Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival – (Bean Blossom, IN)
“Bean Blossom ain’t gone, is it?” Jimmy Martin bellowed from the stage. “It’s just now gettin’ started real good!”
Five miles north of Nashville, Indiana, sequestered in the mild, lush hills near the Hoosier National Forest, the Bill Monroe Memorial Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival — at 33 years old, one of the most storied of all bluegrass gatherings — is rebounding from hard times. Throughout the ’90s, attendance has declined, and facilities and land have been worn by years and dissipated interest. Bill Monroe’s death in 1996 seemed to point to further demise.
But last year brought a rebirth, thanks to Dwight Dillman, a former member of Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. Dillman purchased the land from James Monroe (Bill’s son), modernized the camping areas, graveled the roads, groomed the landscape, built a new stage, and rejuvenated the festival’s musical events with strong headliners, storytelling sessions, workshops, and a sunset jam out near Highway 135, just where Monroe used to do it, a place for festivalgoers to pick with legends. Judging from attendance — peaking at over 1,000 on Saturday — and the consistent, often thrilling music, Bean Blossom may be back for good.
The new stage sits at the end of a sloped grove, old elms and poplars bending in to shade much of the concert area. The Stevens Sisters initiated Friday evening with a remarkably bluesy (though poorly attended) set. Their harmony-rich reading of the Led Zep-inspired “In My Time Of Dying” wailed, and their original compositions — the new “Graveside Song” and “Sisters” — were among the finest contemporary material heard over the weekend. April Stevens alternated between fiddle, mandolin and bass, and, with sister Beth, sang hard, soulfully, and with deep-thicketed Tennessee twang.
Those familiar with Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver won’t be surprised that the group’s harmonies were the most supple and tight of the weekend. Lawson balanced sacred and secular material onstage, opening his Friday show with the Emerson and Goble classic “Julianne”, defined by Barry Scott’s smooth, powerhouse tenor. The band gathered around a single microphone on their way toward a final, bizarre micro-set of spiritual numbers. During the sharply orchestrated “I’m Finding Joy In My Savior’s Love”, a moth the size of a small owl fluttered around the quartet and completely cracked them up, sending fiddler Doug Bartlett into hysterics. Lawson tried to restore order, but for 10 minutes band and moth did battle, with the wise money on the bug, until Bartlett finally smothered it in his jacket. The surreal set closed with a hilarious parody of a classic Southern gospel male quartet. Donning their alter-egos, the Mighty Questionnaires, Lawson and band turned “I’m Winging My Way Back Home” into giddy vocal fireworks, bending, twisting and exaggerating their parts, then climaxing with Dale Perry’s basso profundo, which dipped so low lawn chairs rattled.
J.D. Crowe & the New South focused on classic material for their Friday evening set, including “East Virginia Blues” and two songs from their superlative 1975 self-titled Rounder album: the Gordon Lightfoot composition “10 Degrees” and “The Old Homeplace”. The band now features lead singing from Ricky Wasson, whose calm tenor is a dead ringer for Tony Rice. Midway through the set, Crowe paused and called out Tom T. Hall, who walked out, guitar in hand, his voice quavering a bit as he explained how Dwight Dillman had given him a parking space backstage and that, in exchange, he ought to “sing a parking space song.” By the time Hall finished “The Year That Clayton Delaney Died”, the audience was ecstatic. He would be back: On Saturday evening Hall did “Clayton Delaney” again, as well as “Ballad Of Forty Dollars”.
From the moment Jimmy Martin walked onstage on Saturday afternoon, it was clear he remains the most charismatic figure in bluegrass. Sporting full, ready-for-Vegas western wear, he sang with a high, slicing tenor, his rhythm guitar attack rang out precisely and playfully, and his facial expressions and between-song banter were infectious. Martin was genuinely moved to be at the festival, even weeping as he told of how he had been with Monroe when he purchased the land. He mused on the lean years of bluegrass, those hard times about which the young players “know nothing.” He explained that this year he had contemplated retirement, but traveling in a deluxe bus loaned by Dwight Dillman, he had resumed limited touring. “Dwight Dillman loved Bill Monroe and you’re looking at one who loved him,” he sobbed before introducing the sweetly imperfect harmony of “Shake Hands With Mother Again”. He closed his set with a blistering, whooping version of “Free Born Man”.
Ralph Stanley took the stage Saturday afternoon and evening. His projection was awesome and his voice tore at the edges as he belted out “Man Of Constant Sorrow” and “Blue Moon Of Kentucky”, frailing through “Ho Honey Ho” at a terrifying speed. Stanley was a compelling presence, but his band was hobbled by an underlying stiffness, not to mention James Price’s agonizingly long comedy skits and Ralph Stanley II’s incomprehensible lead vocals. The son is an adequate harmony singer, but until he learns to sing with something other than his nose, it’s unlikely he’ll contribute significantly to his father’s music.
Saturday afternoon’s Sunny Mountain Boys Reunion was the festival’s highly anticipated linchpin. Lawson and Crowe, both of whom played with and studied under Martin in the ’60s, joined Martin onstage to joke, reminisce and revisit some vintage material, including the anti-atomic gospel hymn “God Guide Our Leaders’ Hands”, “I Like To Hear ‘Em Preach It” (a spur-of-the-moment request that displayed just how good Lawson and Martin’s voices sound together), and “Ocean Of Diamonds”. Martin’s impish humor ran amok as he coaxed Lawson into raring back for a brief solo intro to Eddy Arnold’s “Cattle Call”, for which no description could do justice, but which sounded something like “Suuuukaif! Suuuukaif!” The performances were loose, spontaneous, sometimes silly, sometimes deeply moving, as on the harmonies of “Tennessee” — even when Martin muffed a line — and the whole of the somber, aching “20/20 Vision”.
Coming to Bean Blossom feels like a pilgrimage; leaving it feels wistful. This is the festival Monroe built; his myth suffuses these acres. Each night you leave the concert area around one in the morning, walk the dirt roads to your tent or RV, pass the campfires, the radios blaring Flatt & Scruggs, the friends stopping to sing a tipsy version of “Rank Strangers” in the cool, misty dark. Months later you still hear the tones, timeless and new, in your head: the mellow manner Country Gentleman Charlie Waller sang and smiled; when, in the “Grand Ole Opry Song”, Jimmy Martin twice name-checked his estranged banjo player Sonny Osborne; the way dobro player Phil Ledbetter matched J.D. Crowe lick for lick; how Doyle Lawson’s mandolin rang out with that effortless, fine-as-new-rain sound. It’s all very beautiful, the kind of beauty that simultaneously makes nothing else matter and somehow makes everything matter so much more.