Bluegrass History in Person – Part 5 – BLUEGRASS FESTIVALS!

The Bowden Family Band: L to R John Sanborn, Paul Bowden, Mary Lee Bowden, Dick Bowden
The excitement was unbearable as high school let out in June 1970. Dad bought a pop up tent camper and plans were made to drive to one of the biggest bluegrass festivals in the country in Berryville Virginia. This festival was one of the annual productions by THE bluegrass impresario Carlton Haney. Since 1965 when Carlton literally invented the weekend multi-band, ALL-bluegrass, camp-out festival, he had run sometimes two such festivals a year to exponentially growing attendance. For a few years Bill Monroe partnered with Carlton, but eventually started his own festival in Bean Blossom Indiana (which continues to this day under new owners).

Carlton’s festival line-ups included ALL the top bluegrass acts, with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs notably absent. For 1970 the cast included Monroe, Jimmy Martin, Ralph Stanley (whom we had just seen live in Maine 5 months earlier), the Country Gentlemen, and basically all the rest of the national acts of that time, and plenty of regional acts too. We were especially excited that Mother Maybelle Carter herself would appear. A year earlier Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton had been special guests, and a photograph in Bluegrass Unlimited had famously showed them sitting in the audience enjoying the bluegrass bands.

Our little caravan from Maine comprised our family station wagon and pop up trailer, our guitar player John Sanborn and his family with a pop-up, and our friend Ty Searfoss in his Pontiac GTO. We stopped at Ty’s family’s home in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania for an overnight break. I’ll never forget, just as we took the Berryvillle Exit from the four lane highway, Dad’s new pop up trailer blew out a tire! So close to our goal, but delayed a bit. Before too long we pulled into the “park” (just a big hay field with a nearby grove of trees) and found a nice open spot along a line of shade trees, set up camp. We had made a “banner” which went up on two tall poles, “The Bowdens – from Maine”.

We instantly befriended our neighbors, very nice folks from Florida, and got busy picking with them. Their tall mandolin picker was a Mr. “Red” Henry, who had just gone into the Air Force as a pilot at the base in Dover Delaware. He wore a “Billy Jack” broad-rimmed Stetson with a turkey feather in it. (Red and I remain friends to this day.) The rest of the Florida gang included Red’s friend banjoist Mike Johnson and his mom Polly Johnson who played bass fiddle.

Paul Bowden, Bobbi Bowden, Mary Lee Bowden at Berryville 1970
L to R: Dick’s mom Mary Lee Bowden, Red Henry, Dick, John Sanborn, Ty Searfoss

Well, we had a BLAST between the festival show and our campsite pickin’. I found Bill Monroe to be stiff, with a mediocre band other than Kenny Baker on fiddle. I was flat disgusted when during the thinly attended Sunday morning gospel set, Bill scolded the (hungover) crowd saying “Now the hand is awful weak this morning!” The crowd wasn’t showing sufficiently enthusiastic applause to suit him, you see. I never saw or heard the amazing mandolin playing I was expecting from old records. Frankly I though Monroe had lost a step. In comparison, Jimmy Martin was a total HOOT. While his band labored like indentured servants, Jimmy gamboled, hooted, yelled, gestured, grinned and generally acted the musical fool. But what great music! Ralph Stanley’s band was much better than they had been the previous winter in Maine, and Roy Lee Centers had sure learned the old Stanley Brothers material by then to Ralph’s satisfaction. Terrific! I got to see my old favorites the Country Gentlemen for the first time and they were smooth as could be. I had never experienced the visual aspect of Charlie Waller’s hot rhythm guitar playing, bobbing up and down and hot-dogging into the mic. As I remember there were surprise guest appearances by Del McCoury and the Dixie Pals (John Sanborn’s new favorite guitar player), and Joe Val and the New England Bluegrass Boys from Boston, whom I had only heard about. Plus of course the Osborne Brothers, Jim & Jesse, Mac Wiseman, etc.

A highlight was seeing the regal Mother Maybelle Carter come on stage to huge applause. She had an eager group of top bluegrass musicians as accompanists. I remember the frail looking Red Smiley with his guitar bragging about how he had pulled seniority on other guitar men for the honor of playing rhythm to Mother Maybelle. I got right up to the stage to see her and her piercing blue eyes, hear her soft modest voice, and experience her powerful guitar and autoharp playing. As modest as she was, she was a TOTAL pro on stage, having been performing since the 1920s.

