I’m sure that everyone who made their way to Brown County, IN last week has had a great time at the longest running bluegrass festival in the world, Bean Blossom. I was able to attend on Saturday evening, and I was so glad I did! In addition to seeing great performances by Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper, Dr. Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys, and The “Wyatt Rice” Unit (Tony was struck by a virus and was unable to attend), the J.D. Crowe & The New South Reunion Show was a very memorable experience that everyone throughly enjoyed.
When hearing bluegrass “Back Home In Indiana,” there is one album in particular that stands above the rest when reflecting on all the music that has echoed from that historic hillside.
In 1973, MCA Records traveled to Brown County, Indiana to capture the ways of bluegrass from some of the true masters. Recorded live at the festival, the album Bean Blossom features some of our music’s legends: Jim & Jesse, Lester Flatt, Jimmy Martin, James Monroe, and the man himself, Bill Monroe. James Gabehart mentioned this album in his piece on Bean Blossom last week (Bean Blossom – a first timer’s perspective).
The Father of Bluegrass opens up the album with his classic version of Jimmie Rodgers’ Muleskinner Blues. Bill and The Blue Grass Boys are firing on all cylinders here. Kenny Baker’s fiddle proves why Bill calls him “the greatest fiddler in bluegrass music” later in the set. It’s one my favorite recordings of this song.
Bill’s opening set also includes such Monroe standards as You Won’t Be Satisfied That Way, Uncle Pen, and Blue Moon of Kentucky. Hearing The Father perform his classics at the festival he created is something special.
One especially appealing aspect of this album is its collection of bluegrass standards, performed by the pioneers who made them hits. It is almost a collection several “mini-albums” with each artist performing a few of their biggest songs.
Jim & Jesse and the Virginia Boys showcase themselves as one of the tightest bands in bluegrass music at the time. Their synchronization is something of which all bands could take note. The only thing tighter than The Virginia Boys are Jim & Jesse’s brother harmony. With performances of some of their classics like Ole Slew-Foot, Sweet Little Miss Blue Eyes, and I Wish You Knew, make sure you don’t overlook their portion of the record.
In 1973, Lester Flatt had maintained his prominence in American music, following the breakup of Flatt & Scruggs, with his band Lester Flatt & The Nashville Grass. As the emcee shares before Flatt takes the stage, Lester Flatt & The Nashville Grass were very popular on college campuses across the nation at this time. A seasoned veteran in the industry, Flatt proves that some stuff never goes out of style. He and the Nashville Grass perform the Flatt & Scruggs standards Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms and The Ballad of Jed Clampett as well as a rousing rendition of Feuding Banjos (Duelin’ Banjos) – with a teen-aged Marty Stuart battling it out with Haskell McCormick.
One of my favorite portions of Bean Blossom is when the stage is ruled by the colorful King of Bluegrass, Jimmy Martin. An entertainer extraordinaire, he demands the audience’s attention during his five tracks. Jimmy was passionate and honest about everything he did, and that aspect of his larger-than-life character is on full display here. Whether it’s the rousing Sunny Side of the Mountain or the poignant Mary Ann (later a hit for the Lonesome River Band), Jimmy pours his heart into it 110%, which is why he is one of the most-beloved icons our music has ever had. Jimmy’s set also holds a special place in my heart, because Jimmy asked his good friend Paul “Moon” Mullins (my grandfather) to fill in as a Sunny Mountain Boy on the fiddle for this record.
Bean Blossom also features a set from Bill’s son James Monroe & The Midnight Ramblers, as well as a few other special performances.
During Bill’s closing set, he features a few special guests. Jim & Jesse are called to join The Blue Grass Boys on stage for a memorable rendition of I Wonder Where You Are Tonight. Bill introduces Carl Jackson, who had taken time of the road from Glen Campbell’s band to stop by the stage at Bean Blossom and play mind-boggling banjo version of Orange Blossom Special.
It is commonly known that Bill loved fiddle music. He grew up listening to his Uncle Pen play the fiddle at barn dances around mountains of Kentucky, and wrote many popular fiddle tunes including Jerusalem Ridge and Wheel Hoss. He highlights the fiddle on Bean Blossom by calling a dozen of the best fiddle players in the world for an all-star rendition of some old instruemntals. The bluegrass symphony of Kenny Baker, Howdy Forrester, Gordon Terry, Paul Warren, Tex Logan, Buck Ryan, Curly Ray Cline, Jim Brock, Randall Collins, Clarence “Tater” Tate, Lonnie Pierce, and Joe Meadows echoes through the Indiana hills and is any fiddler’s dream. Performing such standards as Down Yonder, Soldier’s Joy, Grey Eagle, and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, any fiddler would do well to learn from the masters.
I wonder if the Centerville Alternative Strings program, in which kids at Centerville High School (Centerville, OH) learn alternative music (including bluegrass), have heard these recordings? Alternative Strings have performed with Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers, Rhonda Vincent & The Rage, Special Consensus, Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper, Sierra Hull & Highway 111, Cherryholmes, and appear with Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver on Life Goes On from the Musicians Against Childhood Cancer. They would do well to study these classic fiddle recordings.
Live bluegrass from the first generation pioneers is awfully hard to beat, and this record is no exception.
Bean Blossom was released in 1973 on MCA Records (MCA 8002). While there have been CD copies available, it is currently out of print on compact disc, but it can be downloaded digitally via iTunes. You might also be able to find an LP copy at your local used record store. Make sure it’s iconic “flower-dy” cover is not absent from your collection!
Question of the Week: For those of you who attended Bean Blossom this past week, what were some of your favorite moments?