The Bluegrass Video  Oral History Project

Photo by Jamie Alexander

When Terry Woodward was inducted into the IBMA’s Bluegrass Hall of Fame in 2018 his primary involvement in the world of bluegrass was listed as “Volunteer Leader.”  That is an understatement.  If you know anything about Terry’s involvement in bluegrass music over the past forty years, you know that bluegrass music would not be where it is today without Terry Woodward.  Without Terry’s energy, expertise, leadership skills, and financial support the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA), and the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum may not exist.  The Bluegrass Video Oral Histories, which contain hours-long interviews with 264 of the first-generation bluegrass performers would not exist either.

Listing all of Terry’s tremendous contributions to the world of bluegrass music would take up too much space in this short article.  Those who are interested in learning more about Terry can read his biography, along with those of all of the other Bluegrass Hall of Fame inductees, on the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum website (bluegrasshall.org).  This article will focus on the Bluegrass Video Oral Histories.

The Bluegrass Hall of Fame and Museum first opened in Owensboro, Kentucky in 1995, but the museum was small due to the lack of funds.  By 2002 sufficient funding had been received from the state of Kentucky to expand and upgrade the museum.  When the new and improved museum opened in 2002, the living legends and pioneers of bluegrass music were invited to a grand opening luncheon.  Many of the top names in bluegrass music attended the event.

At some point during the luncheon, Sonny Osborne said, “The stories the people in this room could tell!  It is a shame that we don’t have the stories down on tape.”  Terry Woodward heard this and thought that Sonny was right.  Terry, who was the IBMA board chairman from 1986 to 1989, remembered the storytelling sessions that were part of the IBMA convention when it was held in Owensboro.  He thought that it would be a great idea to capture this kind of bluegrass history before more of the pioneers of the music passed away.  At the next IBMA board meeting, Terry brought up the idea of documenting the stories of bluegrass pioneers on video.    By 2003 funds were raised and the project was launched.  

Terry mentions that a special thanks is owed to the Marilyn & William Young Foundation, of Owensboro, who offered a large contribution towards this effort.  Also helping to get the project off the ground was the museum’s Executive Director Gabrielle Gray and her husband, videographer Joe Gray. Joe was willing to travel to the homes of the interviewees and provide consistency to the format.

When the new museum opened in 2002, a panel of bluegrass experts came up with a list of people who they identified as the pioneers of bluegrass music.  The people who were to be interviewed for the Video Oral History Project came from this list.  All totaled, there were 264 people interviewed for about 160 separate video projects.  Some people were interviewed by themselves while others were interviewed in groups (as bands)—for instance all of the McCormick Brothers were interviewed together.  

Each person and/or persons being interviewed was given the opportunity to suggest the person that they felt would be the best interviewer.  Usually, this was a person who was well acquainted with the interviewees career in bluegrass.  Most of the interviews were about two hours in length.  Some were longer—such as the Earl Scruggs interview, which lasted seven hours. 

Some of the interviewer/interviewee pairs included Herb E. Smith interviewing Ralph Stanley, Josh Graves interviewing Kenny Baker, Jerry Douglas interviewing Josh Graves, Fred Bartenstein interviewing Carlton Haney, Herb E. Smith interviewing George Shuffler, Eddie Stubbs interviewing Earl Scruggs, Lance LeRoy interviewing Curly Seckler, Tim O’Brien interviewing Everett Lilly, Lance LeRoy interviewing Jimmy Martin, Ronnie Reno interviewing James Monroe, Eddie Stubbs interviewing Bobby Osborne, Tom Riggs interviewing Sonny Osborne, Mike Seeger interviewing Hazel Dickens, Eddie Stubbs interviewing Mac Wiseman, Alan Munde interviewing Byron Berline, Chris Jones interviewing Tom T. and Dixie Hall, Tim White interviewing Tater Tate, Fletcher Bright interviewing Roland White, and many more.

Once all of the footage was captured, the next step was editing.  This would require a talented editor.  It would also require time and cost money.  Again, Terry Woodward was able to come up with a solution.  Terry said, “I attended Wendell Ford’s funeral (2015).  He was a US Senator from Owensboro.  A lot of politicians and Ford family members were in attendance.  The person who gave the eulogy was a man named Terry Birdwhistell.  I thought to myself, ‘Who is Terry Birdwhistell?’  He wasn’t a politician.  He wasn’t a family member.  I wondered why he was the one called on to give the eulogy.  Two weeks later I was attending a University of Kentucky basketball game.  I am a graduate and a supporter of the school.  The school president invited me and other donors to a gathering.  I walked in the room and I see Terry Birdwhistell.  Still curious about the Wendell Ford eulogy, I asked him about it.”

JD Crowe being interviewed for the Bluegrass Video Oral History Project. Photo by Chris Joslin
JD Crowe being interviewed for the Bluegrass Video Oral History Project. Photo by Chris Joslin

It turns out that Birdwhistell holds the position as the Senior Oral Historian at the University of Kentucky’s Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History.  He was invited to give Wendell Ford’s eulogy because he had interviewed Ford for an oral history project at the university and knew everything about him.  During the conversation, Terry Woodward told Birdwhistell about the bluegrass oral histories project and that the goal of the project was to have the video footage edited and in a format that could easily be made available to visitors to the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Owensboro.

Birdwhistell explained to Woodward that the university had developed a video index system that made it easy for a viewer to identify, find, and watch any part of a video that they desired to see.  Terry’s question for Birdwhistell was “Can we work together?”  Birdwhistell said that the university had oral histories relating to other subjects that have made Kentucky famous—bourbon, horses, politicians—but nothing for bluegrass music.  Birdwhistell offered to edit, digitize, and archive all of the videos for free if the bluegrass museum board would agree to allow the videos to be viewable to researchers at the University of Kentucky Libraries.

The next step was for Doug Boyd (the director of the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History) to meet with Terry and iron out how the work was to be accomplished.  The partnership has been quite beneficial to both the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum and the University of Kentucky’s Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History.   The current Executive Director of the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Chris Joslin, said, “Dr. Boyd and UK have been great partners in digitizing and indexing our collection and ultimately making it accessible through four kiosks at the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum in our 2nd floor exhibit area near the IBMA Hall of Fame exhibit.”  To date, about 81 of the oral video histories have been edited.  

These fascinating oral histories serve as a valuable capturing of the history of bluegrass music.  Thanks to hard working people like Terry Woodward, the legacy of bluegrass can be handed down from one generation to another.  Terry said that there are plans to continue this project in the future with more interviews.  Since the beginning of his involvement with bluegrass music in the early 1980s, Terry Woodward says that he has had two goals.  The first was to enhance bluegrass music and the second was to increase tourism in his hometown of Owensboro, Kentucky.  

I’m thinking that the way that all bluegrass fans can help pay Terry back for everything that he has done for the music we love is to come to Owensboro, visit the museum, take in all of the exhibits and sit down at a kiosk and watch some of these fabulous bluegrass video oral histories.   

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