At night some Jimmy Martin wannabe took up a permanent position inside the cement blockhouse rest rooms and bellowed Jimmy’s songs with just voice and guitar deep into the early morning! You could hear him all over the field. I saw an impromptu fiddle jam in the pitch darkness around a picnic table featuring Kenny Baker and Joe Greene. Just guitar accompaniment. Oh God it was great, but back then I barely knew or understood a lick of bluegrass fiddling.

We also got the full dosage of Carlton Haney’s famous Sunday afternoon presentation of “The Blue Grass Story”, (pronounced STOW-ree) where he narrated Monroe’s career in chronological order. He would call up various Blue Grass Boys who happened to be at the festival to come on stage and recreate famous recordings with Bill. Poor Bill Monroe had to stand on stage for a several hours straight. The music wasn’t that great, but Carlton’s bombastic narration was unforgettable. Carlton also did some emceeing, and I remember he felt the crowd was too small for some particular act he was about to bring on, so he had the sound system turned way up and he bellowed “Now all you people in your campers, get over here to the show for this next act!” What a character.

One disappointment to this young Yankee, was a regional southern band that incorporated Martin Luther King into a crude joke on stage. Now King had just been assassinated shortly before, and I was ashamed to hear this so I left the audience.

Finally, we were stunned by the “hijinks” going on in the camping area. It was Fourth of July weekend and there were stunning impromptu displays of major fireworks. All amateurs. Of course, some fireworks got out of control, and a tent site was burned down. No injuries thank goodness. Also, there were a few motorcycles in the crowd, and a teenage girl took a ride in a side-car. Hitting a bump in the hay field grounds, she was tossed out of the side-car and landed across a steel guy wire to big tent, cutting off her leg! The festival just kept on going.

We got back home just thunderstruck by the experience. Seeing the top bands, making new friends, learning songs and licks, collecting great stories and gossip, and all the rest. My main regret was that I had enjoyed myself so much that I took very few photos (which I regret to this day).

We were completely hooked on the festival experience after Berryville. In 1970 there were NO bluegrass festivals in New England or New York, but we could dream.

In 1971 festivals really started to explode in frequency and geographical distribution. We learned through Bluegrass Unlimited that Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley were co-sponsoring a festival in Bear, Delaware on Labor Day weekend. For some reason Mom and Dad couldn’t make it, but my guitar playing buddy John Sanborn and I went! I was just about to enter college. This festival didn’t include camping, but it was literally next door to a KOA campground and you could simply walk through a gate to the festival in a neighboring hayfield. Guess who we discovered in the campground? Good old Red Henry with his mandolin! That helped us relax and enjoy ourselves. (Today Red Henry helps his wife Murphy Henry produce and distribute her popular bluegrass instrument instruction DVDs known as “The Murphy Method”.)

Dick Bowden playing Red Henry’s old Epiphone banjo
Current photo of Red Henry of Winchester VA

Lester Flatt and the Nashville Grass were on the bill at this festival. Very different from the Flatt & Scruggs show, but great all the same. We saw little Marty Stuart with Flatt’s show – he had just joined up at age 13. Again, I was disappointed by Monroe’s sets, I felt his mandolin playing had really lost something. The band was a bit improved from 1970 with Joe Stuart on guitar and I think Rual Yarborough on banjo. Their big number that weekend was Bill’s latest record “My Old Kentucky and You”. Bill made his best impression on me when a young regional band was on stage and the mandolin player broke a string. Bill rushed on stage and handed the stunned young man Bill’s own Lloyd Loar mandolin. Then Bill left the stage and put on a new string for the young picker! Very gracious, I thought. I also remember seeing Ralph Stanley’s new daughter who was there with Ralph’s wife Jimmie Stanley. Ralph sat in a lawn chair and dandled the little girl on his knee backstage. Little Lisa had her photo taken a lot that weekend, even on stage with the band.

Ralph Stanley with his daughter, and Bill Monroe backstage

This was my first exposure to another of the true “characters” in bluegrass…Melvin Goins, the guitar playing, talkative half of the Goins Brothers. He had been a member of the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers and also acted as manager/bass player to Ralph Stanley’s band. And also briefly a manager to Bill Monroe. At the Delaware festival he’d been hired to emcee, and his heavy West Virginia/Kentucky patter was hilarious. Melvin was a great story teller, and had a collection of clever and “country” sayings that he could draw on to spice things up. The only food vendor there was a little trailer hauled up from Nashville that sold pizza. Melvin plugged it on-stage declaring “Getchya some of Earl Snead’s Nashville pizza, it’s so hot it’ll make your tongue slap your eyeballs!”

