Carlton Haney – a bluegrass life

Carlton L Haney, one of the most colorful, larger-than-life characters in a bluegrass world full of strong personalities, passed away on March 16 in Greensboro, North Carolina. He was 82 and he had suffered a stroke earlier in the month.

Born in Reidsville, North Carolina, in September 1928, Haney first became aware of bluegrass music in the early 1950s through dating Melissa Monroe, the daughter of the music’s originator, Bill Monroe.

This friendship led Bill Monroe to ask Haney to book some show dates in the North Carolina Piedmont region. These were successful and Monroe recruited Haney to manage advance publicity and promote his show dates. That arrangement lasted for a couple of years. In the summer of 1955, Monroe sent Haney to Bean Blossom, Indiana, to help with his Brown County Jamboree. Apparently, Haney’s ideas didn’t please Bill’s older brother Birch, the resident manager there for several decades. Already Haney was demonstrating that his thinking was a way ahead of his time.

Haney managed Reno & Smiley & the Tennessee Cut-Ups from January 1956, until the group’s break-up in February 1965. He also helped initiate the group’s Top O the Morning TV show, which he produced, on WDBJ in Roanoke, Virginia. During his time with Reno & Smiley, he wrote songs for the group, including He Will Forgive You, Kneel Down, Never Get to Hold You in My Arms Anymore, and co-wrote the group’s chart hit, Jimmy Caught the Dickens Pushing Ernest in the Tub.

From 1956 through 1964 Haney also ran the New Dominion Barn Dance, a stage attraction and country music radio show broadcast each Saturday evening on WRVA-AM, Richmond, Virginia.

After Reno & Smiley’s break-up, Carlton Haney booked shows for Red Smiley & the Bluegrass Cut-Ups and conceived of a series of Country Shindigs, package shows in huge venues in multiple markets. His first took place in the Coliseum, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, with Ray Price, Porter Wagoner, Norma Jean and Kitty Wells.

Forever etched in the history of bluegrass music is the date and place of the first multi-day, multi-artist bluegrass festival – held at Cantrell’s Horse Farm, Fincastle, Virginia, Labor Day weekend, September, 3rd, 4th and 5th, 1965. In organizing this event, Haney created the model that others have used to promote bluegrass music for the past 45 years and that, critically, provided a new source of income for bluegrass bands at a time when the market was otherwise weak. There are now reckoned to be more than 500 festivals annually and it is a world-wide phenomenon.

There are music historians who argue that the Fincastle festivals also served as the model for the massive Woodstock rock music festival in 1969.

Another of Carlton’s original ideas was “The Blue Grass Story,” a feature that saw Bill Monroe, who Haney had identified as having originated bluegrass music, perform in successive reunion with former members of his band, many of whom, including Jimmy Martin, Clyde Moody, Don Reno, Mac Wiseman, Carter Stanley, Sonny Osborne, Chubby Wise, Jim Eanes, and a number of others, had gone on to their own prominent careers.

Subsequently, Haney promoted early bluegrass festivals in Berryville, Virginia; Camp Springs, North Carolina; Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; and Escoheag, Rhode Island. In 1972 he began an annual Newgrass Music Festival at Camp Springs, North Carolina.

Beginning in 1969 Haney published the bluegrass music periodical Muleskinner News. Grassound, a magazine for younger enthusiasts, followed in 1974.

At his peak, the colorful impresario, once dubbed “The P.T. Barnum of Country Music,” promoted more than 100 major shows a year in 30-some cities, from Philadelphia, in the east, to Oklahoma City, in the west. He also played important roles in the careers of the Osborne Brothers, Porter Wagoner, Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty and Merle Haggard, on two of whose albums, Okie from Muskogee (1969) and The Fightin’ Side of Me (1970), Haney can be heard introducing the country music star.

Haney is featured prominently in the 1971 movie Bluegrass: Country Soul, which was re-issued on DVD in 2006.

The International Bluegrass Music Association gave him its Award of Merit in 1990 and in 1998 he was inducted into the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame.

From 1980 Haney’s involvement in the music business was considerably reduced, although he occasionally made appearances at bluegrass events, such as the story stage at the Bass Mountain, North Carolina, festival; the early ‘90s video series Grass Roots to Bluegrass; and an event celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Fincastle Bluegrass Festival in 2005.

