Native Bluegrass band, The Wooks, invites you into their southern town where the banjo is as satisfying as the BBQ and bourbon.
To the passerby, Owensboro, Kentucky is an unassuming hamlet tucked away in the Ohio river panhandle. But take some time to scratch beneath the surface, and you’ll discover one of the most bustling cultural epicenters that heartland United States has to offer.
“Owensboro is a place that always welcomes you with a smile, something good to eat and something great to listen to.” Arthur Hancock, lead singer of the bluegrass band The Wooks says “when you’re in Owensboro you might hear a banjo, perhaps a fiddle or two, but without a doubt you’re going to hear the sweet sounds of pure bluegrass.”
Cultured by a Tight-Knit Community
If you trace the long roots of the bluegrass genre all the way back to their origins, you’ll find yourself not far from Owensboro at the Rosine Methodist Church, where in 1923 a young boy named Bill Monroe learned to sing. (His birthplace is nearby as well.) Referred to affectionately by bluegrass lovers as “The Father of Bluegrass,” because he founded the very first bluegrass band in the 1930s, Monroe developed and perfected his craft over six decades. The list of musicians that were directly taught by this legend include Earl Scruggs, Lester Flatt, Sonny Osbourne, and Ricky Scaggs. Monroe would go on to manifest a genre that stretches far beyond the reaches of his native Owensboro County, having been born and raised on a farm in Rosine, just outside of the city.
The tradition of foot-stamping jams and catchy riffs that Monroe created, and Hancock continues, is part of what bonds Owensborians together so tightly. “With bluegrass you’re gonna get some gospel, some blues, a little Scots-Irish fiddle, tin pan alley tunes and early country. Bluegrass takes a community to build, it encourages participation, which is why it’s so perfectly ‘Owensboro’.”
The birthplace of the legendary Bill Monroe, “The Father of Bluegrass”
Where Delicious Traditions Live On
“Owensboro does [barbeque] in a unique way, which is barbequed mutton… As people began to settle along that beautiful bend of the Ohio River, mutton was plentiful. Old Hickory Bar-B-Que has been operating for over 100 years, and they’ve got the best Burgoo in town—a blend of three barbequed meats—it’s sweet and delicious. Stop by O.Z. Tyler Distillery and see Jacob, a third generation master distiller, to wash down that succulent mutton with a little rye whiskey,”
Hancock says. The Miller House, a stunning 1905 downtown estate operating as a fine dining establishment today, is also a perfect place to mull over 300 bottles of gleaming caramel-colored whiskey in their basement bar. Or, if smaller collections are a little less intimidating, the Bulleit Bourbon Bar inside the Owensboro Convention Center offers 40 whiskeys to choose from, including exclusive limited vintages.
So what does the future hold in store for Owensboro and The Wooks? “We’ll be performing at the new Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum in Owensboro, Kentucky”, notes Hancock. The museum just underwent a fifteen-million dollar addition, with performance and exhibition spaces all dedicated to the unique genre. “I think it’s a game-changer,” offers Hancock, “and quintessential for this region.”
The Wooks taking a tour at the O.Z. Tyler Distillery
Finally, a Place That Loves its People
And it’s not just the investment by the city that keeps Owensboro culture intact—it’s the people. Hancock pauses for a moment, contemplating the band’s goals. “It would be the hope of The Wooks that we might inspire future generations to play, to celebrate, and to simply embrace bluegrass. After all, it’s for everyone, and every story.”
Not unlike Bill Monroe years before him, Hancock is part of a larger story. Fiddle and banjo-carrying hopefuls flocked to Owensboro in the 1950s to learn the proper chords of bluegrass from the Father of the music himself. Today, the new Bluegrass Museum carries on that same tradition by offering a “Bluegrass in the Schools” program, which teaches elementary students of 23 local schools the foundations of the genre as well as how to play the instruments. The Wooks represent a chapter in the rich and welcoming history of a small town with a big personality. A place that loves its people, its mouth-watering mutton, and, of course, its music.