Remembering the first bluegrass festival – Fincastle 1965-2005

Bluegrass Today viewpointThis past weekend, I had the enormous honor and good fortune to perform at the 40th Anniversary Reunion of what has come to be described as the very first multi-day bluegrass festival, which had been promoted by Carlton Haney, and situated on Cantrell’s Horse Farm just north of Fincastle. VA. This reunion festival was only a one day event, and there is hope that it will become an annual one, held just a short distance from the site of the original 1965 festival.

Like the festival that followed in 1966 at Cantrell’s Farm, and subsequent Carlton Haney festivals in Berryville, VA over the next ten years or so, the original Fincastle event was partly a celebration of the music and the artists who played it, and partly a example of the missionary zeal and desire to educate people about the history of bluegrass music – and Bill Monroe’s central role in that story – that Haney took on as his personal crusade. Haney became famous for putting different groups of musicians together on stage, often using them to recreate the lineup of a previous version of The Bluegrass Boys, or to make some other point about the music in addition to entertaining his audiences.

This aspect of the early Haney festivals was also in evidence in Fincastle on Saturday, with Carlton up on stage a number of times to MC or narrate special tributes to some of the acts who were on the bill in 1965 (like Bill Monroe and Reno & Smiley), including appearances by pickers who had performed with them over the years.

It isn’t my intention to rekindle debate on Carlton Haney’s impact on the history of bluegrass and bluegrass festivals, though comments along that line – or remembrances and reminiscences about these early festivals – are encouraged should anyone wish to offer them.

As the scheduling worked out, my group (Acoustic Endeavors) was the last act up before the finale, which featured the debut of an original documentary on the first Fincastle Festival, displayed on a large screen from the stage. It featured a mix of interviews with the organizers of the first event and actual performance footage from 1965 shot on site by a camera crew from WDBJ television in Roanoke. The performance footage was grainy black & white, with poor audio quality (by today’s standards), but the power of seeing Mac Wiseman and Clyde Moody singing with Bill Monroe, or Jimmy Martin with Bill Emerson on banjo, was not diminished in the least by the quality of the presentation.

The organizers of the 40th Anniversary Reunion festival are considering making this documentary available in DVD form, and a link is available on their web site to submit your name to be contacted should they do so. Having watched it myself, I urge anyone who attended this first Fincastle festival, or anyone with an interest in the early bluegrass festivals of the 60s and 70s, to contact them and obtain a copy should they be made available for purchase.Also available on the Fincastle Reunion Festival site is a fascinating account of the first festival which was initially published in Muleskinner News back in 1973, and a wonderful bit of video of Bill Monroe performing Rawhide with Don Reno and Benny Martin.

At the conclusion of the documentary, I was asked to lead a group of pickers in a closing tune to cap off the festival. Standing on stage playing the first four bars of Foggy Mountain Breakdown unaccompanied on banjo, I sensed a swirl of history around me, and felt a profound connection to something much bigger than what was occurring in the moment. Hearing the banjo ring out across that field, clear and strong, I felt just a little bit of the magic from 1965 – almost ten years before I first took up the banjo.

Sure… the original festival site was across the creek, a couple hundred yards from where I was standing, and very few of the performers from the ’65 festival were on hand, a great many of them no longer with us. Still, for just that moment, I felt again that pull from the music that drew me to it in the first place, and an overwhelming wave of gratitude came over me.

Gratitude for the folks whose own love and dedication for this music in days past had preserved it for me to discover so many years hence, and for the quirks of fate that had allowed me to be a part of it now, both in a general sense, and in this place, at this very point in time. Perhaps the Labor Day weekend, when we pause to contemplate the work done by those who came before us, and whose efforts paved the way for the life we enjoy today, it is especially fitting to celebrate as well the people who created, nurtured, preserved, performed and promoted our beloved bluegrass music.

To all of you described above, please accept my thanks for what you have given to me, and all of us who love the music and the festival culture it has spawned.

UPDATE: Another very interesting first hand account of the first Fincastle festival can be found on Phil Zimmerman’s site, along with a number of photos he had taken at early bluegrass festivals, most of them available for sale online.

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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.