Say “Kentucky” and a couple of things leap to mind: the Kentucky Derby, bluegrass music and bourbon, of course. Dig deeper and you’ll find the state known as “the most northerly of the southern states and the most southerly of the northern states” offers so much more.

Beautiful Louisville, the state’s largest city, is home to the Muhammad Ali Center. Muhammad “The Greatest” Ali made his mark in the professional boxing ring as the motor mouth World Heavyweight Champion who changed his name from Cassius Clay, defected from the Christianity of his youth to Islam, and refused to be drafted to serve in Vietnam. You might remember his verbal barrages mostly about how beautiful he was and how no one could beat him. You might have found all that a little hard to take. The “sweet science” – as boxing is called – does not enjoy universal appeal.

But touring the Muhammad Ali Center and reflecting on the man’s career and personal philosophy in the context of his times, you could be in for a surprise. You might come away realizing that Ali was fighting more than the other guy in the ring. He was fighting a deeply entrenched racism that taught him, and millions with his skin colour, that white was preferred and black was not and that he could never achieve anything of significance.

The surprisingly spiritual Muhammad Ali Center tells the story of a life where the boxing career was merely the vehicle that carried the man into the history of human rights. Six core principles (confidence, conviction, dedication, giving, respect and spirituality) were Ali’s compass through a turbulent career that saw him achieve the highest honours in his sport only to have it stripped by a hostile establishment. In a sense, Ali committed the gravest sin of all: he insisted that his society live up to its own principles.

The Center’s focus is on global ideas, on his philosophy, his approach to life and his humanitarian outreach as an ambassador of peace, of social justice and of spiritual growth. Many of the displays are interactive: Muhammad Ali became popular as television was coming of age, so much of the man’s history revolves around the media, including both his sports and humanitarian works.

Give yourself a lot of time and be prepared to do a lot of reading and reflecting. Odds are you won’t come away unchanged.

Then there are those things that resist change, including bluegrass music – more or less the invention of home son Bill Monroe (1911-1996), “The Father of Bluegrass.” His High Lonesome tenor voice and mandolin virtually defined this genre, which, though modernized, retains a purity and commitment to its legacy of storytelling via mandolin, banjo, fiddle, guitar and stand-up bass (the classic bluegrass ensemble).

In bluegrass, the playing is tight and precise. The harmonies high and close. It’s a high wire act – in the right hands – a choreography of harmony, rhythm and melody. The city of Owensboro is home to the International Bluegrass Music Museum, a lovingly told tour through its origins featuring extensive archival exhibits – including a gallery of concert posters, displays of original instruments and concert wardrobe. Every summer, the museum hosts ROMP, Bluegrass, Roots and Branches Festival which brings home one of the most endearing qualities of bluegrass: the down home interaction between performers and audience.

 Also worth a Kentucky visit:

  • Paducah, at the confluence of the Tennessee and the Ohio Rivers, was defined by the great flood of 1937. The floodwalls protecting Paducah have been transformed into more than 50 massive concrete murals that offer a visual tour through the history and culture of the region. After touring the floodwalls, stop for lunch at Doe’s Eat Place for one their famous salads or massive steaks (plan for leftovers).
  • The National Quilt Museum in Paducah displays full-size and mini works of fabric art. If you admire obsessive dedication to exquisite detail, you’ll love the artistry created by the world’s best quilt makers.
  • Churchill Downs, the historic racetrack where they run the Kentucky Derby, can be explored through a museum, featuring an in-depth history of horse racing and its political, social and cultural history, or the backside tour where you’ll see the infield, the paddocks and the business of training and racing thoroughbreds.