Skip to site content
Group Travel Leader Group Travel Leader Group Travel Leader

Kentucky: In an artist’s hands

Courtesy Renfro Valley Entertainment

From the eastern hills to the western riverbanks, music, arts and crafts have made their mark on Kentucky culture. A thriving cultural heritage is one of the most enticing aspects of a visit to Kentucky.

The Bluegrass State lends its name to bluegrass music, a style born in rural parts of the commonwealth that has become the most iconic form of American folk music. Today’s visitors can explore the roots of bluegrass music in the western regions of the state or hear great musical performances nightly in parts of southern and eastern Kentucky.

Crafts and visual arts also play a big role in the state’s cultural scene. Generations of artisanal tradition in the Appalachian Mountains have left the state’s eastern areas rich with handcrafters. There’s also plenty of modern artwork to discover in the studios of Louisville and Paducah’s collection of contemporary quilts.

Wherever your group travels in Kentucky, you’ll find artistic reminders of the area’s past and present close at hand.

International Bluegrass Music Museum
Kentucky takes its nickname from a particular variety of grass that is said to have a bluish hue under the setting summer sun; bluegrass music is named for its origins in the rural parts of the Bluegrass State.

Groups can get an introduction to the roots of this influential style of folk music at Owensboro’s International Bluegrass Music Museum.

“Bill Monroe is considered the father of bluegrass music, and he was born just about 30 minutes away from where the museum is now,” said Gabrielle Gray, the museum’s executive director. “Our focus is to gather, record and preserve the history and artifacts of bluegrass music.

“Bluegrass is an international genre with strongholds in about 75 countries, so that’s quite a daunting task.”

Bluegrass is a relatively young genre, and many of the first generations of bluegrass musicians are still alive. The museum has conducted more than 240 professional video interviews with early innovators of bluegrass, and footage from those sessions gives visitors a first-person perspective on Kentucky’s musical roots.

The museum also showcases a number of important bluegrass artifacts, such as “Uncle Penn’s” fiddle.

“It was Uncle Penn who taught Bill Monroe to play bluegrass music,” Gray said. “Bill learned all of the fiddle tunes from his uncle, and then transferred them to the mandolin.

“He then started combining them with the blues, gospel and mountain music, and he amalgamated all of this into a very fast style of music.”

Groups visiting the museum can plan to have a private concert with the house band or have a hands-on mandolin workshop. Many groups complement the museum with a tour of the Monroe home place in nearby Rosine.

Renfro Valley
Fans of both music and crafts will find plenty to get excited about at Renfro Valley Entertainment Center, about an hour south of Lexington. The complex developed from a homegrown performance venue to become one of the state’s foremost destinations for traditional music.

“Renfro Valley started with the Renfro Valley Barn Dance in 1939,” said director of sales and marketing Craig Barnett. “That old barn is still standing today, and all of our Renfro Valley shows still take place there. It has the original woodworking and the original stage.”

The Barn Dance is still the keystone event at Renfro Valley. Every Friday and Saturday evening, the house band and special guest musicians gather to perform traditional country and bluegrass music, as well as some comedy.

Many of the songs at the Barn Dance date to the 1930s to 1950s. After the traditional Barn Dance, the Renfro Valley Jamboree begins, with performers playing their favorite contemporary country songs.

Another popular performance is the weekly “Renfro Valley Sunday Morning Gathering.” This gospel music show, one of the oldest continuously broadcasted radio programs in the country, is played on 150 stations worldwide.

The center’s music lineup also features regular concerts in the New Barn Theater, a state-of-the-art facility that hosts national touring acts. Among the performers scheduled this year are the Oak Ridge Boys, Charlie Daniels, Ricky Skaggs, Ronnie Milsap, Clint Black, George Jones, Crystal Gayle and Marty Stuart.

Although music is a big part of the appeal at Renfro Valley, groups will find plenty of other things to enjoy on the property.

“We have a shopping village with 14 unique stores,” Barnett said. “One sells homemade quilts, another homemade candles. We have a working gristmill and a country store.

“We also have the Back Porch Smokehouse, which specializes in smoked meats and homemade desserts.”

Groups can eat on-site at the historic log Lodge Restaurant with its “boardin’ house” dinners.
Music lovers should also visit the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and Museum, located next door to the Renfro Valley complex.

