The Everly Brothers sang “A man in Kentucky sure is lucky to live in Bowling Green” in their 1967 hit "Bowling Green." Those lyrics still remain a source of pride for residents just as the words set the stage for any traveler who loves American music with deep roots. This small city owns an outsize place in the history of country, jazz, bluegrass, old-time music, gospel, and roots rock, as well as nurturing a vibrant current music scene. Exploring the creative past and present of this destination located an hour north of Nashville offers visitors a dynamic addition to favorite attractions such as the nearby National Corvette Museum and Mammoth Cave National Park.
In addition to Kentucky artists like the Everly Brothers and John Prine, the music world itself has paid homage to Bowling Green in more than a dozen songs made popular by artists from Louis Armstrong to the Beatles. There are “Bowling Greens” in other states, but it’s a good bet that a mention of Bowling Green in any song lyric from the vaudeville era on refers to the city in South-Central Kentucky.
As a one-time port town linked to the Ohio by the Barren River and at the convergence of major north-south corridors, Bowling Green has enjoyed two centuries as a location on performance circuits, creating opportunities for traveling musicians to perform and local musicians to be inspired by new styles. One of the most notable venues was the legendary Quonset Auditorium that hosted artists such as Chuck Berry, Bobby “Blue” Bland, James Brown, Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Mahalia Jackson, Etta James, B. B. King, Little Richard, Ike and Tina Turner, T-Bone Walker, Jackie Wilson, Cowboy Copas, Bill Monroe, and Ernest Tubb, as well as the host band, Joe Marshall and his Rovin’ Ramblers. Audiences uninterested in music and dance could delight in the antics of Jerry, the resident wrestling bear. The colorful history of the Quonset is celebrated in the documentary film Rovers, Wrestlers, and Stars: The Quonset Auditorium.
On the other side of town, an equally colorful site welcomed locals as well as travelers stopping over on the Dixie Highway. Lost River Cave is a picturesque and storied seven-mile cavern system that housed the Cavern Nite Club in the mouth of the cave from 1934 until 1962, with a dance floor naturally cooled by the flow of the Lost River and the cave air itself. There you could dance the night away to visiting performers such as Dinah Shore, Francis Craig and his ensemble, and the NBC Orchestra. In 1939, Billboard magazine described the venue as the only air-conditioned nightclub in the country. Currently operated as a nonprofit nature center, Lost River Cave now offers an underground boat tour on which visitors hear echoes of a wilder environmental and human history.
The elegant L&N train depot marks a spot where Bowling Green welcomed newcomers and bade farewell to departing travelers from 1859 to 1979. A notable regular passenger on the line was Ernest Hogan, who was the first African American to produce and star in a Broadway show and a major contributor to the immense popularity of ragtime music at the turn of the century. Born in 1865 in Bowling Green’s Shake Rag community, Hogan (born Ernest Reuben Crowdus) is now considered one of the originators of ragtime music. He is buried in the city’s Mount Moriah Cemetery, but the state marker honoring him is found, appropriately, on the grounds of the Historic Railpark and Train Museum.
Traveling circuses and tent shows once drew crowds to Circus Square, now a pleasant greenspace park hosting a summer concert series and the annual Bowling Green International Festival. Visitors interested in American musical history may envision bluegrass greats Flatt and Scruggs enthralling audiences on this very spot. Just across the way stands the handsome former Taylor Chapel AME Church; it is now home to a community kitchen facility connected with the adjacent downtown farmer’s market, but its brick walls once rocked to the beat of the irresistible gospel diva Sister Rosetta Tharpe and other greats of the golden era of black gospel.
Today, Bowling Green’s musical landscape boasts an array of locations, including the impressive downtown Southern Kentucky Performing Arts Center (SKyPAC) showcasing nationally known talent and the more intimate Capitol Arts Center, a repurposed 1890s vaudeville house and movie theater on the town square. The historic downtown venue hosts a Southern gospel series and is now home to Lost River Sessions LIVE!, a monthly concert highlighting regional Americana artists that is broadcast live on the WKYU-FM in conjunction with the Emmy Award–winning television show produced by WKU PBS.
The community reaps many benefits from the presence of Western Kentucky University. The venerable Van Meter Auditorium, built in 1912 as a keystone to campus, became the clandestine location for the first recording session of the smooth-singing Hilltoppers in 1952. Embracing its musical roots, it presents a full schedule of performances today. Just across campus, the Kentucky Museum produces grassroots musical events, often partnering with the Kentucky Folklife Program, and features the fascinating Instruments of American Excellence collection with items belonging to Charlie Daniels, Sam Phillips and Bowling Green native Sam Bush, a four-time IBMA Mandolin Player of the Year.
Bowling Green has long had an alternative musical vibe, part downhome, part progressive. Sam Bush’s former band, New Grass Revival, scandalized ’70s traditionalists with its blend of bluegrass instrumental virtuosity, jam-band flexibility, and heartrending r&b-inflected vocals. The Kentucky HeadHunters galvanized Nashville in the late ’80s with a fresh blend of country, rock power-chords, and good old-fashioned greasy blues guitar.
More recently, Nappy Roots offers rap with a filling side of grits and greens, while Morning Teleportation and Cage the Elephant vary up the old formulas of rock & roll meat-and-three from diners where the waitresses still call you “hon.” Songwriters Pat Haney, Chris Knight, Bill Lloyd, and Tommy Womack draw from a menu that is far more No Depression than Sing Out, and the eclectic Mt. Victor Revue serves up bluegrass instrumentation and pop favorites with more than just a dash of Django Reinhardt and Joe Venuti.
Many musicians return for the annual Jambodians Holiday Bash, an eagerly awaited fundraiser for local music education. The concert has welcomed back great musicians with local connections for more than seventeen years and offers a family homecoming concert displaying the unique, quirky spirit of the community. On a weekly basis, smaller venues offering high-energy shows and cultivating up-and-coming creatives include The A-Frame, Tidball’s, and FFOYA House.
If you like your music both hip and downhome, friendly and fun with a wry edge that may challenge you, c’mon to Bowling Green. Like many, you may find yourself coming back for seconds.