There is no sign on the city limits proclaiming Owensboro the “Bluegrass Music Capital of the World.”
But what is now the Owensboro-Daviess County Convention and Visitors Bureau has been working since 1985 to make that dream a reality.
And last week, thousands of bluegrass fans from at least 32 states descended on Owensboro for the 18th annual ROMP Fest at Yellow Creek Park – despite the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.
Several publications in recent years have called Owensboro the capital of bluegrass.
ConventionSouth magazine named Owensboro its “Small Market of the Month” for August.
The article read, “Known as the bluegrass capital of the world, Owensboro is a live music fan’s dream. Pair it with Green River Distilling Co. bourbon and a hickory-smoked barbecue, and you’ll have a great time.
Rolling Stone magazine said there were seven “must see places country music fans should visit now.”
And Owensboro is one of them.
This summer’s article said, “What this western Kentucky town lacks in fame, it makes up for with music. As the home of the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum, this is the perfect place to tap into the roots of country music.
Mark Calitri, CVB President, said: “Owensboro’s reputation as a staple of bluegrass music has grown dramatically in recent years. Rolling Stone magazine recognized Owensboro for its Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum, calling it a “flagship attraction,” as well as the city’s proximity to Nashville, the country music capital of the world. Now is the time to take advantage of this national recognition.
The magazine article published earlier this year read: “You can visit Owensboro on a day trip from Nashville if time is of the essence, but spending the weekend allows you to stay for the Friday concert series afterwards. 5 “.
In 2018, Brand USA selected Owensboro as one of its 10 Best American Music Cities.
“Pivotal moment”Calitri said the city is at “a pivotal point on the path to potentially even greater success.”
He said, “With another downtown hotel on the way, our path to success must continue to be an aggressive approach to attracting hotel groups, which generate the greatest economic impact for all of our tourism partners. Successful communities focus on attracting our most profitable ideal customers.
To achieve this goal, Calitri said the people of Owensboro “need to do more than just believe or accept that they live in the bluegrass music capital of the world. Owensboro residents must learn to appreciate this title, and for even greater long-term success, they must learn to rely on it.
When Chris Joslin, executive director of the Hall of Fame, came to Owensboro in 2015, one of the first things he said was, “Our goal is to make Owensboro the bluegrass music capital of the world. It is already becoming a destination city. There is a lot of energy by the river. We want to capitalize on the theme of bluegrass and barbecue.
Last week, he said, he hopes to help the city become a “must see” destination.
“It all sounds like fuel for the economic engine of cultural tourism,” he said. “If I had to use one word to describe Hall of Fame and Owensboro right now, it would be ‘momentum.’ Now is the time to capitalize on this momentum.
Joslin said, “Owensboro is named after some of the most visited cities in the country. Fifteen million people visit Nashville each year, and music is the primary driver. Can you imagine the economic impact if only a fraction of these visitors decided to take a trip to the Bluegrass Music Capital of the World as part of their musical adventure? It is an economical game changer.
No more music needed
Calitri said more bluegrass music is needed year round
One of the keys to long-term success, he said, is “consistent music programming throughout the year and more concerts.”
Calitri also said Owensboro could capitalize on its success by hosting “more iconic bluegrass-themed events in 2022, including auto shows and bluegrass-themed music contests.”
With Andy Brasher’s Lil ‘Nashville, a bar with regular performances by country and bluegrass musicians, opening downtown this fall, the city will have another venue for bluegrass musicians to play, he said.
The ROMP is over this year, but Calitri said: “Nobody should be pushing the brakes. Everyone should get the engine running, come up with some ideas to keep the momentum going. “
In March, the Hall of Fame hosted the 47th Official Kentucky State Violin Championship in town, with the intention of making it an annual event.
“We have already built a name for ourselves and we are on a train moving forward,” Calitri said. “We see great artists performing here, not just at ROMP, but regularly at the Bluegrass Museum. We want to encourage more of the community to embrace the asset we have. This creates a huge economic impact, attracting more people to our city to support our small businesses, restaurants and overall economic growth. “
Last year, when ROMP was canceled for the year, Joslin said the festival represented about 15% of the Hall of Fame’s operating budget.
Impact of over $ 1 million
It also injects between $ 1.6 million and $ 2.2 million into the local economy each year, he said.
This includes approximately $ 150,000 in goods and services that the Hall of Fame purchases from local suppliers.
“ROMP is an economic engine for the region,” said Joslin.
