Summer is nearly here and that means that bluegrass festival season is upon us. This summer is especially exciting for bluegrass fans, promising (fingers crossed) a full line up of festivals for the first time since 2019. For fans, including bluegrass pickers and singers from the casual to the professional, there is nothing like getting together with friends and fellow musicians for a long weekend of outdoor music, both on the stage and in the campgrounds. In a prior post on jam sessions, I noted that bluegrass festivals are social events as much as musical gatherings: “Likely there are old friends that you see every year at a particular festival. Making music with them can be part of the pleasure you find in their company.”
The bluegrass festival scene as we know it today evolved over many years. Outdoor bluegrass music shows in park-like settings date to the beginnings of the music in the late 1940s and early 1950s, before festivals themselves began. Automobile travel increased following the end of the gas rationing that accompanied World War II, and rural attractions of all kinds again became economically viable. Outdoor country music parks were especially popular in the 1950s. These tended to be located in rural settings that were accessible from major cities. Two of the best known in the east were Sunset Park, in Oxford, Pennsylvania, and New River Ranch, in Rising Sun, Maryland. They were located near each other just off US 1, a main north-south artery in the pre-interstate highway days. Sunset Park and New River Ranch were within driving distance of Baltimore, Washington DC, Philadelphia, and even New York City if one was willing to endure a longer trip. In the early 1950s, Bill Monroe purchased his own country music park, the Brown County Jamboree, located in Bean Blossom, Indiana. Neil Rosenberg’s memoir, “Bluegrass Generation,” contains a detailed description of Monroe’s Jamboree as it was in the early 1960s when Rosenberg managed the park and played banjo with the house band.
Country music parks typically operated on summer weekends and holidays and often featured a country music headliner from Nashville with local or regional talent opening the shows. In the days before bluegrass became recognized as a genre separate from country music, bluegrass stars often headlined at country music parks. These events had certain of the formal and social aspects that now characterize bluegrass festivals: music was performed on an outdoor stage, fans would come for the day to meet with friends and picnic on the grounds, sharing meals with friends and sometimes with performers. But these outdoor shows were not bluegrass festivals as that term is currently used. In “Bluegrass A History,” Rosenberg explains that it was then unusual for more than one bluegrass headliner to appear at a show at a country music park, because the conventional wisdom “was that a second bluegrass band would draw no more people than the first, whereas another kind of country music would attract its own (and different) audiences.” And because of the competitive nature of some bluegrass performers, there was uncertainty whether they would agree to perform on the same bill.
The first event that challenged this conventional wisdom was a one-day concert staged on July 4, 1961, by bluegrass and folk singer Bill Clifton at Oak Leaf Park, a country music park in Luray in southwestern Virginia. It was an all-bluegrass show, including the Country Gentlemen, Jim and Jesse, Mac Wiseman, the Stanley Brothers, Bill Monroe, and Clifton himself. Because of its all bluegrass lineup, Luray is considered to be the first bluegrass festival, although it was not held on more than one day. (Some years ago I heard on the radio a recording of the Country Gentlemen performing in 1960 at what was described by DJ Gary Henderson, an expert if ever there was one, as an event very similar to the Luray show held the following year. I have not learned any other details about the 1960 event, including whether it, rather than Luray, should be considered the first one-day bluegrass festival.) Luray also became notorious in bluegrass legend because the Stanley Brothers and Bill Monroe made some joking references, which were recorded, to the absence of Flatt and Scruggs, who apparently had been unwilling to appear on the same show as Monroe and the Stanleys.
