Camp Springs reopens for 50th Anniversary

50 years ago on Labor Day weekend, the first bluegrass festival in North Carolina was held at Camp Springs Bluegrass Park. This past weekend, the inaugural event resumed, following the labor of its new owners, Cody and Donna Johnson of Elon, NC.

“This is hallowed ground and we all know it,” shared JR Dunbar of the opening band, Loose Gravel, on Sunday’s show. “Anybody that has played in the music business has played here.”

In 1969, on a rural farm in the northwestern part of the Tarheel State, Carlton Haney, a music promoter, held the multi-day event that would become the prototype for bluegrass music festivals.

Doug Hutchens, a former Blue Grass Boy with Bill Monroe, returned to honor the memories that he had of Camp Springs Bluegrass Park.

“The folks who purchased the park have done a wonderful job in putting the grounds back into service. There is much more to do, but they’ve sure made a great start. The change is amazing!

The last time I was down several years ago, there were 6 inch pines growing in the seating area in front of the stage and the whole thing had grown into a thicket. The Johnsons have done a bunch of work and while I don’t go listen to music much these days, I just wanted to go and support them by buying a ticket and seeing a few friends.”

Hutchens reflected on his input during the festival’s original run. “I only played on stage twice. Once when Tex Logan enlisted me to work the weekend with he and the Lilly Brothers and Don Stover, and the other was once when Cecil Hall asked me to sing baritone on a couple of tunes.”

Hutchens knew that Carlton’s event was the blueprint for others. “Ralph saw this (bluegrass festival) and started his own in McClure, and Bill started Bean Blossom.”

Red Roberts, “Lucky from KY” as he called himself, came 50 years ago and was back for the grand reopening. In his wallet, he carried a worn ticket from 1969.

“Back then this was the only place to go,” Roberts, a banjo picker himself, explained. 

Roberts’ ticket read Fifth Annual. Haney held his bluegrass first festival in Fincastle, Virginia, in ’65 and ’66, then moved it to the northern part of the Old Dominion State to Berryville for two years. His multi-day, star-studded line-up, found a home on his brother, Charles’, farm in 1969, calling it Camp Springs Bluegrass Park, and there it remained until its closure in the ’80s. Haney passed away in March 2011.

Fred Bartenstein was 18 years old and served as festival director and Haney’s right hand man. Now president/chair of the IBMA Foundation, he shared, “I’m glad to hear that Bluegrass Park at Camp Springs has been resurrected. As John Hartford sang, ‘A lot of good things went down one time, back in the Goodle Days.'”

David and Patty Brookbank of Wentworth, NC, returned for the park’s 50th anniversary.

“We love it, ” banjo-picker David expressed. “I sure am glad that they got it going. We met here.”

After their initial introduction at Camp Springs in 1969, the couple began dating, and married in 1985. It was truly a special reunion for them.

Co-owner Donna Johnson was pleased as she watched cars and campers roll into their reopened park. “I’m estatic at the turnout and the support that we’ve gotten. It only goes up from here.”

Geoffrey Keyes of Blue Ridge Sound manned the sound booth during the 50th anniversary. The young man wasn’t alive when the first festival was held, but felt honored to be part of the event.

“I’m excited to see it revive. It’s a good setting. It’s a cool feeling to be a part of this history.”

“I’m thrilled to see it back,” stated NC Bluegrass Association president, Vivian Pennington Hopkins, who was present for the first festival. “You can feel Carlton and Monroe’s presence. I feel sure that Carlton was looking down and smiling, and maybe even drifting in and out among us while we enjoyed the music. ”

Doyle Lawson played Camp Springs with JD Crowe and the Kentucky Mountain Boys in ’69 and ’70. In 1971, he was back on stage as the newest member of the Country Gentlemen. This weekend, Lawson returned, fronting his own iconic band, Quicksilver.

The Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame member addressed the audience. “You’re sitting on historic ground. What a joy to be back! We all owe Carlton a debt of gratitude.”

He went on to praise the Johnsons. “A lot of hard work went into this. Tell folks this is the place to go on Labor Day weekend.”

Ralph Stanley II & the Clinch Mountain Boys closed out the 50th anniversary festival on Sunday night. The performer wasn’t born until nine years after the festival began, but his dad, Dr. Ralph Stanley, was there for the first festival in 1969. 

On the last song of his set, Ralph Stanley II related, “I think it’s fitting to close with the song that my dad played here with Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley 50 years ago,” and the Clinch Mountain Boys launched into their version of Katy Daly.”

Proprietor Cody Johnson reflected as fans exited the venue. “We had 1,000 people on Saturday. I’m glad people came out to relive some memories of the past 50 years and we want to make more in the next 50 years.”

“A big part of the show was The (Bluegrass) Story (told annually on stage by Haney) and I feel like the story continues,” Don Wright, DDS, and banjo-picker with Loose Gravel reflected. 

“For myself and countless others who remember the first Camp Springs Bluegrass Festival, this one was a special one and we’ll look forward to coming back next year,” the NC Bluegrass Association president expressed.

The 50th anniversary event was held on a temporary stage in front of the site of the original stage. Portions of the first stage’s cinderblock basement and metal framing loomed as a reminder of the park’s legacy.

Donna Johnson concluded, “The plan is to use as much of the original stage as possible to rebuild. That’s our overall agenda.”

Contributions to assist with the restoration process of Camp Springs Bluegrass Park may be sent to:

Camp Springs Events
1390 Pagetown Road
Elon, NC 27244

…or contact the Johnsons at 336-213-1944.

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About the Author

Sandy Hatley

Sandy Chrisco Hatley is a free lance writer for several NC newspapers and Bluegrass Unlimited magazine. As a teenager, she picked banjo with an all girl band called the Happy Hollow String Band. Today, she plays dobro with her husband's band, the Hatley Family.