When I was learning to play banjo in the mid-1970’s, one of the first albums I bought was the two-album live recording from the Bill Monroe’s Bean Blossom festival, which became one of my favorites and a great source of material to learn from Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, Jim & Jesse, Jimmy Martin, and many others (not to mention Carl Jackson’s blistering barrage of melodics on Orange Blossom Special).
However, despite considering myself a bluegrass veteran, I have to admit (with a little embarrassment) that I had never attended the festival at Bean Blossom until this week. When I got a call from Darrell Webb asking me to work the festival, mixing sound for his group, I was happy to make the trip, even if there was a momentary thought that when I dreamed of working there, it was as a performer, not a sound technician (I can still dream, can’t I?).
The Bill Monroe Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival is the oldest continuously running bluegrass festival in the world (not the first, but it has survived and thrived longer than any other). This year’s event marks 46 years since it was started and hosted by Bill Monroe on his farm and home away from home. Now named the Bill Monroe Memorial Music Park and Campground, the park, which is large enough to warrant a map to help visitors to find their way around, also houses the Bill Monroe Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
For those who have visited many amusement parks with your children and know the importance of remembering the section where you parked your car (was it Mickey or Minnie?), it was amusing to find that Bill Monroe’s park has visitor parking in rows marked “Lester Flatt Drive,” “Earl Scruggs Lane,” etc. Upon arriving, and parking in the reserved area immediately behind the stage (working has its perks), I headed first out to take a quick look at the sound mixing board and to introduce myself to the sound crew.
Let me say that everyone associated with GEM Sound was helpful, cooperative, and friendly, and they had everything sounding good for all the groups. It was no surprise to hear they do some of the biggest festivals, including the Musicians Against Childhood Cancer festival in Columbus, Ohio, and Rudyfest in Grayson, Kentucky (which is getting bigger every year), in addition to Bean Blossom.
Along with the Darrell Webb Band, the day’s lineup included Volume Five, Chris Jones & The Night Drivers, Junior Sisk & Rambler’s Choice, Grasstowne, and many others. In between his performances, Chris Jones was also broadcasting on XM Bluegrass Junction. Speaking of broadcasting, I understand that the stage show is broadcast live in the park over radio, so attendees can go back to their campers and eat or cool off and not miss any of the show.
I had not had the opportunity to hear Grasstowne since Steve Gulley’s departure, but was impressed with the vocals of his replacement, Dustin Pyrtle. Alan Bibey spent a couple hours backstage between their shows playing the mandolin (a good deal of the time with just a few of us present, so he wasn’t doing it for “show”), which is a good example of how to reach your potential — play as much as possible every day.
I enjoyed, as did the rest of the audience, the performance of Junior Sisk and Rambler’s Choice. Instrumentally, vocally, and energetically, the group entertained with a driving, traditional sound that evokes memories of all the great architects of bluegrass music. While my better half, Valerie, was documenting the day’s activities by shooting photos at a position to the side of the stage, Junior craned his neck around to smile for the camera while maintaining his guitar pointed in the opposite direction (in the “gather around the center mic” position) — ever the ham entertainer.
I’ve always been a big fan of Darrell Webb since seeing him for the first time with the Lonesome River Band at Frontier Ranch when he had just joined the band at the age of 19. I was particularly surprised to learn at that time that he was a native West Virginian, as I’ve always tried to “keep tabs” on all the good, young bluegrass pickers (you’ve always got to be ready to find your next mandolin player, bass player, etc.). Since then, he’s been an asset to many bandleaders, including J. D. Crowe, Rhonda Vincent, & Michael Cleveland, among others, until finally deciding to take on the role of bandleader himself, forming the Darrell Webb Band a few years ago.
Due to an impending delivery of the blessed kind, regular bass player and tenor vocalist Jeremy Arrowood had to stay close to home, so former Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver bassist (and more recently drummer) Carl White joined the Webb crew. He did a fine job, and his electric bass solo on Reuben was reminiscent of an electric bass player of long ago who would occasionally take a solo. The entire band is great, but I must say I’m a fan of their guitar player, Jared Hensley. While Tony Rice is my favorite bluegrass guitar player of all time (isn’t he everyone’s?), it’s nice to hear someone tears up the entire neck without resorting to any of the standard Rice repertoire of licks.
Unfortunately, it had to be a one-and-done trip, as Valerie and I had to return to West Virginia for engagements on Monday and Tuesday with our own group, but I definitely want to return in the future. We really didn’t get to explore the whole park, but it’s apparent that former Bluegrass Boy and present proprietor Dwight Dillman is doing a great job of keeping Bill Monroe’s legacy alive. The park hosts numerous events throughout the year (the Bikerfest sounds interesting) and is a busy campground from spring to fall.
For anyone looking for something to do this weekend (really wish I could go back for this), J. D. Crowe is being featured on Saturday in a 40 year reunion with former members of the New South. For those not able to make it, I spoke with Greg Luck, guitar player and lead singer on Come O Down To My World, and he advised that there are plans to videotape the show and release it on DVD. Can’t wait to get mine!