One of the attendees at Luray was Carlton Haney, who was then managing the Reno and Smiley band. In September 1965, Haney produced the first multi-day bluegrass festival, held in Fincastle, Virginia. The 1,300 or so diehard bluegrass fans who found their way to the horse farm where the festival was held later came to realize that they had been present at the start of something very special. Haney viewed Bill Monroe as central to bluegrass, and at the festival he produced a living bluegrass history, reuniting Bill Monroe with many of his former sidemen in a chronological recreation of Monroe’s bands over the years. Haney’s Fincastle festivals became an annual event, and set the pattern for the many other festivals that rapidly followed. The film “Bluegrass Country Soul,” a documentary filmed at Haney’s 1971 festival held at Camp Springs, North Carolina, documents what festivals looked and sounded like a half century ago: bands warming up next to their tour buses, lots of field picking, acres of those webbed folding lawn chairs, scores of tents and cars, an occasional VW microbus, and none of today’s RVs and motor homes. During this period, the festival movement took off, and stars like Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley started their own bluegrass festivals. The proliferation of summer weekend festivals introduced bluegrass to new audiences and boosted the music’s popularity during the 1970s.
Bluegrass festivals then and now were and are multi-day total immersion musical events featuring many bluegrass artists, usually held in the country, at campgrounds, fairgrounds, farms, and other bucolic sites, with attendees camping on site for the duration of the festival or coming for one day. Festivals are usually centered around a weekend but over the years many have expanded to become weeklong events. Music on stage typically runs from late morning to well after dark; at larger festivals there may be multiple stages presenting music simultaneously. Depending on the size of the festival, there can be many vendors selling food and drink as well as recordings and musical instruments, together with camping gear, cowboy hats and similar specialty clothing, and many other items.
In the early days, as noted above, most campers tented or slept in their cars, but now RVs and motor homes dominate the grounds. At all hours of the day and night, but especially after the stage show ends for the night, one can hear music in impromptu jam sessions featuring festival attendees. Often these are fans who do not play the music for a living but who are highly proficient and deeply knowledgeable musicians playing at a professional or semi-professional level. Sometimes members of the touring bands will join in these sessions; often, they have friends in the campgrounds. But everyone who wants to play and learn can find a festival jam that suits them, or can start one of their own. Pickers and singers at all levels of experience come to bluegrass festivals to learn from each other as well as from festival workshops, where the pros teach instrumental and vocal technique or simply share stories about their careers and lives in the music. Non-playing fans come to hear the music, meet their friends, and connect with the performers. Of necessity, one learns to make do with a few hours sleep for several nights in a row.
I have in hand a copy of the program of the 1982 Corinth Bluegrass Festival, given to me recently by an attendee. The program illustrates two differences between modern festivals and those of 40 years ago. First, the Corinth festival began on Friday and ended late Sunday evening after a full day of music. Today, festivals often start well before the weekend and Sunday is usually the day to pack up and go home, with little or no stage show, as if folks can’t wait to get there and then can’t wait to leave. In my view, this change is neither good nor bad, just different, and it accommodates the need to get home on Sunday in time to go to work on Monday. In my view, the second difference is unfortunate. The Corinth headliners, Del McCoury, Joe Val, and the Country Gentlemen, played the whole weekend, Del all three days and Joe Val and the Gents on both Saturday and Sunday. Today this is almost unheard of. Often headliners appear for only one set on one of the festival days. Presumably this results from the high cost of the top bands, the promoters’ desire to book as many “name” bands as they can afford, and the bands’ desires to cram several festival appearances into one weekend. But these drive by appearances make it harder for the fans to connect with the musicians, who often just show up, play their set, and leave. The opportunity for personal contact resulting from both fans and artists being on site for the whole weekend is now a thing of the past. So it goes.
If you have ever attended a bluegrass festival you already know most or all of this. If you haven’t, I urge you to consider it. Bluegrass festivals are open to day trippers as well as those who camp for the weekend, so you can try a small dose and see how you like it. Water, snacks with some salt in them, sunscreen, bug spray, a big hat, waterproof footwear, and other wet weather gear are a few of the essentials even a day visitor should bring (keep sunscreen and bug spray away from the instruments). Festivals can be a great way to deepen your interest in and knowledge and enjoyment of bluegrass music, and that is a good thing. Have a good summer.