When I first met Allen Carpenter at SPBGMA earlier this year, I immediately wondered how a racetrack operator found his way to becoming a bluegrass event producer. This was following his first Dinwiddie Music Festival at Virginia Motorsports Park, which was a major undertaking with a long list of popular acts on stage.
He told me then that a race track is an ideal site for a festival, with plenty of parking and seating, plus the ability to offer clean rest room facilities, food preparation, and camping in a well-lit and maintained area.
I’ve long recognized the overlap between the fan bases for bluegrass and auto racing, and have seen both grow from a primarily southeastern phenomenon into a national and international market over the past 40 years or so. At one time both were favored mostly by rural audiences, who kept the music – and the racing – alive in small venues outside the larger cities.
These days, racing exists as part of a huge corporate network of teams, drivers, sponsors, and media outlets that generate billions in revenue at tracks and online. NASCAR saw something of a drop in attendance during recent lean years, but is moving back up to sold out venues and record TV viewership.
Bluegrass may not have experienced quite the good fortune of auto racing, but it has continued to grow to the point where few fans view it as a regional genre, and festivals and concerts all over the US and Canada bring the music right into the neighborhoods where people live. Its growth outside North America has also brought strong acts to the fore all over the world.
But Allen’s passion for both bluegrass and racing came well before his career in track management developed. And like so many of us, it was his family’s involvement in both that caught his attention at a young age.
Carpenter was born in Avery County in the western North Carolina mountains in 1980, an area rich in bluegrass talent. Jason Burleson, banjo player with Blue Highway, and fiddler Alan Johnson are both natives. But the big draw for young Allen was his grandparents, Glen and Joanne Vance, who operated the Whispering Pines Music Park with regular performances from bluegrass stars while Allen was a youngster.
“I was fortunate enough to meet many of the bluegrass bands and musicians growing up at my grandfather’s park. Musicians such as Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, Curly Seckler, The Lewis Family, Raymond Fairchild, Josh Graves and Kenny Baker, Bill Harrell, Mac Wiseman, Dave Evans, Larry Sparks, James King, Earl Scruggs and many more. I would have loved to have been able to meet Lester Flatt but he passed away before I was born. For a long time growing up I thought Uncle Josh Graves really was my uncle. As I got older, I was disappointed to realize he wasn’t. He played at my grandfather’s park many times. Sometimes he would come and spend a few days leading up to the performance date and cook some of the best Louisiana style food you will ever eat.
My grandparents also would travel every year to Slagle’s Pasture, Denton and Bass Mountain to hand out flyers, and I would go along to help them out and enjoy the music.
I have a lot of fond memories growing up in bluegrass as a kid and getting to meet many of the great legendary artists. Not many folks can say they had that kind of opportunity.”
With the bluegrass side covered by his grandparents, Allen then picked up the racing bug from his uncle. By age 15 he was involved in drag racing and it was ultimately that racing connection that brought him back to bluegrass.
“After a few great years racing cars I started managing race tracks. I managed a couple of different race tracks in North and South Carolina before moving to Petersburg, Virginia. I became Track Manager of Virginia Motorsports Park in North Dinwiddie, Virginia in 2011, and General Manager in 2014.
In 2014, my Safety Director, Stuart Smith, talked me into going to the Graves Mountain Festival of Music near Charlottesville. He knew I loved bluegrass music and wanted me to take advantage of a weekend off at the race track (which is unusual in our business). I spent all weekend at Graves Mountain and my bluegrass blood started pumping. I talked to a lot of bluegrass fans there and asked them what they thought of a festival at the race track I manage. Of course the bluegrass fans were all for it.
After a couple weeks of talking to the owner of the track I decided to move forward with the start of the new adventure. Not only do I love bluegrass and want to be involved in preserving the music through shows and festivals of my own, I also want to remember my Grandfather by doing what he also loved and raised me on which is promoting bluegrass. Plus it adds another viable event at Virginia Motorsports Park.”
Allen held the first Dinwiddie Music Festival June 4-6, 2015 with performances from top artists like Ricky Skaggs, Rhonda Vincent, IIIrd Tyme Out, Lonesome River Band, Larry Stephenson, Donna Ulisse, Junior Sisk, Joe Mullins, and many more. It was an ambitious start for a new event, but the turnout was great and they made a profit that first year. The park is located just 25 miles south of Richmond, the state capital and home to a half million people when combining it with the outlying communities.
Carpenter’s second festival is this coming weekend with Dailey & Vincent, The SteelDrivers, Larry Cordle, Joe Mullins, Flatt Lonesome, Junior Sisk, Mountain Faith, and the Larry Stephenson Band among the scheduled acts on stage. More details can be found online.
He has also scheduled a second festival for later this year, billed as the All American Indoor Music Festival in Fishersville, VA.
“Through going to other festivals I became friends with Mr. B of Mr. B’s Bluegrass Park in Woodford, and we teamed up to do the All American Indoor Music Festival. This will be an indoor event at the Augusta Expo Center November 17-19, 2016. Artists will include Rhonda Vincent, David Church, Dailey & Vincent, Balsam Range, Larry Stephenson, Junior Sisk, Flatt Lonesome and many others.”
So I guess all roads do lead back to bluegrass! When you bring young family members out to festivals, you might not just be fostering an interest in becoming a new picker, but perhaps a budding bluegrass entrepreneur as well.