A charismatic individual, Haney was a determined leader who would share his wisdom with anyone who would listen. He had valuable insights, ground-breaking but viable proposals, and strong views on all sorts of topics, not least music.

What follows are personal tributes to Haney from a few of the people who knew him well.

Warren Amberson is mandolinist and vocalist with the Roanoke-based quintet Acoustic Endeavors; he has known Haney for close to 30 years.

“I’ve always considered myself the Forest Gump of bluegrass, in the sense that through the music God has put me in all these amazing situations at just the right time. I met Carlton when I was young and very impressionable in the ways of bluegrass – and, had no idea how important he was.

From my time in Europe, starting the 1st US Army Bluegrass Band, all the Legends of Bluegrass music that I have played with and befriended over the years (playing with Monroe at the Opry, the Watson’s, Baker’s, McCoury’s, O’Connor’s, Rice’s, the list goes on and on), how blessed and fortunate I have been to be exposed and part of all these things.

One thing that locks me with all the people that I’ve been involved with was Carlton. I was part of a very special club, one that he invited me into. During the weekend of the last show that I played with Vassar Clemens, we talked about Carlton. His friendship and endorsement made you part of the club. And, I am very honored to have known that. I’ve often said there are people in bluegrass music with many Grammy’s, and Honors with money that goes along with that, but they didn’t really know bluegrass because they didn’t know Carlton Haney.

A couple years ago I was asked to be on the Board to restart the Fincastle Festival, the festival that Carlton originally started. (The Roanoke Bluegrass Festival held in Fincastle, Virginia). This being my home, and Fincastle being 15 minutes away, I was very proud to be asked. I said, ‘Sure, with one stipulation, that Carlton Haney would be part of the Festival’. Their response to me was, ‘Who is Carlton Haney?’

Rest assured I educated them on who Carlton Haney was. And, I am very proud to say out of the all the great things that I’ve done, all the stages I’ve played with all the Bluegrass Heroes, all the thankful audiences, the most important thing that Warren Amberson has ever done in bluegrass music was to get Carlton Haney back to that festival that day in Fincastle. What a great day it was!

And, I got to be part of it. The “Bluegrass Story” was told in all it’s glory, old footage was shown, and Carlton got to come home that day. He cried because he couldn’t believe that people cared. And, if Carlton was here, which he is and will be forever in the history of this music, as he would say and as I will now say, ‘Nuff said.’

Rest in peace Carlton…”

Doug Hutchens, Blue Grass Boy (1971), song writer, writer of articles for bluegrass music periodicals, DJ (Blue Grass Today) and former employee of Gibson Guitar Company, reflects ….

“I went to Berryville the first time in 1970 and was camping (basically sleeping in the car). I got there on Tuesday of what he called his ‘Blue Grass School.’ He had Monroe’s band to come in on Wednesday to do some workshops.

On Thursday evening about sundown I ran upon two guys from New York, Kenny Kosek’s and Jim Tolles. But we were just jamming at the back of my car when this guitar player came by…..we didn’t know him but knew he had played some with Reno and Harrell.

After a few minutes we were picking pretty good this other guy came by and the guitar player said Dewey get your bass and he did. We’d probably played an hour or so and Carlton and John Miller came walking by and stood and listened ’till we ended the song and he said ‘Del, I know Dewey but who is the rest of your band.’

We didn’t know the guitar player until then but it was Del McCoury. Dewey was Dewey Renfro who had been in some of Del’s former bands. Del said I really don’t know these guys we just got together a few minutes ago. Carlton couldn’t believe it…he said you guys don’t know each other? We said no and he ask each of us who we were and Kenny and Jim were from New York and I was from Spencer Virginia. Carlton was elated. He said, ‘Boys this is just what I hoped would happen. Guys from all over the country meet and be able to play and sing together having never met an hour ago.’ He listened a while and walked on down the field a little ways and came back.

He said that JD Crowe was supposed to close out the show on Friday night but he had to do something in Washington for the Smithsonian and how would we like to play JD’s spot.

It floored all of us….

So Friday night at 10:00 Fred Bartenstein was introducing us when Carlton came out on stage. Fred had said that we have this put together band and what are we going to call them…lets call them the Watermelons… Then Carlton took the mike and said that ‘these boys have made my dream come true,’ ‘when I first started doing these shows I hoped that boys from all other the country would meet and play the music of Bill Monroe together.’ Lets call them the Muleskinners… With that Del did the run and Kenny went into Watermelon Hanging on the Vine.

