Owensboro, Kentucky-the Land of Bluegrass and Barbecue

Tracey Teo

In Owensboro, the only thing as smokin’ hot as the barbecue is the bluegrass music scene. With the 20th annual ROMP music festival just around the corner (June 21-24), there’s no better time to head south to this western Kentucky town where the meat is cooked slow and the pickin’ is lightning fast.

 ROMP Music Festival

Owensboro is to bluegrass music what Nashville is to country music. Kentucky’s music epicenter may not be as famous or as glitzy as its Tennessee counterpart, but bluegrass enthusiasts from around the world flock to the “Bluegrass Music Capital” every summer for ROMP, a four-day music festival at Yellow Creek Park that celebrates bluegrass, roots, and Americana.

Headliners this year include Molly Tuttle, the singer and guitarist who just won a Grammy for her third solo album, “Crooked Tree,” Old Crow Medicine Show, Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, and Peter Rowan, newly inducted into the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame.

Most folks can’t resist dancing (sometimes clogging) to the fast-paced rhythm, and that works up an appetite. Follow your nose to barbecue vendors selling tangy ribs and pulled pork sandwiches.

Single-day, four-day, and VIP tickets are on sale now. On-site RV and tent camping passes are available. rompfest.com 

Bluegrass Bonanza

If your Owensboro visit doesn’t coincide with ROMP, no worries. There are plenty of places where you can get your bluegrass and barbecue fix year-round.

Start at the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

 Here’s a typical scene.  A visitor picks up a banjo and starts pickin,’ attempting to emulate Earl Scruggs’ hard-driving, three-finger style. The distinctive ringing twang reaches the ear of another bluegrass lover, and she starts strumming a mandolin. A fiddle player joins in, and soon the impromptu ensemble is in the middle of a full-blown jam session.

It's possible because the stringed instruments at the museum entrance are meant to be played, not viewed as hands-off artifacts.

Visitors embark on a musical journey that starts at The Dawn of Bluegrass exhibit. It chronicles the history of the music from its nascence in the early 1900s to the proliferation of festivals in the 1960s, and into the modern era, highlighting contemporary newgrass bands that infuse their music with rock and pop.

 Bluegrass as a genre was born on December 8, 1945, at the Grand Ole Opry, a live weekly radio show in Nashville, when Bill Monroe’s band The Blue Grass Boys unleashed their “high lonesome sound.” Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass, was born in the nearby hamlet of Rosine. His mandolin and a vintage show poster are on view.

My Bluegrass Story, one of the newer exhibits, is named after the 13-episode TV series that launched in 2021 on RFD-TV and includes artifacts from artists who appeared on the show. Check out Rhonda Vincent’s bespoke sequined blue dress she wore when she was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry.

The second level houses The International Bluegrass Music Association Hall of Fame, a pantheon of bluegrass “gods” featuring rows of plaques commemorating their achievements.

Catch a bluegrass performance at the museum’s Woodward Theatre or the outdoor stage that overlooks the Ohio River. bluegrasshall.org

For a night on the town, head to Brasher’s Little Nashville. This new bar and music venue is quickly becoming one of the hottest places for live music in Owensboro.  Local and regional bands play a variety of musical genres, and the music always spills into the street, just like it does from the famous honky tonks on Broadway in Nashville. If you think you’ve got the chops, make an appearance on open mic night. brasherslittlenashville.com

Big on Barbecue

At Moonlite Bar-B-Q Inn, the enticing aroma of hickory-smoked meat greets diners the moment they walk through the door. Since 1963 the Bosley family’s restaurant has been smoking ribs, beef, and chicken, but it’s the obscure barbecue mutton (sheep) that has drawn accolades from far and wide.

Sample all these options at the two buffets. Don’t overlook the burgoo, a hearty meat stew that’s unique to Kentucky. After a couple of trips to the buffet, most diners sigh and say they can’t eat another bite. Then, they head back for a slice of homemade buttermilk pie.

Join a pit tour to see the source of all that smoky goodness. Skillful pitmasters work round the clock to produce tender, juicy meat for the 350-seat destination restaurant that is practically an American institution. moonlite.com

Old Hickory Bar-B-Que is another old-school icon. There’s no buffet, but you can still get a mountain of mutton with Southern sides and a steaming bowl of burgoo.

The secret to the flavorful meat is it’s cooked for 22 hours and basted with a cooking dip from an old family recipe.

Barbecue enthusiasts disagree about whether barbecue should be sauced or sauce-less, but in the end, it’s a personal preference. If you are in the saucy camp, this joint has a few to choose from.

Old Hickory Bar-B-Que sauce is mild with a pinch of spice. The acidity from the vinegar-based sauce complements the meat but doesn’t overpower it. For more of a kick, slather on John’s Sweet Heat. oldhickorybar-b-q.com

In Owensboro, barbecue feeds your body, and bluegrass music feeds your soul.