Bean Blossom 2012 report – New South reunion

This report, and photos, from Bean Blossom 2012 are a contribution from MaryE Yeomans, who we hope will be a regular correspondent and photographer for Bluegrass Today.

It’s a hot one here today, the eighth and final day of the Bill Monroe Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival just a few miles up the road from Nashville, Indiana. A steady line of cars files into the large site as we anxiously anticipate the festival’s grand finale – the 40 year reunion of J.D. Crowe and the New South. Along the way today we’ll enjoy the likes of Bobby Osborne, Michael Cleveland, Dr. Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys and the Tony Rice Unit.

Gazing out at the crowd gathered last night to hear Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers, Larry Sparks, J.D Crowe and the New South (the current band), Ralph Stanley II and the James King Band I remember thinking that it was the largest Friday night crowd I’d seen here in many years. But tonight’s crowd is sure to swell to a far greater size as we all gather to witness the tribute to one of the great ones of our music, J.D. Crowe.

Crowe is always a big draw here at Bean Blossom, but with the announcement of his impending semi-retirement, it comes as no surprise that people have traveled here from all corners of the country to honor this legend of our music. Yesterday Crowe was featured at the workshop stage where he autographed copies of his book, posters, banjos, t-shirts and other items as fans patiently waited for a moment of his undivided attention.

While not all former members of the New South are able to be here tonight for the two-hour (I’ve been told by a reliable source that it will likely run at least three hours with some eight configurations of the band appearing) show, it’s sure to be a night chock-full of delights, laughter, stories great music, and tears. While I’ve heard rumors of those who will be here, it’s best to come to Bean Blossom and see for yourself. It’s just never the same as being here. Suffice it to say, you will not go away disappointed.

Several thousand people have been here for over a week enjoying the sounds of a virtual who’s who of bluegrass music. Traditional bluegrass music fans come to the “Mecca of Bluegrass” in droves each year to enjoy the musical offerings and camaraderie of many of their favorite bluegrass artists. This year’s lineup featured 55 bands on the main stage along with several workshops every day. A Kids’ Boot Camp early in the week provided the opportunity for about 60 young people to start learning to play a bluegrass instrument – or to further advance their skills. Their Wednesday afternoon performance provided a festival highlight for many of the people on the grounds. As I’ve heard it said so many times this week, “These kids are the future of bluegrass music.”

Earlier in the week David Davis and the Warrior River Boys caused many of us to remember what it was like see Bill Monroe up on that stage and hear his mandolin ringing through the grove of trees in the concert area. Davis performed a couple of crowd favorites, In the Pines and Dusty Miller, the tune that Monroe probably played the best during his last years. It is almost eerie (in a good way) to see and hear Davis as he channels Monroe in the place where so many of us last saw Monroe perform. Davis gives me chill bumps and I’m not afraid to admit it. After the last note of Dusty Miller rang through the crowd I was standing on the side of the stage and had to fight the impulse to run up to the microphone and give an Eddie Stubbs line, “Are there any questions?”

Longview (featuring J.D. Crowe) and Junior Sisk and Ramblers Choice delivered great classic bluegrass punctuated by soulful vocals and fabulous breaks. Junior Sisk has got to be one of the nicest, most laid back people in bluegrass today. But when he opens his mouth to sing it is absolutely Katie bar the door. Junior should be called Mister Bluegrass Country Soul.

There have been so many memorable performances here this week that it’s hard to single out just a few. Adam McIntosh sang Be Jesus to Someone Today during a wonderful set by the incomparable Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers. There is just something about Adam’s very soft, expressive voice that fits that song like it was custom-made. Joe and his finely-honed band were hitting me in all the right places, vocally and instrumentally. Several of us melted in the hot afternoon sun so we could be up close as they gathered around the single vocal microphone and performed that unique sort of choreography that occurs when you’ve got bodies, banjo necks, bellies and bows weaving in and out at high velocity. It’s a great visual joy while the ears are stimulated by gospel quartets and thought-provoking instrumental breaks.

My buddy Raymond Huffmaster was sitting next to me during Joe Mullins’s smokin’ afternoon set. He leaned over to me and said, “Joe’s bitin’ on his tongue just like his daddy did.” I had to laugh; he was exactly right. That’s the sort of thing that makes front row bluegrass more interesting – the down home, family-style approach. It’s nice to see bands often enough to get to know performer’s unique characteristics and mannerisms. While I was musing on this thought, Joe and his band did a song called “Lily” that left more than one of us misty-eyed. That’s some hard-hitting bluegrass right there.