We went on into Toy Heart and On and On, they kept coming. After a little while someone called for Uncle Pen and Sonny Osborne came out and sang baritone on Uncle Pen. Then Billy Baker and Wayne Yates came out for a tune or two. We were running over on time bad, but having a wonderful time.

Finally Carlton came out and said that we’d have to shut it down for the night but invited us to be a part of the “Story” on Sunday. We did an hour and the sound man did a tape of it for me. It was the first time I was ever on stage at a Blue Grass Festival and after we came of stage that night Carlton came out to my car about the time I was getting ready to get in the back seat and go to sleep and said there is a little storage building on the other side of the stage with a cot in in. ‘Why don’t you sleep there from now on, you’ll be much more comfortable.’

For some reason I didn’t get the word of when to be at the stage and I missed the “Story” tune. Earl Sneed was playing banjo when I walked up while the “Story” was being done. I’ve always regretted missing that but it was a great time on Saturday night.

In later years Carlton brought up that night many times as the first time that ‘his dream came true’ of having people from all parts of the country and walks of life be able to play Blue Grass together having never done it before.

In recent years I’ve spent hours on the phone with him. A call always lasted a couple of hours and I wish I had taped some of our conversations. He was a wonderful “Character” and always thinking creatively.

Fred Bartenstein, the editor of Muleskinner News from 1969-1974, has also been a broadcaster, musician, festival MC and talent director, composer, record producer, compiler of the first bluegrass market research, founder of a regional association and a lifelong fan…..

“My extended family lived in Lexington, Virginia, and I spent summers and holidays there as a child. I had become quite interested in bluegrass music and watched Red Smiley & the Bluegrass Cut-Ups on Channel 7, WDBJ, Roanoke, VA. Either on that TV show or Roanoke radio, I heard about the “Bluegrass Festival” planned for September 3-5, 1965 in nearby Fincastle. I was 14 years of age. I convinced a local bluegrass friend to take me to that event and it profoundly changed my life, especially the Sunday afternoon “Bluegrass Story,” narrated by Carlton Haney.

In 1966, I went to the festival again. That Christmas, determined to become a disc jockey, I asked the Lexington, Virginia radio station, WREL, for a summer job which, amazingly, came to pass. Several times that summer, I spoke with Carlton Haney on the phone about bluegrass and records, and even visited him at McFarlane’s Trailer Park in Hollins, where he and several of the Bluegrass Cut-Ups lived.

When Labor Day weekend, 1967 rolled around, I was still too young to drive, but I had a relative drop me off with my guitar and sleeping bag at the festival’s new location, at Watermelon Park in Berryville, Virginia. Carlton Haney said that I could sleep in the medical tent behind the stage. He was called away on Saturday to visit his mother in the hospital, leaving Dick Freeland of Rebel Records in charge. Knowing how to find me and that I was a radio DJ, Dick Freeland woke me in the medical tent that morning and asked me to emcee. When Carlton returned that evening, he was impressed that the show was running on time and asked me to emcee his bluegrass and country shows whenever I could be available.

In 1969, he moved the Berryville date up to the Fourth of July weekend and was building Blue Grass Park in Camp Springs, NC for the Labor Day event. That was the summer before I was to start Harvard College in Massachusetts and I finally had a driver’s license and a little red Volkswagen station wagon.

At Berryville, Carlton invited me to spend the rest of the summer at Camp Springs publicizing the new location. I did so, the first of six summers I would spend living at the park and traveling as program director, emcee, and publicist to numerous concerts, festivals, and fiddlers’ conventions for Carlton and other promoters. In 1969, we initiated Muleskinner News magazine as the program for the Camp Springs Festival.

Throughout my college years (September, 1969 to December, 1974) I edited Muleskinner News (Carlton Haney was publisher) and was program director for Carlton Haney’s growing list of bluegrass events at Camp Springs, NC; Berryville, VA; Gettysburg, PA; Lakeland, FL; and Escoheag, RI. I often worked at Carlton’s Country Shindig package shows as well, with artists such as Conway Twitty, Merle Haggard, Porter Wagoner, Dolly Parton, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Jerry Lee Lewis, etc.

