Labor Day weekend marked the fourth year since Cody and Donna Johnson reopened Bluegrass Park in Camp Springs, NC, site of the first bluegrass festival in the state back in 1969. Originally started by the late Carlton Haney, the park closed in the mid-’80s and fell into disarray. The Johnsons purchased the property, and built a new, larger stage on the same spot as the original, retaining the first stage’s original I-beam, a symbol of its iconic past.
The greats in early bluegrass: Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, Don Reno, Ralph Stanley, The Osborne Brothers, and the Lewis Family played Camp Springs in the ’70s. On that stage, Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley appeared as part of Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys. Tony Rice played his first show with J.D. Crowe. The movie, Bluegrass Country Soul, was filmed there in 1971. Last year, the Johnsons invited the movie’s producer and director, Albert Ihde and Ellen Pasternack of California, to return for the showing of the movie on its 50th anniversary at the exact spot where it was filmed. That special night has been nominated for IBMA’s 2022 Industry Award for Event of the Year.
The Johnsons continue the musical legacy of Camp Springs by booking bands and musicians who have performed or attended the original festivals 50 years ago. This year, Mike Hartgrove (who once fiddled with the Bluegrass Cardinals at Camp Springs) played with his group, the Lonesome River Band, as well as in a special reunion show with the surviving members of the original IIIrd Tyme Out (formed in 1991).
During the reunion set, Mike fiddled a Joe Greene tune. Greene played Camp Springs in the 70s and appeared in Bluegrass Country Soul.
Hartgrove stated after his Sunday performance, “It was a dream come true to get to play Joe Greene’s fiddle tune, Big Joe, at Camp Springs! When I was a kid, I used to look at Joe Greene’s County Record and dream about what it would be like to play fiddle in the fashion of his bluegrass fiddle style! I never thought that I would get to play his original fiddle tune at Camp Springs! This made my summer.”
Another link to the past was Wood Family Tradition, part of Friday’s line-up. Descendants of A.L. Wood, another Camp Springs/Bluegrass Country Soul performer and former Rebel Recording artist, took to the stage singing and playing the songs of Mike and Bobby’s dad and Jason’s grandfather. They sang A.L. originals such as Hills of Home and picked his banjo tunes like Hombre.
Throughout Bluegrass Park, jam sessions formed with old and new friends. As Carlton Haney stated in the movie, “They have a common interest in the music.”
Eddie Gill (Big Country Bluegrass) joined William Britt (Gena’s nephew), Gary Hatley of the Hatley Family, Tom Cecil (banjo extraordinaire), and others for an impromptu jam that resulted in a salute to the Osborne Brothers.
The festival also included young performers, Mountain Highway, and guest appearances by JB Layne, son of Franklin Station’s banjo picker, Josh Layne. The five-year-old sang Molly Rose with his dad’s band, then joined The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys to sing the Smokey and Bandit movie theme song, East Bound and Down.
Two-time IBMA Mandolin Player of Year, Alan Bibey, summed it up, “I so love this place.”
The Johnsons’ hard work of restoring Bluegrass Park paid off. Each year, the crowd has grown. 2022 marked Camp Springs Labor Day Bluegrass Festival’s largest attendance. Plans are already underway to add a second annual festival on Memorial Day Weekend, beginning in 2023.
Photos from Gary Hatley and Laura Ridge.