OWENSBORO, Ky., is famous for two things - bluegrass music and barbecue. The city holds a barbecue festival each May that attracts thousands. Says Burley Phelan, the dapper executive director of Owensboro's tourism commission: "It isn't just barebcue. It's barbecued mutton. Owensboro barbecues more mutton than probably any other U.S. city. Some folks say, `Mutton?! Ee-yew!' But most of the time they can't tell its flavor from beef."
Owensboro has more barbecue restaurants than most other cities, compelling restaurateur Ken Bosley, owner of the Moonlite Bar-B-Que to boast, "We use 20,000 pounds of meat a week for barbecue, and we don't think there's any other restaurant using that much. Ten thousand pounds of it is prime-grade mutton - very popular with Kentuckians and with visitors from out of state. With visitors, we usually give 'em a sample of mutton, telling 'em it's beef - then when they say how good it is, we say it's mutton."
He adds with a wink, "Of course, sometimes we switch 'em around, just to keep folks on their toes."
The Moonlite is extremely popular, and whoever goes there to eat must be prepared to wait. But ask anyone leaving the huge, sprawling, barnlike restaurant how the food is, and you'll probably see rolling eyes and an ecstatic expression.
I have always thought that barbecue in general was overrated - and saw no reason to change my mind as I sampled different kinds. But the Bosley family - who own the restaurant - gave me a new outlook. Their excellent, tangy sauce is also sold in certain supermarkets and at the restaurant. The family started the barbecue place in 1963, and have expanded several times.
As for Owensboro's other chief attraction, bluegrass music was introduced to Kentucky by octogenarian Bill Monroe - and that very gentleman appeared at the International Bluegrass Festival in 1993, along with such bluegrass stars as Alison Krauss and Union Station, Laurie Louis and the Osborne Brothers. Thousands jam the riverbank each night for evening festivals. Daytime is packed, too, unless it rains - which it did for the last festival. …