Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival – Bill Monroe Memorial Music Park (Bean Blossom, IN)
In many ways, the sights and sounds of the 36th annual Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival transpired as if the musical paradigm shift of Newport 1965 never happened. Fans and performers alike have always stood by the strict stylistic purity of hardcore bluegrass traditions celebrated every June on this hallowed Hoosier hillside. As far as classic traditional bluegrass goes, nothing much changes from year to year in the form and performance codes Bill Monroe set in stone half a century ago.
On the other hand, had Monroe not been on the bill at the Newport Folk Festival in that tradition-rattling year of 1965, things could be very different today. Without witnessing the folk revival’s large and diverse crowd of tradition-seekers, perhaps “Big Mon” would not have taken the chance at establishing this weekend-long bluegrass celebration in Brown County, Indiana, in 1967.
With the recently renewed interest in bluegrass generated by a certain feature film, Bean Blossom 2002 was anticipated as the year of bringin’ it all back home. Nevertheless, except for Ralph Stanley’s upgrade in wardrobe, a few sour grapes from Jimmy Martin and a few extra fans, this Mecca-like festival went down just as it has for years. It was hardcore bluegrass for hardcore fans, as if the O Brother, Where Art Thou? phenomenon never happened, either.
Bouncing back from its mournful nadir that followed the passing of founding father Monroe in 1996, Bean Blossom has regained its prominence as the only place to be in mid-June if you are a lover of traditional bluegrass music. New owner (and former Blue Grass Boy) Dwight Dillman’s ongoing adjustments to the festival grounds have resulted in a vast improvement in comfort level over Bean Blossom’s Spartan past — at least until a whoop-ass thunderstorm passes through to remind you that it would not be Bean Blossom without rain and mud.
This year’s festival nearly matched its mid-’70s peak in length and attendance, with eight days of variations on that high lonesome sound from icons and up-and-comers onstage all day, and campground pickers all night. A few campground pickers never even make it to the main stage, content simply with the opportunity to play bluegrass spontaneously.
Drifting through the front gate of what was first called the Brown County Jamboree, one is first greeted by a mass of RVs and parked cars wedged into every available unshaded open space. This harsh reminder of the assembled masses is softened considerably by the time you walk into the cool shade of the tall pines, oaks and maples that tower above the park’s natural hillside amphitheater. One oak tree was cut last year, used for the wood of 25 custom banjos hawked onstage between sets with the claim that “this wood has absorbed every note that has ever been played down here.”
On Thursday, rows of stage-side lawn chairs were squarely in place, with bluegrass devotees out in force but the weekend masses yet to arrive. Valerie Smith & Liberty Pike’s late-afternoon set kicked things into high gear with a spirited rendition of “New Rebel Train”. Smith’s crisp vocal delivery energized the crowd, although some just sit and whittle no matter who is onstage. Smith’s fiddler Becky Buller stood out with some fiery solos and distinctive songwriting.
Special Consensus followed with an excellent mix of three-part harmonies and instrumental fire. Josh Williams on mandolin and Jamie Clifton on guitar spiced their arrangements with deft angularity. Their set ranged from the traditional roots of “Cotton Fields” and “Passing Of The Train” to contemporary songs such as Greg Brown’s “Our Little Town”. Greg Cahill on banjo showed off his tuner-twister note-bending skills with a rowdy rendition of his “Margarita Breakdown”.
Friday’s weather conditions were heavenly: blue skies, 75 degrees, no humidity — the perfect setting to hear Larry Sparks & the Lonesome Ramblers ring through the trees. Sparks proved himself a soft-spoken but eloquent emissary of bluegrass traditions and the roots behind them. He varied his set between old-school harmony songs such as “Kentucky Moon”, uptempo swing instrumentals, and gospel harmonizers. His guitar playing carries a heavy dose of the blues and jazz influences Bill Monroe mortared into the foundations of bluegrass.
The James King Band featured a steady rolling set of songs with a wide dynamic of tempo and style, anchored by solid picking throughout. The band brought things down for a touching rendition of Harlan Howard’s “The Wall”, after which a broken guitar string led to a spontaneous fiddle breakdown. King and his guitar were quickly back in action with an intricate Shuffler-style rendition of the Carter Family classic “Wildwood Flower”. Their set was capped off by a rich a cappella rendering of “Amazing Grace”.
Friday’s late-afternoon Sunset Jam (a Bean Blossom tradition in which campground pickers mix it up with bluegrass legends in broad daylight) saw two fiddles, four mandolins, ten guitars, four banjos, harmonica, and spoons jamming in unison. Ranging in age from grade-schoolers to senior citizens, the spirit amongst this enthused group was priceless. Larry Sparks stepped up for “a couple of old-timers” including “Single Girl, Married Girl”.