Friday evening Bean Blossom attendees have a lot to keep busy apart from the shows onstage. A few years ago James King decided to show appreciation for his fans by serving up a free dinner for them. He called this “‘Mater Sammich Time” and now it is a tradition. James and wife Julie along with several helpers serve up bologna and cheese with ripe tomatoes and Duke’s mayonnaise between two slices of white bread. Fans line up for an hour to get one of these (yummy) sammiches. The line snakes down the hill past old rattletraps that Bill and Birch used to drive around the grounds. One thing’s for sure: the fans appreciate and enjoy every bite of the sammiches – good groceries!

Now if you’re energetic, you run up the hill with your sammich just in time to catch part of the legendary Sunset Jam being held simultaneously. Bill Monroe always hosted a jam up by the front gate of the park on Friday evening. Hundreds of people gathered to pick or listen. Featured performers enjoyed being part of this wonderful tradition. That tradition is still carried on here where the memory of Mr. Monroe lurks in the trees, throughout the campground and on the rustic path around the lake where he often took a stroll. This year’s sunset jam featured Melvin Goins, Charlie Sizemore, and other performers as well as fans who love to jam or are just keen to listen.

John Rigsby was playing fiddle and mandolin with Ralph Stanley II onstage late last night. When Ralph broke a string, he asked Jon to sing Beulah Land unaccompanied at a slow cadence; that alone made seven hours in a chair on the front row worthwhile. I could see the song before me, I was transported to the mountains to an old camp meeting somewhere under a brush arbor.

Audie Blaylock and Redline held the crowd in the palm of their hands this week as they played sets of well-loved bluegrass chestnuts intermingled with new songs with a traditional bent. With Jesse Brock, Patrick McAvinue, Jason Moore and Russ Carson to complement his considerable talents, Audie and band were stoked and smokin’ and a great crowd favorite. Audie’s long tenure with the great Jimmy Martin certainly has paid off!

As I said before, this is J.D. Crowe week at Bean Blossom and the sun has shone brightly through his silver hair all week. Is there anyone more deserving of a special reunion celebration? The long set last night with his current band featured so many golden Crowe nuggets, some dating back 40 years, it was like browsing through the Crowe section of my LP collection. Crowe and crew picked Summer Wages, You Can Share My Blanket, and more contemporary favorites such as In My Next Life and Lefty’s Old Guitar for a huge and very appreciative audience.

It’s hard to imagine that, after seven days of fantastic music, the best of the best, tonight is likely to raise the bar a few notches. Those of us who are lucky enough to be here in Bean Blossom, Indiana, on this toasty June day are going to witness a show that we will never forget. We will feel the excitement of the music and the passion of the people gathered together here among the trees tinged with nostalgia. We will know joy touched with sadness as we witness yet another of our bluegrass heroes deciding it’s time to get off the road and take it easy for awhile, a rest that is well-deserved after a lifetime of wonderful innovation, achievements and accolades, not to mention all the friendships Crowe has forged and his wonderfully pervasive influence on bluegrass music.

Out among the campers there’s a fever building. The day’s heat stokes the fever’s fire. The fried chicken and pecan pie, the cold drinks and jam sessions keep that fire burning bright and glowing. The friends who stop by to say hello and share a story or a memory of “remember when Monroe said…?” add blue licks to the flame. The fire burns on as night approaches. More songs are sung, more friends stop by. Soon it will be time to head down to the stage – for Ralph and Tony and finally J.D and the show we’ve all been awaiting. Or better yet, come on over and join us!

All around the campground folks are excited about all the wonderful young musicians we’ve enjoyed this week at Bean Blossom. Several bands have invited young performers such as Isaac Moore, Kyle Ramey, and Jaelee Roberts to join them onstage to play or sing a song. Around the campfires and at every turn are young people who are on fire with bluegrass music. Among the thousands of people who take in every note that is sung and played tonight on the stage there will be many bright young eyes and ears drinking in the bluegrass music on a beautiful night in the hills of Brown County.

Here’s to J.D. Crowe and his legacy.