Bluegrass Hotel – Newgrass turns 40

The Bluegrass Hotel - Tony Rice, JD Crowe, Dan Crary, John Cowan, Sam BushAnother major benefit concert is scheduled for March 20 in Louisville, KY. The show is intended to mark 2009 as the 40th anniversary of newgrass music, and the crucial role that Louisville played in its birth and development.

In fact there is much more than just a concert in store for the Ruby celebrations. A documentary DVD, audio CD/LP and a coffee table book are all scheduled for a fall ’09 release centered around The Bluegrass Hotel, an informal bluegrass rooming house for L’ville grassers in the 1970s.

The Hotel is a large Victorian-era home in the Cherokee Park neighborhood, not far from downtown Louisville. The house is and was then owned by Harry Bickel, who offered rooms at attractive rates to bluegrass musicians in the area.

One of those who stayed there in the ’70s was Bill Millet, former banjo picker with The Bluegrass Alliance who works now as a music producer. In addition to touring widely, this group served as an internship for young, progressive bluegrass pickers at that time. Other members during that period include Sam Bush, Tony Rice, Dan Crary, Vince Gill, Curtis Burch and Courtney Johnson.

In fact, Newgrass Revival got its start when the four original members (Bush, Johnson, Burch and Ebo Walker) left Bluegrass Alliance to launch the Revival after a simmering feud developed between the four of them and band leader Lonnie Peerce.

Millet grew up in Texas, but found himself living in Louisville when he took the Alliance gig.

The Bluegrass Hotel, circa 1975: 1st resident Bill Millet, 2nd resident Doc Hamilton and owner Harry Bickel“I was the first resident of The Bluegrass Hotel in 1975, and Vince Gill was it’s 4th in the same year when he took my invitation to join The Bluegrass Alliance, replacing the outgoing Glenn Lawson (going to J.D. Crowe).

Harry Bickel bought a huge house and initially needed boarders to offset expenses. They were mostly comprised of members of The Bluegrass Alliance and other related pickers that Harry knew and trusted. Harry Sparks had an instrument repair shop set up in the basement which attracted Sam Bush, J.D. Crowe and others, because Sparky was their luthier/repairman of choice.”

Bill recalls paying $45 each month, plus a share of utilities for his room. Other notable pickers who stayed during the 70s include Tony Rice, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, J.D. Crowe, Doyle Lawson, Tony Williamson, and Jack Lawrence.

The home is now a private residence, as Harry’s wife Ann chased off all the pickers when they married in 1981.

When the 40th anniversary of newgrass drew near in 2008, Millet and others started the preparations to mark the milestone. Footage was shot during IBMA 2008 of the various Bluegrass Hotel alumni recalling stories of their time in Louisville, plus some impromptu jamming and plans were laid for the March 2009 concert at The Galt House – the former home of the annual IBMA convention on “the banks of the Ohio.”

This concert will also be filmed for the DVD, co-produced with Kentucky Educational Television (KET).

Dan Crary, Sam Bush, John Cowan, JD Crowe and Tony Rice perform at Rudyard Kipling in Louisville, December 14, 2008 The March 20 concert is open to the public, and will be centered on an all-star band performance featuring Sam Bush, Curtis Burch, John Cowan, J.D. Crowe, Tony Rice and Dan Crary. A great many former members of Newgrass Revival and The Bluegrass Alliance will also make appearances on the show, including Danny Jones, Buddy Spurlock, Tony Williamson, Jack Lawrence, Al White, Harry Bickel, Steve Cooley, Glenn Lawson, Marshall Billingsley, Chuck Nation, Bob Briedenbach, Thayne Bradford, Danny Wiley, Keith and Darrell Sanson, Bill Millet, John Jump, Robert Pool, Marty Townsend, Dennis White, and others.

All proceeds from the concert will go to benefit the American Cancer Society. Special package rates are available through February 20 for tickets and accommodations at The Galt House.

Following the concert, Millet and fellow former Alliance member and Bluegrass Hotel resident John Jump will produce an audio CD with the all-star hotel pickers. Details are scant at this time, but Bill says that it will consist of new songs written by John Cowan, Dan Crary, J.D. Crowe, Sam Bush and Curtis Burch.

Jump is also a successful record producer and former exec at MCA. Sam Bush will also be a co-producer. The recording will be released on a Universal Music Group imprint.

Both the finished CD/LP and the concert DVD are expected to hit during this year’s IBMA World Of Bluegrass convention in Nashville (9/28-10/4). As will a coffee table book written by Harry Bickel, who has also compiled photos from the years he ran his rooming house.

Bickel was interviewed in December by Elizabeth Kramer of WFPL, Lousiville’s NPR station:

 The Bluegras Alliance in 1975 - Bill Millet (banjo), Vince Gill (guitar), Lonnie Peerce (fiddle), Al White (mandolin), Marshall Billingsly (bass)"When I bought the house in 1975 and guys from the Bluegrass Alliance started living here, then this became the center of the whole thing," says Harry Bickel, a Bluegrass fan and banjo player.

He owns the house, and "the thing" he’s talking about is a time when something called "New Grass" music was taking root. The Bluegrass Hotel was an informal boarding house for musicians, including members of the Bluegrass Alliance, a band that helped launch the careers of Vince Gill and mandolin player Sam Bush. They’d jam in the cavernous rooms on the first-floor and in the smaller bedrooms upstairs.

"This is where guys would practice their music," he says in an upstairs room. "And there was a big sideboard over there, and we had all the stereo equipment there, and headphones and all that kind of stuff. So guys would sit here all day long practicing sometimes with tapes. And we’d jam up here some."

Bickel says there were always musicians coming and going. Many paid upward of $35 a month — plus utilities. Others came with bands on tour and would crash for a few nights. There was a lot of beer flowing in those days and several eating contests involving White Castle hamburgers. Bickel says some mornings he woke up to find a dozen musicians sleeping on his living room floor.

Sam Bush says he remembers playing at the house day and night.

"To this day I don’t know if I’ve ever seen any healthier or, you know, more outgoing music scene than Louisville used to have," Bush says.

You can hear the entire interview at

The Bluegrass Hotel Project will donate all the royalties from the sales of the book, DVD, CD and LP to the IBMA Bluegrass Trust Fund, and to establish a permanent Newgrass-era collection and exhibit.

We’ll have more about these various Bluegrass Hotel projects as the release date draws near. Details will also be posted on The Bluegrass Hotel web site.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.