Owensboro, Ky., is home to the International Bluegrass Museum and the site of the Blue Grass Boys' musical reunion.
"It's just like you going to a family reunion. I mean, we're all in the same family," Guy Stevenson says. "We was all taught by the same teacher."
Stevenson played with the Blue Grass Boys in 1973. Over the years, there were countless incarnations of the group that backed up Bill Monroe's singing and mandolin-picking. Between its formation at the start of WWII and Monroe's death in 1996, about 175 Blue Grass Boys wore the band's signature Stetson hats. This summer, the International Bluegrass Museum's annual ROMP Festival hosted a reunion for 29 of them. Before ROMP, many of those had never shared a stage together.
Monroe's band included some of the best bluegrass pickers, but not everyone was well-known when they first joined the group. Some couldn't even really play the instruments they were hired to play. Scottie Baugus, for instance, was 29 when Monroe tapped him to sing and play guitar. He had never before worked as a professional musician.
Once he was hired, Baugus says things were stressful — the band hardly ever rehearsed. At his first show, he got to see the set list only 20 minutes before stepping on stage. Luckily, he already knew all the songs from Monroe's recordings. Fiddler Wayne Jerrolds joined the band in 1988; his first gig was the next night at the Grand Ole Opry.
"Man, I got in there about to have a heart attack, 'cause I always wanted to do it," Jerrolds says. "And I thought, 'This is my big chance and I'm gonna blow it; I'll freeze.' But I made it through it. I had to take about three Xanax, or I couldn't have made it, to tell you the truth."
Some Blue Grass Boys are less reverential, like banjo player Curtis McPeak, who toured and recorded with Monroe in the early 1960s.
"I know the gentleman's name that started the name bluegrass music, and it wasn't Bill [Monroe]. ... I don't want to start a controversy," McPeak says. "It happened in the '60s, when it was branded bluegrass music."
All the same, Monroe's name has become synonymous with bluegrass, and he's responsible for linking the musicians gathered at this year's Blue Grass Boys reunion. They'll be featured together in a documentary about their boss, to be released next year for the centennial of Monroe's birth. About 75 Blue Grass Boys are still living. Many aren't well enough to travel, but others, like Guy Stevenson, are still playing music.
"You know, one of these days, we're gonna run out of Blue Grass Boys, 'cause there's never gonna be any more and we're slowly disappearing," Stevenson says.
Some Blue Grass Boys disagree and say there's still life left in the band: There's talk of a possible tribute tour next year in celebration of Monroe's birthday.