November 4, 2007
Bluegrass Music and Fan Tourism at Jerusalem Ridge

I wanted to start out this morning by writing about something close to my heart: bluegrass music, bourbon, and The Bluegrass State. I was reading an article from today's New York Times that dealt with a reporter's excursion for a tour of Kentucky, which ended up being on the front page of the travel section. And right there at the top of the story, by Steven Kurutz, was The Rosine Barn Jamboree, a landmark of my home county: Ohio County, Ky., "The Birthplace of Bluegrass Music," as it commonly called itself, and home to about 23,000 people.

The article chronicles a journey through bourbon country and distilleries throughout the state, which are mostly east of where bluegrass music was berthed. But the final piece of the article looks at their journey to the big Jerusalem Ridge bluegrass music festival and the many ways it tries to recreate the authenticity of yesteryear in celebrating the music, and the culture that inspired the music, of Bill Monroe and other bluegrass legends.

I have written in the past about fan tourism, using examples such as Fenway Park, which is particularly a propos now that our local Red Sox have gotten their second World Series Championship this decade.

Music provides a particularly rich media type to encourage this type of fan tourism, and the identity of whole cities--Memphis and Nashville, for instance--is built on this. The people of Ohio County have looked to do this for some time, trying to figure out the best way to capitalize on the rise of popularity bluegrass music has had in recent years and the number of bluegrass fans around the world. Owensboro, a much larger city nearby, had looked to take some of the lead on promoting bluegrass music, but the Jerusalem Ridge festival is one of the ways in which Ohio County has tried to capitalize on the Bill Monroe name.

The story emphasizes the way in which the experience was "authentic" in many ways, to use a couple of Joe Pine's buzzwords, as linked to above. Kurutz writes:

There was something decidedly old-fashioned about the festival, as if everyone had agreed to turn the clock back 50 years for a few days. The bands had names like the Kody Norris and the Watauga Mountain Boys and Larry Sparks & the Lonesome Ramblers, and the musicians dressed in flashy suits like Nashville stars from the '50s and sang lyrics like "I'd like to wander back to the old hometown."

At one point, Sheriff Doolin and the Magan Square Dancers held a square dance, and Chris and I watched in disbelief as a man in the audience wearing bib overalls and a long, hillbilly beard actually stamped his feet in a jig. But it never felt mannered. [ . . . ] The musicians and festivalgoers showed no signs of tiring. There was live bluegrass on the main stage and bluegrass on a second stage tucked into a shallow hill, and amateur musicians were huddled together wherever there was an open patch of ground, strumming and plucking and singing songs.

I first wrote about bluegrass music and its place in Kentucky culture in June 2006, writing about how the "blurring of the producer/fan/analyst line shows how we might be able to rethink and better understand how to frame the relationship between producers and fans. For all of the fans who go down to the barn on Friday night here in Rosine for our bluegrass jamboree, it's pretty hard to distinguish amateur from professional, and the heart of the music seems to lie in the community more than individual performers (save Monroe, of course)."

I know the story at least made me excited about the trip I have planned home for Christmas, and placement on the front travel page of the New York Times is prime placement to try and encourage greater fan tourism for Ohio County.