One learning that John and I had from the Delaware festival was that sometimes it could be hard to find people to pick with, if they didn’t know you. One needed to develop scertain kills to get welcomed into pickin’ sessions with strangers. (Yankees were not popular amongst Delaware “Rebels” – who knew?) We probably wore out Red Henry pickin’ music, as we found it difficult to find other folks to join in with for pickin’. I remember we ourselves were “bothered” by a stranger who wandered by carrying an armload of harmonicas in many keys. Now we didn’t care much for harmonicas in bluegrass (then or now). We kept changing keys trying to shake him, but he had another harmonica ready at hand in what seemed like every key. We finally shook him off when Red cHenry alled for Ralph Stanley’s banjo tune “Big Tilda in C sharp!” About the only new friend we made was a bowler-hatted, handlebar-mustachioed, knife-carrying Delaware crazy man by the name of Mike O’ Farrell, who played bass fiddle and loved the Stanley Brothers. He was a total hoot! Aside from his over-exuberance, he knew his music. Although he didn’t play the banjo, he showed me the most difficult lick in Ralph Stanley’s tune “Hard Times”. I never found out how he was showed that lick. We would bump into O’Farrell many times at future festivals. A fantastic individual of legendary status in years to come.

Mike O’ Farrell

Somehow in 1971 we picked up a magazine-sized supplement from Carlton Haney’s “Muleskinner News” periodical, called “Bluegrass Summer ‘71”. Carlton’s festival idea was spreading so fast that he was cashing in, publishing a 64 page book full of paid ads for other people’s festivals. In this book we learned two things: somehow a festival had been promoted for 1971 IN NEW ENGLAND, that we had never heard a word about. It had a full page ad for the First Annual New England Bluegrass Fesival for mid-July of 1971. Featuring Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, the Lilly Brothers, JD Crowe, Joe Val, Tex Logan, etc. The location was Stepping Stone Stables in Escoheag Rhode Island. The promoter was none other than Nancy Talbot up n Boston who had been been involved in promoting the bluegrass showcases at Harvard. Admission for the weekend was, get this, $10. Well of course we were stunned and hurt, but we soon learned that this festival NEVER HAPPENED. Nancy never got the financing together to proceed. It took another 4 years before she launched her festival in Hillsdale (Ancramdale) NY that later became known as Winterhawk.

Bluegrass Summer 1971
Bluegrass Summer 1971 Back Cover
Bluegrass Summer 1971 ad for festival that never happened

This Bluegrass Summer ‘71 publication had an artists’ directory, ads for records and tapes, and a few articles. One instructed newbies how to camp at a festival and what to bring. George Gruhn contributed an article reviewing bluegrass instruments. Earl Scruggs took out a full page ad touting his new banjo instruction book. Best of all was a list of festivals for the year, by month. There were 80 festivals, contests and dance events listed in the US and Canada!!! Best of all was the advance announcement for 1972, in which the Country Gentlemen revealed they would have their own festival in Webster Massachusetts, featuring all the top bluegrass acts. That piece of news electrified us. A festival in New England!

Bluegrass Summer 1971 ad for 1972 Country Gentlemen Festival in Massachusetts!

I remember John and I staggered home from the Delaware festival leaving at midnight after a LOOONG Sunday of music. We were hallucinating from exhaustion when we hit Connecticut in the “0 Dark Hundred” hours. Somehow we made it home alive. With LOTS of stories to tell.

All our thoughts were now bent to summer 1972 when a top line bluegrass festival would come to our home country.

And our entire Maine gang returned to the Delaware Festival in 1972. We were hooked!

Dick Bowden

Dick Bowden recently retired after a 45 year career in the paper industry, and moved from Connecticut to Big Indian NY (Ulster County) where he ekes out a precarious existence as a groundskeeper. Dick has been performing bluegrass music on banjo and guitar since 1966 in his home state of Maine, throughout New England, and internationally with The Case Brothers - Martin & Gibson. He has performed for HVBA with the Old Time Bluegrass Singers, and also sent in a squadron of Dick Bowden's Flying Circus. Most recently Dick has played Dobro (tm) with the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band. Dick has written many articles for Bluegrass Unlimited, Bluegrass Today, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass magazine) and HVBA.

3 Responses

  • Great memories Dick. So happy to have been able to know the Bowden family.
    I had some wonderful times with you, folks through the years.

  • Thank you Dick-made me feel like I was there. Nice to read about such a musical family experience along with the pictures-cheers

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