Works and Days

Chasing Bluegrass: Festival Time

The first two festivals I attend this summer are a study in contrasts. The first, the Bill Monroe Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival, is a hyper-traditional “Mecca of Bluegrass.” The countryside surrounding Bean Blossom, in Brown County, Indiana, is filled with rolling hills, big forests, and small towns. A permanent wooden stage sits in the middle of the music park, and an American flag hangs behind bands playing on the stage. People set their lawn chairs in the field in front of the stage at the start of the ten-day festival and leave them there for the entire festival; since people wouldn’t watch every act, you could take a seat in somebody else’s lawn chair until the owners came back.

People performing on a stage.

Around the stage, dirt roads with names like “Ralph Stanley Road” and “Jimmy Martin Drive” circle through the campground, which is mostly dominated by trailers and RVs. Tent camping is mostly in a back corner of the campground, in a part of the park that Bill Monroe once christened “hippy hill.” There’s a pond on the property, and mules and goats are kept back behind the pond.

Young man fishing.

Bean Blossom is the oldest continuous running bluegrass festival in the world, and as such it’s steeped in history. Bill Monroe bought the music park in 1951, although there had been shows played on the property for about ten years before Monroe acquired it. At the time, it was called the Brown County Jamboree, and regular shows were held in the Jamboree Barn for a long time before the first festival was held in 1967. There are people at Bean Blossom who have been coming for all or most of its 48 years, and they talked about past years when Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, Kenny Baker, and other bluegrass greats would stay at the festival for its duration, picking together on the grounds all night before going to play shows on stage during the day.

People performing on a stage.

Monroe used to walk the grounds regularly, and I heard stories of people singing a Monroe tune only to have the man himself walk up behind them. Traditions that started during the early days of Bean Blossom have persisted, too – Tex Logan, once one of Bill Monroe’s fiddlers, started making a bean supper for the entire campground years ago, and you can still get cornbread and beans on Tuesday night of the festival. These days, two members of the Central Indiana Bluegrass Association tend the huge cast-iron pot, stirring with a big wooden paddle from early morning until supper break at four PM.

The crowd at Bean Blossom is generally older, maybe in part because the bands playing are so traditional. As the community ages, people are faced with a set of challenges that I’m not used to thinking about at bluegrass festivals: returning to the campground a year after an old festival friend has passed away, for example, or how to keep their community vibrant as the initial population ages out. To that end, a bluegrass boot camp has been started to teach kids how to play, and the boot campers, including those who hadn’t touched an instrument before the camp, get to play a few songs on stage after a few days of instruction. The whole festival is oriented towards preserving the roots of the music and the culture surrounding it.

Ticket booth.

The next festival I hit is ROMP, in Owensboro Kentucky. The festival doesn’t ignore tradition – some great bands play the weekend that wouldn’t be out of place in Bean Blossom, including Del McCoury and Ricky Skaggs. As a whole, however, the music and scene is more reminiscent of any good-but-generic festival: headliners include Railroad Earth and Old Crow Medicine Show, which are great bands but definitely not bluegrass. The festival is on the grounds of a local community park, not a permanent music park, and as the stage is set up, the crew plays Daft Punk and Pink Floyd over the sound system.

Music stage at ROMP.

There are plenty of people there who truly love bluegrass, and a lot of people who play it, but there are also people who are just there because they like festivals – any festival, regardless of the music, as long as they can party. The jam scene at ROMP feels more vibrant, too. However, I think fewer people play here than at Bean Blossom; it’s just that crowds form around the jams, listening or singing along. No doubt the feeling that a lot of the music at ROMP was emphasized because I had just gotten off of ten days at Bean Blossom. Maybe the drums on stage wouldn’t have been so surprising otherwise. To be fair, tradition isn’t ignored – the friends I made at ROMP make a pilgrimage every year from the festival grounds to Rosine, Kentucky, where Bill Monroe was born and buried. We visited his home and put quarters on his grave – Monroe famously gave a quarter to every child he met.

Despite their differences, common themes appeared at both festivals. Outside of at least a basic awareness of tradition, there’s a huge amount of space at these events for reciprocity. People share food, drink, stories, and responsibilities – looking after kids or cleaning, for example. Becoming part of the community involves not only receiving things from people but also giving what you can, and these festivals offer a chance to share in a way that doesn’t happen in everyday life. People express generosity and openness more than you see in everyday life. Among other things, people have offered me breakfast, lunch, dinner, a hatchet, beer, moonshine, and (seriously) a free puppy. That reciprocity is expressed musically, too; huge numbers of people who attend bluegrass festivals also play music, and with a shared canon, people who have never met before can play together and exchange ideas musically. There’s a shared understanding about how to conduct yourself in a jam (don’t play over people, be in tune and in time, and know when you’re in over your head, for example), and that understanding helps facilitate non-verbal communication between people who otherwise would probably never talk to each other. Doctors, lawyers, soldiers, and day laborers can all play together without worrying about understanding each other’s accents or politics.

The distance between professionals, including the biggest stars of bluegrass, and the fans is also incredibly small. Almost every act that plays a bluegrass festival will go meet fans and talk with people after their set, and it’s not uncommon to hear stories of stars jamming with amateurs in the festival campground, or to have musicians invited back to people’s campsites for supper. The accessibility of stars makes people feel like they are connected to the music and the scene, even if they don’t play – there are a lot of levels and ways for people to connect to bluegrass, and everybody feels like part of the community regardless of how they connect to it. On top of all that, a carnival atmosphere runs through the festivals – even at the traditional Bean Blossom, where every band played a few gospel tunes, I got a lecture on how to drink moonshine (for the record: “take just a little sip. If it burns like hell, and you’re gonna know it’s alcohol no matter what, but if it really burns, don’t drink anymore. But if it’s pretty smooth, go for it.”). And ROMP matched and exceeded Bean Blossom’s nightlife. I don’t think just having a big party is a sufficient explanation for why and how bluegrass can pull people together, but it does have an impact.

Musically, this summer has been challenging and interesting in ways that I didn’t expect. In the bluegrass scene I grew up in, most amateur jams play fiddle tunes in a bluegrass style – instrumental songs, with relatively little space for improvisation, and rhythmic backing that is specific to bluegrass. Out here, however, fiddle tunes are largely the realm of old time players. It’s tough for a mandolin player to find space in an old-time jam; it’s mostly a space for fiddlers, banjos, and guitar players, with maybe a bass thrown in if needed. Rhythmically, the mandolin (and all the instruments) operate differently in an old time jam, and I’ve only ever thought about rhythm in a bluegrass-y way. So I’ve found myself in a space where the people playing songs I know are playing in a style I’m unfamiliar with. On the other side of the spectrum, bluegrass jams are almost entirely songs, and fairly recent songs – so people might play Nine Pound Hammer, but they’ll also probably play Fox on the Run or How Mountain Girls Can Love, songs that were composed by bluegrass or country musicians and don’t draw back into the old time tradition. So on that front, I know what’s expected of me rhythmically but I don’t really know the songs. Playing songs like these also relies on instrumental breaks and improvisation, something that I’m not as familiar with. Still, all of this is a great chance to learn how to play in the old time style, to learn some songs, and to get better at taking breaks. Looking ahead, I’ve got a few weeks to settle into North Carolina’s music scene before I head off to my first week-long music workshop at the Swannanoa Gathering, which should be a blast. I’m looking forward to it!

A tractor pulling a small set of bleachers.

Tags: psf, bluegrass, presidents summer fellowship, music