Revisiting Louisville's Bluegrass Hotel

by ekramer on December 19, 2008

In the 1970s, America was swept up in a counterculture movement — and so was Bluegrass music.  The epicenter for that music was in Louisville’s Cherokee Triangle neighborhood and now it’s the subject of a new documentary. WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer reports.

This 100-year-old, Victorian, red-brick mansion with its small porch and bay windows is on a quiet street next to Cave Hill Cemetery. It’s a fairly unassuming home today. But during the 1970s, it was the Bluegrass Hotel.

“When I bought the house in 1975 and guys from the Bluegrass Alliance started living here, then this became the center of the whole thing,” says Harry Bickel, a Bluegrass fan and banjo player. 

He owns the house, and “the thing” he’s talking about is a time when something called “New Grass” music was taking root. The Bluegrass Hotel was an informal boarding house for musicians, including members of the Bluegrass Alliance, a band that helped launch the careers of Vince Gill and mandolin player Sam Bush. They’d jam in the cavernous rooms on the first-floor and in the smaller bedrooms upstairs.

“This is where guys would practice their music,” he says in an upstairs room. “And there was a big sideboard over there, and we had all the stereo equipment there, and headphones and all that kind of stuff. So guys would sit here all day long practicing sometimes with tapes. And we’d jam up here some.”

Bickel says there were always musicians coming and going. Many paid upward of $35 a month — plus utilities. Others came with bands on tour and would crash for a few nights. There was a lot of beer flowing in those days and several eating contests involving White Castle hamburgers. Bickel says some mornings he woke up to find a dozen musicians sleeping on his living room floor.

Sam Bush says he remembers playing at the house day and night.

“To this day I don’t know if I’ve ever seen any healthier or, you know, more outgoing music scene than Louisville used to have,” Bush says.

The music scene included J.D. Crowe and the New South and rock bands NRBQ and Dusty, with Louisville native Tim Kreckel. And it influenced the music played at Bickel’s house. The musicians began adapting songs to Bluegrass from other genres. They played “Great Balls of Fire” and Paul Anka’s “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore.” Other genres also inspired New Grass Revival, a group of former Alliance members that formed in ‘71.

It was the New Grass Revival that helped introduce Bluegrass to a broader audience, says Neil Rosenberg who wrote “Bluegrass: A History.”

“They did a lot of things with their music that other people hadn’t tried in terms of arrangements and textures,” Rosenberg says. “They really brought more to the palette than had been there before. And they became role models for a lot of younger musicians.”

The music played by Bush and his cohorts — along with their long hair — caused a ruckus in the Bluegrass world.  The Father of Bluegrass music, Bill Monroe, said he would never book them at his Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival in Indiana. But this up and coming class of musicians were welcomed at other festivals, where they performed original songs and covers of popular hits, including the anti-war song “One Tin Soldier.”

Through the 1970s and ‘80s, the music caught on with crowds outside of Bluegrass world and with notable artists, including The Grateful Dead, Emmylou Harris and Lyle Lovett.

Through those years, Harry Bickel always welcomed them at his home.

Now, the history of the Bluegrass Hotel and its role in the birth of New Grass music is the subject of a film project with Kentucky Educational Television and PBS. Last week, producers and cameramen were in The Bluegrass Hotel filming interviews with Bickel and musicians with ties to the place. The documentary is slated to air next winter.

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