National Quilt Museum
Paducah, on the Ohio River in far western Kentucky, has fostered a growing reputation as an arts destination in recent years. Much of the artistic buzz began when local entrepreneurs and quilt show enthusiasts built the National Quilt Museum downtown in 1991.

“It’s a museum whose collection is focused on contemporary quilts, from 1980 forward,” said executive director May Louise Zumwalt. “We have exhibits of all kinds of quilts — antique, contemporary, traditional and avant garde. But the quilts that we collect and own are contemporary.”

On an average day, visitors will see about 150 quilts on display in the museum’s three galleries. One of those galleries always features selections from the permanent collection, the second holds rotating themed exhibits from the main collection, and the third hosts temporary traveling exhibitions.

The collection comprises work by fabric artists from 46 U.S. states and nine foreign countries. Among those are a fair number created by Kentucky quiltmakers; others deal with the history of the state, such as Abraham Lincoln’s Kentucky childhood.

Although the idea of a quilt museum may conjure ideas of log-cabin-style tradition, Zumwalt says that groups are often surprised by the creativity on display at the museum.

“People have an image in their minds of their grandmother’s quilts. But what we really have here is an art museum that is made up of fiber art,” she said. “Many of these quilts were never created to be on a bed; they were made to be shown. They have a quality and a design technique that you would consider art.”

Groups visiting the museum with advance arrangements get a guided tour through the galleries, in addition to the opportunity for behind-the-scenes tours with a curator or a hands-on quilting workshop.

Mountain Arts Center

Traditional music, art and craft come together with contemporary entertainment at the Mountain Arts Center in Prestonsburg in eastern Kentucky.

“We’re a performing-arts center and a tourist destination,” said Keith Caudill, the center’s executive director. “We do large touring events, but we also serve as a destination with our in-house programming.”

The flagship program at the center is “Billie Jean Osborne’s Kentucky Opry,” a Branson-style variety show that features music and comedy performed by locals from around eastern Kentucky. The show features primarily country music but also touches on classic bluegrass and gospel tunes, in addition to a patriotic theme at the end.

The center is also home to the “Kentucky Opry Junior Pros,” a show whose cast members fall between 6 and 21 years of age. Together with the main “Kentucky Opry” show, the program gives local folks an opportunity to hone musical skills and earn a living by performing near home and creates opportunities for tourism in the area.

Another program, “Front Porch Picking,” gives groups an opportunity to experience traditional Kentucky mountain music.

“It’s an open mic format for acoustic musicians,” Caudill said. “Anyone can get up and sing or play, or join in and play along with the singers. We’ll have anywhere from 25 to 50 musicians on the stage at one time, everyone just playing and singing and having a good time.”

In addition to musical performances, the Mountain Arts Center has an art gallery, a collection of rare musical instruments and an exhibit based on life in an old-time eastern Kentucky coal camp.

Mellwood Art Center

For nearly all of the 20th century, the Fischer Meat Packing Co. was a stalwart of Louisville industry. After it closed, locals repurposed the building and turned it into Mellwood Art Center, a place where modern art and craft take center stage.

“We have over 200 working artist studios,” said Scooter Davidson, executive director of sales and marketing at Mellwood. “They are set up with big windows so that even if the artist isn’t present in the studio, visitors can walk through and see art of all different kinds, like pottery, jewelry and fabric.”

The artists’ studios surround a courtyard, where visitors will find artwork for sale in addition to an outdoor cafe. Three galleries at the center allow opportunities to exhibit work by resident artists.
The majority of artists working at Mellwood come from Kentucky, and they represent a variety of both fine arts and traditional crafts.

“I would say it’s about half and half here,” Davidson said. “There are quite a few painters here, as well as mixed media and Kentucky crafts like jewelry making, pottery and furniture making.
“I have a fellow here who makes musical instruments and two women who do cloth weaving and dyeing.”

During group visits, Mellwood staff can take travelers on tours of the center or give them time to shop on their own. With advance planning, the staff can set up in-studio artist demonstrations or interactive workshops.

More on Kentucky:

In an artist’s hands
Paducah named best of the best
Where sports win, place and show!

Head for the park
WEB EXCLUSIVE! Kentucky Hot Brown Recipe

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.