These were experiences that shaped my life and that I will never forget. Although I resigned from direct involvement with the Haney organization when I moved to Dayton, OH in January, 1975 to pursue a full time civic career, I remained close to Carlton, his family, and associates throughout the rest of his life. I suppose I came to know Carlton as well as anyone, and certainly learned a great deal from him. Our skills were complementary, and I believe we made a good team.”

Jesse McReynolds, one half of the first generation bluegrass duo, Jim & Jesse, shares his thoughts ……

“I was sorry to hear the sad news about Carlton Haney’s passing away. Carlton was a great friend of many bluegrass and country artists. He was a promoter of bluegrass music long before it was popular with a lot of people. He will be remembered as the man who dedicated his life to making bluegrass music what it is today.”

Neil Rosenberg, banjo player, bluegrass historian and writer of Bluegrass: A History, and co-author of The Music of Bill Monroe and Bluegrass Odyssey, remembers …….

“I heard about ‘Shorty’ Haney from Marvin Hedrick soon after we met in 1961. I was twenty-two at the time, a new graduate student at Indiana University in Bloomington.

Marvin lived in Nashville, Indiana. In his mid-thirties, he’d grown up there in Brown County and had been listening to and playing old-time hillbilly music and bluegrass since his youth. He’d been attending the Sunday shows at the Brown County Jamboree, a few miles north of Nashville in Bean Blossom, since it began in the late 1930s.

Marvin held weekly jam sessions in the back room of his radio-TV shop. Between songs he’d talk about his musical experiences. He recalled when Shorty Haney began managing Bill Monroe in 1955, not long after Bill bought the Jamboree. Haney moved into one of the cabins on the Jamboree grounds. He brought in former Blue Grass Boys, creating a house band to back up visiting Jamboree acts and host radio shows broadcast from it. One such musician was Roger Smith, a fiddler and banjo picker from Mount Airy, North Carolina. Haney only stayed as Bill’s manager for about 18 months but Roger Smith settled down and became, some would say the, key figure in advancing bluegrass in Southern Indiana. Long after his brief time in Brown County, Haney was remembered for the impact of his enterprise and energy.

In 1965 Marvin received a flyer in the mail advertising Haney’s Blue Grass Festival at the Cantrell Horse Farm in Fincastle, Virginia, near Roanoke. He made plans to travel there with his family. Carlton advertised the festival far and wide. Mayne Smith wrote me from LA that he’d gotten a grant from UCLA so he could attend and carry on his bluegrass research.

I was tied up with my work at Indiana University and couldn’t go, but the day before the event started, former Blue Grass Boy Sandy Rothman, who was driving to the festival with Jody Stecher and two other young bluegrass musician-fans, knocked on the door of my apartment. They’d come from Berkeley, California, and I think their trip was pretty much a non-stop affair. They were definitely road-weary, but their rest stop at my apartment lasted only four hours. Then they hit the road for Roanoke and the festival.

Later I heard a lot about that first real bluegrass festival — from Marvin, Mayne, Sandy, Ralph Rinzler, and others. I made sure I was there for the next one on Labor Day weekend of 1966. I brought along an Ampex recorder from Indiana University’s Archives of Traditional Music. Ralph had a Nagra recorder from the Smithsonian, and we collaborated to document the entire event on tape for our institutions.

Ralph introduced me to Carlton. What stands out in my memory of our first meeting was the way he welcomed me as a student of bluegrass music. At that time I was working with Bobby and Sonny Osborne to create an Osborne Brothers discography. He was supportive of Mayne, too, who in 1965 had published the first scholarly article on bluegrass.

Carlton had arranged for a live television special about his festival and bluegrass music, featuring some of the festival’s stars, at a Roanoke station. He brought Ralph, Mayne and myself to join him in narrating segments of the show. I spoke about the Osbornes’ high lead trio style, and they illustrated my remarks with performances from their repertoire.

This was the first time I’d ever been asked to speak about bluegrass on television. Carlton’s support and enthusiasm for my work and that of others meant a lot to me. Later in the festival he invited me on stage to speak about my work. I’d been a regular at the Brown County Jamboree for five years, so I spent my time telling about Bean Blossom, and inviting festival-goers to visit it. The following June Bill held his first festival there.

Carlton recognized the depth of our involvement in this music, not just as musicians, but also as enthusiasts, intellectuals, and researchers. Much that we now take from granted today about the world of bluegrass would not have happened without his enthusiasm, his vision, his energy, and his warm welcoming ways.”

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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.