Last November, Andrew Davis, a national consultant, spoke with the Greater Owensboro Chamber of Commerce.
He advised community leaders to find a “flag” around which they could rally to promote the community.
Cities that boast of being the capital of the world for something do better economically than those that don’t, he said.
Someone asked him which flag he would recommend.
Davis said he couldn’t imagine anything other than bluegrass.
Almost a year later, community leaders have taken no action to create a brand – a flag – for Owensboro.
But the CVB took the idea and used it.
On September 10, 1985, what is now the CVB announced an ambitious plan to make the community synonymous with bluegrass.
Terry Woodward, who was then chairman of the board, said local officials had been working behind the scenes for two years with bluegrass professionals in several states to create a professional association.
This was the first step in the commission’s program, which included the association’s headquarters in Owensboro, the establishment of a local bluegrass festival, a trade show, a national awards show and a bluegrass hall of fame.
Fairly ambitious, people said.
After all, “bluegrass” wasn’t exactly a household word in Owensboro.
But Bill Monroe, “the father of bluegrass music,” was born and raised in Rosine, just down the street in Ohio County.
And Owensboro was the logical choice to be the bluegrass capital of the world, board members said.
From September 20-22, 1985, the city’s premier bluegrass festival – “Bluegrass With Class” – drew over 8,000 people from seven states to a free event at English Park.
On October 16, 1985, the International Bluegrass Music Association was formed in Nashville by the Tourism Commission and 56 other organizations.
Four months later he moved to Owensboro.
In 1987, the IBMA took over the festival, calling it Fan Fest.
And it has drawn fans from as far away as Sweden, South Korea and Canada.
The first IBMA fair in September 1987 attracted 350 people and 34 exhibitors.
In September 1990, Vince Gill and John McEuen hosted the first IBMA Awards in the Showroom Lounge at the Executive Inn Rivermont.
And in September 1992, the tourism commission’s ultimate goal was achieved with the opening of a preview version of the Bluegrass Museum in the new RiverPark Center complex.
In 1996, IBMA’s Homecoming Week drew nearly 10,000 people from 48 states and over a dozen countries.
The economic impact of IBMA week has been valued at $ 2.5 million.
But there were complaints that the event overtook Owensboro.
IBMA has moved
So in 1997, citing problems at the Executive Inn, the IBMA moved the Fan Fest to Louisville.
And in 2003, the organization moved its headquarters to Nashville.
“We have been victims of our success,” said Woodward. “When they left it was a bit sad. But the museum is still there.
And the ROMP, created by the museum, has grown bigger than the Fan Fest has ever been.
In recent years, it has attracted over 27,000 fans from all over the world.
In 2012, the ROMP was named “Event of the Year” by the IBMA and in 2015 the Hall of Fame received the Distinguished Achievement Award from the IBMA.
The Hall of Fame drew 35,329 people from 47 states and 15 other countries in its first year of operation before COVID-19 hit.
They came from Australia, the Netherlands, France, Canada, England, South Africa, Germany, Brazil, Ecuador, Belgium, Austria, Ireland, Israel, Switzerland and New Caledonia to visit the $ 15.3 million facility.
“The future is bigger”
Joslin said the future is “bigger than a flagship event like ROMP. We need to attract more bluegrass related businesses. How do you create the right environment to attract instrument makers and retailers? “
The Hall of Fame has taken over the publication of Bluegrass Unlimited, the most popular magazine of its kind.
Joslin said the Hall has “the ability to help emerging artists record and direct videos. There are all kinds of opportunities. We can use the Hall of Fame as a destination and build around it. But we need to involve more business leaders.
He said: “The Hall of Fame is going to play nationally and internationally. I would love for the city to take this to heart.
Joslin said the community might consider an artist relocation program like Paducah’s.
Without bluegrass, the RiverPark Center might not have been built.
When the Kentucky General Assembly allocated $ 4.5 million to help build the performing arts center in 1988, much of the legislative support rested on the complex would include a bluegrass museum.
This summer, the Hall of Fame premiered a 13-episode television series, “My Bluegrass Story,” which is slated to begin airing on RFD-TV in November.
Joslin said the 30-minute shows will serve as a marketing tool for the Hall of Fame and the community.
He said he expects the new series to bring more people to Owensboro to visit the Hall of Fame and attend ROMP in the future.
The episodes will also be available to stream anytime after they appear on the network, Joslin said.