whistling through the bare winter trees on the steep slope to the creek bed below. But what impressed us the most was just how far removed we were from the outside world.
When we walked back to the highway and crossed the railroad tracks (that perhaps Arnold Schultz had worked on) and then drove into the tiny hamlet of Rosine, we realized how far young Bill would have had to walk to the nearest store. It was the kind of isolation that gives rise to radical innovation, of complete breaks with conventional methods. But it can also engender a deep nostalgia for a lost world once one leaves home to work in the big towns and small cities of the South. Virtuosity and nostalgia have been the twin poles of bluegrass ever since.
A block from the two stores on the crossroads that constitutes Rosine even today is the Rosine Cemetery. It’s easy to find Bill’s grave site in the small burial ground, for its white obelisk towers above the more humble markers. Charlie’s grave is nearby, and so are the tombstones for many other members of the Monroe family. But Bill’s is an ornate affair with the obelisk, a bas-relief plaque of Bill and his favorite dog Scotty and a short biography carved into the horizontal slab above the casket.
Bill had “a rare musical genius and the willpower and determination necessary to bring his music to millions of fans around the world,” the slab reads. “For many of those fans and for all of us who are members of his family, Bill Monroe is bluegrass music! Walk softly around this grave for my father Bill Monroe rests here as the blue moon of Kentucky shines on.” It was signed, “Son, James William Monroe, 1997.”
From Rosine we drove north through rolling hills and winter meadows little changed since Bill’s adolescence in the 1920s. The dilapidated trailers and bungalows indicated that the region’s persistent poverty hasn’t changed much, either. Before long, the lovely farmland gave way to the garish plastic signage of strip malls along Highway 231. We eventually pulled into Owensboro, Ky. and parked by the front door of the International Bluegrass Museum. I thought such parking spaces only happened in movies.
Executive Director Chris Joslin met us and showed us around. Though the museum was founded in 1991 by members of the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA), then based in Owensboro, it only opened to the public in 1995. The current space became available in 2002 and its new permanent home—still in Owensboro—is scheduled to open in 2018. An independent entity from the IBMA, the museum is still a fledgling, small-budget operation, but it has its rewards.
Most importantly, the museum contains the Bluegrass Hall of Fame. Along a curving wall, the 50 copper-colored bas relief plaques honor all the genre’s legends, beginning with Bill Monroe, inducted in the initial class of 1991 and continuing through Monroe’s banjo whiz Bill Keith, inducted in 2015. The 2016 inductees, Byrds guitarist Clarence White and the founders of Rounder Records, will be hung on the wall during the museum’s annual June event, the ROMP Festival.
What I most like about music museums are one-of-a-kind artifacts, and though this museum is still a bit light on such objects, it does have some impressive items. Pete Seeger’s Vega Longneck banjo is there, with the head inscribed “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender,” a variation on Woody Guthrie’s guitar which read, “This machine kills fascists.” J.D. Crowe’s longtime stage banjo is on display and so is the first fiddle ever “sawed on” by Monroe’s longtime fiddler Kenny Baker.
A temporary exhibit on Dixie and Tom T. Hall, who wrote dozens of songs recorded by bluegrass artists, includes handwritten lyrics, the small table where they would leave drafts of the lyrics they were co-writing for each other and the Wollensak Tape recorder that Tom T. used to demo his most famous songs. A temporary exhibit on Dailey & Vincent includes five Grammy awards and 13 IBMA awards.
But the best artifact of all is Uncle Pen Vandiver’s original fiddle from the earliest part of the 20th century and the small, hand-carved cedar chest that served as its carrying case. Here was the instrument that first made Bill Monroe fall in love with music, that partially inspired him to create the sound that changed American music forever. Next to the glass case is a video monitor that showed the best fiddlers in Nashville playing the recently restored instrument and talking about what it means to them.
As we left the museum, we drove west on Second Street, parallel to the banks of the Ohio River, and three blocks down Second there was the steel-girder skeleton of the new museum taking shape. With its handsomely rounded front atrium, it seemed a potentially impressive building.
Owensboro is known for something else besides bluegrass music, and that’s mutton barbeque. Only in that region is sheep meat popular for slow cooking. So we stopped at the renowned Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn. The mutton has a strong taste, more like venison than beef, and it’s not for the faint of stomach, but I loved it and had seconds. But Moonlite has a buffet with seven different kinds of barbeque, plus a salad bar, cornbread, biscuits and many Southern vegetable dishes and desserts—all for $15.25 on weeknights.
Western Kentucky is often overlooked in histories of American culture, without big cities, mountains or the Mississippi River to call attention to it. But it was here that an important chapter in American music was written. And it’s here that the strangest barbeque you’ll ever taste is cooked.