Brown County Bluegrass Festival celebrates 25th anniversary

Artie WernerThis coverage of the Brown County Fest is a contribution from Artie Werner, bass player/booking agent for The Missy Werner Band, and husband of The Missy Werner.

The Brown County Bluegrass FestivalFestival promoter Don Morgan, along with son Rob, achieved a milestone this past weekend as they celebrated the 25th year of The Brown County Bluegrass Festival. The three day event is held annually in Georgetown, Ohio, located 45 miles southeast of Cincinnati.

Having performed at the festival for the past three years as a member of The Missy Werner Band and with other groups in years past, I thought this would be an excellent time to speak with them about their success.

Both are musicians, performing as Rob Morgan and Company in the ’70s and ’80s. Don spoke about many of the great musicians they performed with, and playing before large crowds in the region. When asked what inspired him to enter the festival business, with a smile and laugh he replied, “I’ll have to blame that on my son, Rob. He was the one that got everything instigated and then he moved off and left me and went to Booneville, KY. We also held festivals in Booneville for a few years, but in 2005 I suffered a heart attack and had to scale things back a bit. Rob continued to hold the Kentucky festival for two or three years after, The River Park Bluegrass Festival.”

Don Morgan, chief promoter at The Brown County Bluegrass Festival - photo by Artie WernerFestival promotion is a time consuming task. Don and Rob begin the booking process  in October and carry out the majority of the advertising. Don spends many weekends traveling to other regional shows distributing handbills along with utilizing social media to make announcements. He observes the stage acts at those shows, maintaining a watchful eye for groups the fans enjoy most. Don relies on no sponsorship, using his own resources to fund the festival. Rob also promotes while performing with his band, Higher Vision. Throughout the day I observed Don driving his golf cart between gate and stage area, ensuring the comfort of  the bands and patrons alike. He also made time to sit and watch each band perform for a few minutes. Rob, along with Bo McCarty, kept the stage show running smoothly and on time with their emcee work.

The festival is situated on the Brown County Ohio Fairgrounds and features all of the amenities required for an enjoyable experience. There are plenty of electrical and water hookups on green spaces, showers, and an array of cuisines offered to satisfy nearly any appetite. Camping begins on the Sunday before the festival begins, with a free bean dinner offered on Wednesday evening to three day attendees. I commented to Rob about the number of campers there and he estimated around 500. The stage is positioned on the grassy infield of an equestrian arena which allows plenty of room for lawn chairs. There is also a large grandstand under roof for daytime shade. The grandstand is positioned so that after about 6 pm the lawn chairs are also shaded. The weather was picture perfect on Friday with a high temperature of 77 degrees, so sun and shade were equally comfortable. They pride themselves on the number of return visitors, and also noted a large amount of new ones this year. I spoke to IBMA Songwriter of the Year nominee Bill Castle and he stated, “I can’t remember a year that I’ve missed the show.”

Larry Sparks and The Lonesome Ramblers at The Brown County Bluegrass Festival - photo by Artie WernerThere is no skimping on talent at Brown County. Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out anchored the Thursday afternoon/evening show along with four other bands, their final set lasting approximately 30 minutes past the scheduled end time. One band in particular I must mention is East Fork Junction. Their guitar player, Tom Hill, was diagnosed with advance stages of lung cancer back in February and still yet found the strength to perform. Prayers and good thoughts for him would certainly be appreciated. On Friday, we (The Missy Werner Band) shared the bill with headliner and 2015 IBMA Hall of Fame inductee Larry Sparks with his Lonesome Ramblers, Ralph Stanley II, Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice, IBMA Emerging Artist nominee Adkins & Loudermilk, Hammertowne, and Ma Crow & The Ladyslippers. The Saturday show featured Joe Mullins and The Radio Ramblers, The Darrell Webb Band, Big Country Bluegrass, Nightflyer, and Rob’s band, Higher Vision. One special last minute addition, James King, was announced to the lineup about a week before the show. When I asked Don about the addition of King, he replied “James and I go many years back. The first time I met him was at IBMA in Owensboro, KY. We were standing in the hotel balcony along with Jimmy Martin, singing some trios, a great memory. I was actually the first promoter to bring James to Ohio. James is a sick man right now, and I have great compassion for folks in need. He called me a couple of weeks ago and I moved the schedule around to get him in for a thirty minute evening set.”

The festival has a great reputation for non-stop jam sessions that begin early in the morning and also end early in the morning. Many of the hired musicians “hit the fields” after their shows and join in and play into the wee hours. I can attest to that myself. In the early ’90s we performed there with Dwight McCall picking banjo. While jamming later that evening, Charlie Waller walked up and spoke to us. Dwight took the mandolin, Mr. Waller borrowed a guitar, and the two played and sang for a couple of hours. It was essentially a tryout, and a few short months later McCall became a member of the Country Gentlemen. Don recalls spending time with Waller on his motor home at another festival, one week before Charlie passed away.

Joe Mullins, Don Morgan, James King at The Brown County Bluegrass Festival - photo courtesy of Carmen DillsI asked Don if there was ever any time when he contemplated giving up the festival business and we both laughed when he said “Well, there have been several nights when you’re lying in the camper and the rain is hitting the rooftop, and you think, I’m done, it’s time to throw in the towel! But, after it’s all over with and you look back, some of the best people in the world that I’ve met over the past 25 years were at my festivals. I think I can go on for a few more years.”

When asked about any advice that he may offer for anyone thinking about putting on a festival his response was “Yes, I have some good advice. Don’t go into the festival business the first two or three years thinking you are going to walk away with a pocket full of money. Many years you might break even, and if I do that I consider myself ahead. You have to do it for the love of the music. It’s not the money, and like so many of the bands, they do it for the love of the music and try to keep bluegrass music alive.”

Their festival tee says it all, “25 Years of Good Music and Good Friends” Here’s wishing the best to Don, Rob, and crew for many more years of continued success. You can check their website online to perhaps schedule your visit for next year.