Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival – (Bean Blossom, IN)
The annual Bill Monroe Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival is steeped in tradition; for its climactic Friday and Saturday shows at this year’s outing, it was also soaked in precipitation.
The downpours let loose off and on, and suddenly, but the utterly dedicated (and often enraptured) audience hung right in there, draped in those emergency polyethylene mudshuckers — and treated, around the delays, to some smashing music. The conditions only added to the power of many of the top-of-the-genre acts on hand at this Indiana homecoming, foisting surprises on their sets as the sound capability would change with the weather — big speakers on, then only small stage monitors, then all-acoustic or single-mike, without warning.
This tended to loosen things up.
One notable effect was a willingness to stray from established set lists to numbers from outside the classic bluegrass canon. Modern masters IIIrd Tyme Out offered a stunning a cappella take on the Platters’ “Only You”, suggesting the need for further exploration of doo-wop bluegrass potential. Standout vocalist Larry Sparks devoted a chunk of his afternoon set to a ’40s string band-style Hank Williams medley (“Mansion On The Hill”/”Mind Your Own Business”) that sent me right to the swag tables for a copy of his 1977 Larry Sparks Sings Hank Williams disc (a must-hear). The legendary Osborne Brothers, aware of the weather threat but utterly unfazed, stuck to business, moving from number to number with rapid-fire efficiency and even offering extras, including a medley of banjo-led Texas honky-tonk and western swing.
The warm response for these adventures presaged the loudest audience welcome of all — for the return of Tom T. Hall. “Being retired,” Tom T. informed the enlarged crowd, “is a little like being dead — without the sympathy.” Bringing back “Ballad Of 40 Dollars” and “Clayton Delaney” and “Me And Jesus”, behind his buddy Jimmy Martin’s band no less, the bluegrass-friendly mainstream country storyteller was a hit of the festival.
It is, frankly, thankless to single out standouts at the level of musicianship and performance mastery showcased at this celebrated event — but, heck, I’ll try.
Larry Sparks showed clearly that he’s still one of the most expressive bluegrass singers around, with that full, vibrant, soulful voice so potent on the ballads and gospel numbers.
I had never seen the the Osbornes live before, and their often remarkable recordings don’t do them justice. Bobby Osborne is simply a a phenomenon. His voice cuts through the air like the gentlest of scalpels, and when he trades off with Sonny’s banjo and Gene Wooten’s killer dobro on the pure bluegrass pyrotechnics of “Ruby”, you hear singing that seemingly could not be topped. Until, joined by young bassist Terry Smith, they take off on those deep, heartrending trios that make a song like the Titanically familiar “Nearer My God To Thee” a fresh and moving experience, and “Today Has Been A Lonesome Day” twang heaven.
Among instrumentalist giants, the James King Band (the spectacular David Praytor on mandolin and Owen Saunders on fiddle, with Jason Moore on bass, Adam Poindexter on banjo, and King on guitar) stood out for sheer mind-boggling proficiency on the likes of “Katy Hill” — despite the fact that they’d all been hung up in airports by the storm.
The Jim & Jesse show was inevitably hamstrung by the absence of Jesse, sent home with a bad back, and the always-anticipated Ralph Stanley big family show appeared more thrown by the conditions than most .But anytime you can hear Dr. Stanley solo on those songs his mother taught him, you’re in for a treat.
And then there was the unchallenged star attraction, Jimmy Martin.
You know, he’s not called the king of bluegrass for nothing. As other performers kept warning, there’s really nobody quite like him. Presented with a specially-made Gibson guitar, a beaut, who else would reply: “It looks almost as good as a Martin!” and only later admit he was honored.
The ubiquitous 7-year-old banjo/vocal prodigy and bluegrass comedian Ryan Holiday was chosen to present the recent Tom T. & Dixie Hall-penned tribute number “Jimmy Martin For Dinner”, but only Martin himself would have thought of serving up a coon, squirrel and venison dinner for a thousand on hand free, which he did, on Saturday evening, and then proceeded to bring onstage the friends who helped him “shoot them all” for a sing-along!
If his own set, as usual these days, was not prolonged, amidst some coasting there were astonishing moments, like the revival of the unrehearsed “Don’t Cry To Me” or the expected “20/20 Vision”, both vocally and instrumentally spectacular.
The need for up to a week of time and a place to camp out results in a Bean Blossom audience tilted toward those on the experienced side of 60. But for the weekend headline shows, especially Saturday night, there was also an outpouring of younger fans, which has to be good news for the venerable event, and for bluegrass music.
Bean Blossom is not the kind of place where frat boys in shades with beer in hand push aside everybody else to stand at stage front and talk on a cell phone. It’s a place where you can leave your jacket on the lawn chair you set up, and nobody touches either when you head for the hot dogs. The folks were welcoming, even in the rain. And the show was quite a show.