Moments in Bluegrass BG75 #1 – Pete Wernick recalls Fincastle Festival

Following an invitation that the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) extended to its members that they share a memory from “75 years of bluegrass,” we thought that we would collect a few to share with you. 

Pete Wernick (Dr Banjo) played in local bands and hosted the New York metropolitan area’s only bluegrass radio show during the 1960s. Since then he started progressive bluegrass bands Country Cooking and Hot Rize, and developed his very successful Jam Camps. Other groups with which Wernick is associated are Flexigrass and Long Road Home. He performs with his singer-guitarist wife Joan, and is a co-author of the book Masters of the Five-String Banjo (published in 1988, but still available)….  

This is an easy one for me, though there are some major moments in the Top Five. The one that sticks out is from 55 years ago — being in Fincastle, Virginia, for the very first bluegrass festival, and witnessing (and recording on my reel-to-reel) The Bluegrass Story, as MC’d by Carlton Haney on the Sunday, and featuring Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, Carter and Ralph Stanley (Carter’s ONLY bluegrass festival appearance), Don Reno, Mac Wiseman, Benny Martin, all the way to Peter Rowan (then in his 20s, in Monroe’s band). I came down from New York City in a car with three other banjo players, heading for what felt like “Bluegrass Promised Land”. I had never been that far south before.

That Sunday afternoon, the music they played and the stories they told resonated so deeply with me — I played the tape of that amazing Bluegrass Story on my radio program many a time in years to come. Back then, I was New York City’s only bluegrass deejay, and it meant a lot for me to share this unprecedented event with my listeners. Mac and Bill singing Can’t You Hear Me Calling — we all went wild! Jimmy and Bill singing Memories of Mother and Dad — with them both in fine form — a great performance. Reno and Benny Martin tearing it up! I also recorded interviews with Carter and Ralph (they even did a station ID for me!) Jimmy Martin, Mac Wiseman, and a long one with Don Reno — that can still be found on YouTube.

I sometimes refer to that festival as “the Valley Forge of Bluegrass”. Those were not easy times in bluegrass — no buses were parked at the festival, and only Jimmy Martin’s band performed in matching outfits. The crowd was in the hundreds, and at $6/weekend ticket, not much money was made. But the experience for everyone there was deep and enthralling. Only 20 years after 1945, the early years of bluegrass seemed like ancient history at the time. Some of the musicians were saying things like “bluegrass music will never die.” I didn’t realize how hard the times were for those bands, but now I do. They were saying that it will never die, but I think they weren’t so sure. 

If those were hard times, bringing everyone together for a bluegrass festival was a stroke of genius, and daring genius at that — thank you Carlton! That weekend was the start of a big upswing none of us could imagine then. And here we are 55 years later. Looking back, that festival was during the first THIRD of bluegrass history. I feel so fortunate that I was there. 

Here is footage of that first multi-day bluegrass festival held in Fincastle on Labor Day Weekend, September 3, 4, 5, 1965. 

OK, readers, does this story trigger any thoughts of bluegrass music in days gone by? What related event would you like remembered? Please share in comments. Thanks. 

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.