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Kentucky Storytellers: Music

Growing up on a farm outside of Bowling Green, Sam Bush was surrounded by music.

“My father played the fiddle and a little bit of mandolin, and my mother played guitar,” said Bush, long one of the country’s most celebrated bluegrass musicians. “I was lucky to grow up in a household where music was loved and encouraged.”

By the age of 11, Bush had picked up the mandolin himself, adding fiddle by 13 and guitar whenever he was lucky enough to sneak his sister’s instrument out of her room. By the age of 15, he was named the U.S. national junior fiddle champion, a title he went on to claim three years in a row.

Bush’s early music influences included mandolin greats Bill Monroe and Jethro Burns and fiddlers Tommy Jackson and Byron Berline, but also, equally, rock guitarists Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix.

After high school, he got a gig with a band called the Bluegrass Alliance in Louisville, then split off to form his deeply influential, progressive group New Grass Revival, which performed together between 1971 and 1989 and is credited for creating an entirely new genre of bluegrass dubbed “Newgrass.” In the decades since, Bush has enjoyed a highly productive solo career, partnering with the likes of Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett, Bela Fleck and now his own Sam Bush Band.

As one of the leading figures in bluegrass for more than four decades, Bush has his share of accolades, including four Mandolin Player of the Year awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA), an Americana Music Association Lifetime Achievement Award and, perhaps his favorite honor of all, a spot in the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame.

“To be included in the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame, you can’t imagine how good that feels,” said Bush, who is based now in Nashville but gets back to Kentucky often. “Another time I was honored on the Kentucky State Senate floor, and, of course, growing up a kid from a tobacco farm, I never thought I’d be in that room. It was pretty overwhelming.”

Bush’s talent continues to place him at the top of his industry. His Sam Bush Band received nominations for both Entertainer of the Year and Instrumental Group of the Year at this year’s IBMA awards, and he was nominated again as Mandolin Player of the Year.

Part of what keeps him going strong is knowing that each time he picks up his instrument, he’s helping share a little piece of Kentucky with the world.

“As part of being a Kentuckian, just the word bluegrass is a magical word to me, and it always has been,” he said. “As much as anything, the word does mean our heritage and our state. To be thought of within that framework is a pretty great goal to have achieved.”

Renfro Valley Entertainment Center

Located in Renfro Valley, just off Interstate 75, the historic Renfro Valley Entertainment Center has welcomed fans of country music, bluegrass and Southern gospel since its founding in 1939. The 90-acre complex includes two show theaters, two recreational vehicle parks and a shopping village. Travel packages for motorcoaches and large groups are available. Upcoming headliner concerts include Tanya Tucker and Trace Adkins, as well as the Oak Ridge Boys Christmas concert.

Kentucky Music Hall of Fame

Located in Mount Vernon, just minutes from the Renfro Valley Entertainment Center, the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame opened in 2002 and now features more than 50 inductees. Exhibits there celebrate Kentucky natives or musicians with Kentucky roots from across all genres of music: Loretta Lynn, Sam Bush, John Michael Montgomery, Naomi and Wynonna Judd, Rosemary Clooney, the Everly Brothers and many more. Visitors can also learn about the history of Kentucky music generally, from its earliest roots in the 1800s to today.

Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum

In Owensboro, the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum tells the story of the genre that’s synonymous with Kentucky through exhibits that celebrate the musicians and artifacts that have played key roles in its development and popularity. Self-guided tours offer access to permanent collections, rotating exhibits and the Hall of Fame itself. Galleries include “Sources of Bluegrass Music,” “Dawn of the Bluegrass Era” and “Modern Roots and Branches,” offering a comprehensive look at where bluegrass started and where it’s going.

Country Music Highway Museum

The Country Music Highway Museum, on U.S. 23 in Staffordsville, Kentucky, features more than a dozen exhibits showcasing memorabilia from the many country music stars that hail from portions of Kentucky near U.S. 23, dubbed the state’s “Country Music Highway.” Among the artists spotlighted at the museum are Lynn, Gayle, Chris Stapleton, Dwight Yoakam, Billy Ray Cyrus, Tom T. Hall, Keith Whitley, Ricky Skaggs, Patty Loveless and The Judds. Every Thursday, the museum hosts live bluegrass music and dancing as part of its Front Porch Pickin’ concert series.

Loretta Lynn Homestead

Fans of the “Coal Miner’s Daughter” will want to make a pilgrimage to see her childhood home of Butcher Holler in Van Lear, just north of Pikeville. Visitors can tour the cabin in which she and her sister, fellow singer Crystal Gayle, grew up and view authentic artifacts such as the family’s original washboard and porch swing. Groups can also stop at nearby Webb’s General Store, run by members of Lynn’s family, for sandwiches and souvenirs.