Highlights of this year’s Sunset Jam were fearless performances by 13-year-old Jacob Jallof on banjo and 9-year-old Frankie Nagel on guitar and vocals. “Little Frankie” is a young Jimmy Martin acolyte who Larry Sparks dubbed “the newest Sunny Mountain Boy.” Her rhythm guitar skills are already quite strong and she hits the stage with cowgirl confidence already shining. Once her vocals become a little more developed, Frankie may be unstoppable on the bluegrass scene. IBMA awards are predicted by the year 2010.
Friday’s biggest treat was not a musical performance but a gathering of “Bean Blossom Storytelling” with Jim Peva, Bill Yates, Raymond Huffmaster and an old hippie simply known as “Lightning” at the workshop tent. There was no question that “the spirit of Bill is still in this park” as these veterans of Bean Blossom riffed off each other with hilarious and often telling anecdotes of the festival’s quirky history. They laughed and told many tales: Peter Rowan crawling out from under a pile of trash after a long night of jamming; a chainsaw-wielding Monroe personally clearing downed trees in the road after a tornado; Monroe catching “Lightning” with a “big ol’ hooter and fifth of Jack Daniels in my hands” back in 1970.
Such stories were told in the spirit of fun and love, but these lifelong friends of Monroe’s had the discretion not to tell all, understanding that “some things are best left unsaid.” As if on cue, a thunderstorm blew in from the northwest, drawing the insightful and entertaining session to a close.
Saturdays at Bean Blossom are always reserved for the big stars, and this year was no exception, with Ralph Stanley and Jimmy Martin topping the bill. A dark and intense Indiana squall tore through Brown County just after 6 p.m., the sight of which caused Doyle Lawson to remark onstage, “looks like we’re going to get us a little shower.”
Indeed, the wind-whipped heavy downpour forced Lawson and his band Quicksilver offstage for a bit before they concluded their set with some incredible gospel harmonizing. The park’s tractor crews emerged to pull vehicles out of the instant mud pit, and the crowd thinned out enough that hardcore fans could get closer to the stage for Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys.
Introduced as “the statesman of bluegrass music,” Stanley presented a set of old-time mountain music in his East Tennessee style. While having much he could rightfully crow about, including recent Grammy awards and an appearance on network television earlier the same morning, Stanley anchored his set with the same humble grace he always displays at Bean Blossom. The Clinch Mountain Boys had the first spotlight with fine renditions of “Come Down The Mountain, Katie”, “Mountain Dew” and “Home In The Mountains”. James Shelton on lead guitar and James Price on fiddle were both outstanding and set the pace for a kinetic set of mountain soul.
Stanley’s trademark shape-note vocal wail was finally unleashed as he stepped up to the microphone for “Rank Stranger” and a deep blue version of “Sittin’ On Top Of The World”. Always one to give ample time to his band, Stanley shifted the focus to his son, Ralph Jr., for a subtle reading of the Kenny Rogers hit “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town”.
Junior then gave his father a rousing introduction replete with mentions of recent honors including the O Brother Grammy awards. “He’s finally getting the credit he should’ve got,” declared the son; a big load of honest pride then broke through Ralph Sr.’s reserved demeanor as he shouted, “Yeah! Lay it on me!”
The rain-soaked and mud-splashed crowd roared with approval as Stanley belted out a defiant and definitive version of “Man Of Constant Sorrow”, renewing his 1948 patent on the Soggy Bottom Boys’ hit. Despite the intrusion of another downpour, Stanley hushed the crowd with “O Death” and then moved into the pre-bluegrass sound of “Girl From The Greenbriar Shore”, a track from his new solo album. The set closed with first-class guest shots from former Clinch Mountain Boys George Shuffler, Junior Blankenship and Myron Dillman. Before he left the stage, Stanley sincerely thanked the crowd: “I appreciate you all sittin’ and waitin’ in the rain.”
Jimmy Martin started his set on a sour note, declaring, “I’m not so sure what all this O Brother stuff is all about,” apparently a little miffed at all the praise Stanley had just received. He then made sure the crowd remembered his role 30 years ago in the making of Will The Circle Be Unbroken: “We got a few awards for that, and that was a pretty good deal, too, don’t you think?”
Once he got that out of his system, he proved his right to wear the King of Bluegrass crown. Martin and his Sunny Mountain Boys delivered revved-up versions of his well-known bluegrass classics and country music hits stacked up next to each other like a choice selection from the jukebox in hillbilly heaven. There is only one Jimmy Martin, and he’ll tell you all about it, but the power of his hold on an important piece of bluegrass history was evident as he ripped through a rousing version of “Free Born Man”.
Martin’s set closed with reunion visits from former Sunny Mountain Boys J.D. Crowe and Paul Williams, followed by the standard Bean Blossom emcee compliment: “Real good job as always, boys.” Much of crowd wandered off into the night as James Monroe & the Midnight Ramblers began their set, many pulling up stakes to head home, soaked to the bone.
The hardcore jammers made one more night of it in the campgrounds, though. A little rain never stops the music for long at Bean Blossom.