Hardworking Kentuckians needed an outlet for all of life’s frustrations. They channeled their feelings into banjos, fiddles and mandolins. The result is the birth of bluegrass and Appalachian folk music, which continues to influence American music today.
Groups can discover Kentucky’s toe-tapping musical heritage at attractions across the state, from the Kentucky Opry in the Appalachian Mountains to the birthplace of the father of bluegrass in western Kentucky. At the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame, visitors can follow the state’s musical contributions over the decades.
Tours at these trademark music attractions showcase the state’s musical past and harmonious present.
Mountain Arts Center
Historic Appalachian instruments line the lobby walls at the Mountain Arts Center in Prestonsburg. The Cedar Coal exhibit also gives context to the location with historic memorabilia from the region’s coal camp towns from the 1900s through the 1960s.
The exhibits set the stage for the music that visitors hear in the performing arts center. The 1,046-seat theater houses the popular Billie Jean Osborne’s Kentucky Opry.
The show uses only local talent. Part of the center’s mission is music education, with almost 200 students enrolled in an arts education program. Ages 7 to 18, the young people show what they have learned for the center’s Kentucky Opry Junior Pros performances.
Groups can learn about the center’s music initiatives and other facts on a backstage tour. Local comedian Freddie Goble, known as Munroe, starts the visit with a few laughs. The center can also arrange a meet-and-greet with the cast for an interactive experience.
After the tour, participants can sit back and hear bluegrass, gospel, rock and country songs in the same vein as the Carolina Opry.
The in-house productions change each year with new themes. The Kentucky Opry formed in 1990 and has always spotlighted eastern Kentucky talent. The troupe moved into the Mountain Arts Center in 1996.
The Mountain Arts Center offers other concerts throughout the year. Past musicians to grace the stage have included Dwight Yoakam, Loretta Lynn, George Jones and Patty Loveless.
Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and Museum Renfro Valley Entertainment Center
The most common emotion for people visiting the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and Museum is surprise. Not many people realize the extent of Kentucky’s musical roots, though they might have heard that Loretta Lynn was born in Kentucky. But the museum also showcases lesser-known facts. Two of the Backstreet Boys, for example, hail from the Bluegrass State.
The museum offers group tours for more personalized experiences Guides provide tidbits about each of the stars, and exhibits display interesting items, such as Lynn’s purple sequined gown, the Osborne Brothers’ banjo and Yoakam’s skintight jeans.
Other exhibits highlight the careers of Kentucky natives Billy Ray Cyrus, the Judds and Rosemary Clooney, among others. The tour begins with a presentation about the museum and its induction process.
Groups have the option to listen to a live music performance before strolling through the exhibits. One exhibit follows Kentucky’s evolving music timeline from the 1750s to the present.
The building chosen for the 2002 Kentucky Music Hall of Fame and Museum once served as John Lair’s horse stables. Lair founded Renfro Valley in 1939 when he began broadcasting his own radio program to promote Kentucky music.
The nearby Renfro Valley Entertainment Center keeps his tradition alive with regular live bluegrass, gospel and country music performances. Two theaters offer guests a chance to hear live music every weekend from April through December. The complex also houses a shopping village for music-themed and locally made items.
Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum
The Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum not only educates visitors about music but also lets them pick up an instrument and play. Even if members have never touched an instrument, the Saturday Lesson music program pulls people out of the crowd and teaches them a song. The hands-on experience shows that with a little quick training, everyone can make music.
Originally called the International Bluegrass Music Museum, the rebranded institution moved a few blocks away from its initial venue in 2018 to allow more room for exhibit space, a full-sized concert theater, an outdoor concert space and a restaurant. The $15.3 million venue hosts regular concerts.
New inductees chosen by the International Bluegrass Music Association line the walls each year. Groups can learn about these bluegrass pioneers with recorded interviews, videos, memorabilia and interactive kiosks. The museum also honors any music with bluegrass roots, which encompasses a lot of Americana genres.
Guided tours, jam sessions and events can complement a tour. The three-day Romp Festival each June is a popular time to come and listen to award-winning artists.
Norton Center for the Arts
You might not think a town with a population of almost 17,000 would draw musical giants. However, Dolly Parton, Yo-Yo Ma, ZZ Top and other music legends have held the limelight at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville.
Part of the prestigious Centre College, the center hosted both the 2000 and 2012 Vice Presidential Debates. The 85,000-square-foot complex contains two theaters: the 1,470-seat Newlin Hall and the intimate 367-seat Weisiger Theatre.
Groups can watch Broadway productions, classical concerts or famed singers, depending on the center’s event schedule. Upcoming events for the 2020/21 season will be announced in June. Recent and upcoming performances include the Broadway production of “Finding Neverland,” the Shanghai Ballet and Alison Krauss.
Acclaimed performances are just the starting point of an experience at the Norton Center for the Arts. The center engages participants directly with jam sessions, panel discussions and workshops. Guided tours go behind the scenes and reveal the center’s architectural significance.
Designed by William Wesley Peters, a famous architect and apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright, the Norton Center exemplifies organic architecture. Tours point out the center’s hexagonal shapes, bold colors and playful use of natural light.
Groups can choose their own beat in Louisville’s downtown. The city offers a wide range of musical styles, including classical, blues, big-name concerts, free waterfront concerts and other local bands.
Fourth Street Live is a popular place for groups to spend free time on their own search for music. The 350,000-square-foot entertainment and retail complex off Fourth Street offers outdoor concerts, venues for local musicians and rocking shows at the Hard Rock Café. Live music is also featured nightly at Howl at the Moon.
Just a short walk from Fourth Street, guests can access Main Street’s musical offerings, such as nightly blues at Stevie Ray’s Blues Bar. Major artists like Bruce Springsteen, Beyoncé and Taylor Swift frequent the Yum Center.
Groups can also treat their ears to a classical production with the Louisville Orchestra. The company performs classical pieces and pop culture favorites like John Williams’ “Star Wars” theme.
Bill Monroe Museum
Rarely has one person been inducted into so many Halls of Fame. Bill Monroe is not only known as the Father of Bluegrass, but he was also inducted into the Rock and Roll, Country Music and Bluegrass Music halls of fame. Fans can appreciate this influential musician at the Bill Monroe Museum.
The museum opened in 2018 in Monroe’s hometown of Rosine. Tours that provide information about his life are often conducted by townspeople who knew Monroe personally.
The exhibit starts with Monroe’s childhood and then focuses on how he formed the Blue Grass Boys band in 1938 and how that birthed a new genre of music. The last car he drove, his porch swing, the last mandolin he ever played and other memorabilia are on display.
The museum sits across the street from the Rosine Barn Jamboree, which regularly features live bluegrass. Groups can listen to some upbeat music at the local venue to appreciate the art form.
Rosine remains an authentic rural town, similar in look and feel to when Monroe lived there. Group leaders can work with the Ohio County Tourism Commission to add live music performances.