Bluegrass fans of a certain age will quickly smile and nod at the mention of Camp Springs. It’s the name of the site in North Carolina where Carlton Haney settled his bluegrass festivals after hosting them for four years in Virginia during the 1960s. A great many memories were made there at Camp Springs, and a great many people first heard and learned to play the music because of those festivals.
Haney, the quirky and energetic promoter who launched the bluegrass festival scene in Fincastle in 1965, moved to Berryville, VA after two years, and then to Camp Spring, not far from his home in Reidsville. He and his brother, Charles, had obtained a property of roughly 40 acres, and it was reconfigured in 1969 to host Carlton’s festivals using an army of volunteers.
People traveled great distances to attend as this was before the time when multiple major festivals were held each weekend during the summer months. The ability to see a dozen or more top bluegrass acts on the same stage was unheard of, and folks came from far and wide.
In 1971, a film crew headed by Albert Ihde visited the event and captured hours of footage that was assembled into the film, Bluegrass Country Soul, cementing the images and sounds of Camp Springs as typical of the time and the genre. This independent film didn’t receive wide circulation when it was completed in ’72, though a 2006 DVD release by Time Life has found its way into most serious bluegrass fans’ video libraries.
Carlton figures prominently in the film offering a narration of sorts, interspersed with a mix of stage and parking lot performances and a generous sampling of vintage ’70s audience shots. Even if you never made it Camp Springs, Bluegrass Country Soul will take you back to another time.
There are stage bits from a young Del McCoury; Ralph Stanley with Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley, and Curly Ray Cline; J.D. Crowe with Tony and Larry Rice; The Country Gentlemen with Doyle Lawson and Bill Emerson; The Osborne Brothers with Ronnie Reno in Sonny’s six-string banjo days; the hilarious antics of Bluegrass 45 from Japan; Jimmy Martin with Alan Munde on banjo; Roy Acuff with Brother Oswald; Bluegrass Alliance with a very young Sam Bush and Tony Rice; The Lilly Brothers with Don Stover and Tex Logan; the great Mac Wiseman in his prime with Chubby Wise; The Earl Scruggs Revue with Vassar Clements; and a couple of Carlton’s signature jams, closing out with a mega-banjo tribute to Earl Scruggs.
The video can be viewed on YouTube, and DVDs can be purchased from a number of sources online. Every bluegrass lover should see it at least once.
Festivals at Camp Springs continued under Haney’s leadership until 1977, and for another few years managed by John Maness and Mike Wilson from Burlington’s Bass Mountain Boys. But they moved and started a Bass Mountain Boys festival in Snow Camp, NC in 1979.
Sadly, Blue Grass Park at Camp Springs has fallen into a dismal state of disarray in recent years. Carlton’s ill health and eventual passing in 2011 had prevented him from helping keeping things up, and a piece of important bluegrass history was in danger of being lost. The property is currently deeded to his brother Charles, who is also in no position to maintain it.
But thankfully Becky Johnson, a dedicated North Carolina grasser, writer, and photographer, has launched an effort to purchase and redevelop the park under the auspices of The Camp Springs Music Foundation. Her goal is to have the site restored and functional by 2019, to mark the 50th anniversary of Haney’s first festival at Camp Springs.
Their official mission statement is as follows…
“To provide educational training and experiences concerning bluegrass music and bluegrass festivals, preserve the historic Camp Springs festival site, and stimulate the economy of Caswell and adjacent counties through cultural tourism.”
Obviously, this will be a big job and the Foundation has seated a Board of Directors, but the entire community will be asked to join in. That means both volunteers who can assist in the work locally, and bluegrass fans worldwide who might make donations towards their efforts. They are chartered as a non-profit corporation in North Carolina and are currently accepting tax-deductible donations now online.
Becky says that any donation will be welcome, no matter how small, to help achieve the objective of returning live bluegrass to Camp Springs.
“My dream is to raise monies to purchase the 42 acre tract known as Camp Springs, restore the stage and washrooms, upgrade facilities for food vending, bring in electricity to meet current standards, clear the seating area of trash and brush, and mow the 10 acre area that will be set aside for camping.”
Her long range plans include a teaching center at the festival site, and for the NC Dept. Of Cultural Resources to eventually take over management of the park.