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Owensboro Students Find Their Roots With 'Bluegrass in the Schools'

Joe Corcoran, WKU Public Radio

Owensboro is stepping up its mission to become the nation’s bluegrass music capital. Construction of a new downtown performance center and museum is set to start this spring to go along with the city’s thriving local music scene.

Also, a program in local schools is looking to create new fans for bluegrass long into the future.

At Sutton Elementary in Owensboro, 400 students recently sat cross-legged on the cafeteria floor. They clapped along to a bluegrass band called the Rigs. The band performed as a part of a program created by the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro.

It’s called Bluegrass in the Schools, and it’s been bringing the music to students since 2003.

Tom Stites, the fine arts coordinator for Owensboro Public Schools, said the goal of Bluegrass in the Schools is to encourage a new generation of bluegrass fans and musicians and performances like this make the most of a unique Kentucky heritage. “It’s a chance for our children to connect with their culture, because the bluegrass roots run so very deep here," he said.  "And it’s not part of what our children experience every single day in their lives. I think it’s important that they continue to be connected with their background and where bluegrass came from.”

Stites maintains that connection gets stronger when people meet the musicians in person. “The bluegrass museum does an awful lot of things in our community that are outreach oriented and this just helps give them that authentic feel within our schools," he said. "It’s wonderful to bring outstanding musicians like this. Let the kids see them up-close and personal.”

That's just the kind of musical communication that Chris Joslin loves to see and hear. Joslin is executive director of the bluegrass museum and hosted the recent session at Sutton Elementary. He’s also a musician who’s performed on the bluegrass circuit and says this is exactly where the seeds of bluegrass are planted and nourished. “It’s a great opportunity not only share bluegrass music with these kids but try to inspire them to get involved, to participate," he said. "That’s where bluegrass is best enjoyed, as a participant.”

Joslin thinks Bluegrass in the Schools complements the region’s growing visibility as an international showcase for Kentucky’s signature genre of music. “Rightly so, I think it’s fitting. Obviously, with Bill Monroe’s homeplace just being right down the street. And music is alive and well here. So I think this is a great place. And bluegrass needs a capital city, and since we’re the only museum on the planet dedicated solely to collecting and preserving and celebrating the artifacts of bluegrass music, as well as the current artists and the future of it, I think it makes a lot of sense.”

Many of these elementary school kids say they already play instruments. Some may one day perform at the new venue in Owensboro that will house the International Bluegrass Music Museum and Hall of Fame and a state-of-the-art performance center.

Groundbreaking for that project is in May, with target completion in late 2017. It attracts visitors from across the nation and world. Last year, visitors came from 22 different countries.

At Sutton Elementary, and other schools in Daviess County, organizers of Bluegrass in the Schools hope the music will entice new fans and grow bluegrass’s roots deeper in Kentucky.

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