Charles Ray Stearman, the founder of the long running Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America, has died at 79. Known as Chuck to family and friends, he had been living in a nursing facility in Brookfield, MO, a short distance from his family home in Kirksville.
Chuck had been quite ill this past few years, and while his family has continued to operate the organization’s two major conventions in Nashville and Jefferson City, MO each year, they had begun to spin off other SPBGMA events to other entities. During its hey day, SPBGMA managed 35-40 different festivals in the central US.
Starting in the late 1960s, Stearman worked with The Bluegrass Association, a band based in Kansas City. They were very popular regionally and performed regularly at festivals, concerts and the like. Chuck played mandolin with Lyman Enloe on fiddle, Jim McGreevy on banjo, Don Montgomery on bass, and John Bennett on guitar. They recorded four albums prior to their breakup in 1981.
Prior to his bluegrass career, Chuck had served in the US Army Airborne division, worked as a carpet layer, and owned a restaurant and lounge.
His efforts to promote bluegrass music with SPBGMA started in 1974. He and Jim McGreevy had talked a good deal about the importance of having an organization devoted to the preservation of the music. It was McGreevy who came up with the name, and the acronym which they pronounced as “Spigma.”
Their first festival was at a state park in Kirksville, where as it happens, Chuck first met Diana who a few years later he would wed. Her daughter Stephanie told us earlier today that she remembers them hosting the festival in Kirksville for a couple of years before they married, and after that, she and her sister, Suzanne, would spend the summers on the road hitting dozens of different festivals in Missouri, Iowa, Arkansas, Kentucky, and other neighboring states. She said that summers were a blur of activity, traveling from place to place and putting up flyers for various SPBGMA-sanctioned events.
In 1983 Chuck took a gamble and decided to host his first SPBGMA event in Nashville, and noted it as their first annual convention. The family recalls that Stearman went to the bank and borrowed $5000 and said, “Let’s give this a try!”
The National SPBGMA Convention has been held every year since in Music City, along with their Awards Show. People come from all over the US to attend, including old timers who have been there from the start along with young pickers, singers, and fans who hadn’t been born when the first convention was held.
Over his many years in bluegrass, Chuck got to know almost every entertainer, agent, promoter, business person, and a large number of fans. He loved his bluegrass family and they loved him right back.
His two daughters and their husbands are committed to keeping things going for the immediate future. Details for SPBGMA 2017 are expected to be announced in the near future.
Visitation is scheduled for Sunday (June 19) from 2:00-4:00 p.m. at the Cornerstone Church in Kirksville, with funeral services on Monday at 10:00 a.m.
R.I.P., Chuck Stearman.