Those who grew up in rural areas know the importance that the local school played in the community. In many cases it had the only auditorium of any size, and would typically host civic meetings, entertainment offerings, and even political events for local residents.
Sandy Ridge High School in Stokes County, NC was just such a school, one that has also served as the site for what must surely be the longest running bluegrass concert series in history. Though the shows are now held at the elementary school on the same site, they have held bluegrass shows there every year since 1948.
It all got started when Cleo Lemons first learned that Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs had left Bill Monroe’s band and started their own act. He wrote to the band asking if they would come play at Sandy Ridge, and before long arrangements were made for a concert date that was repeated annually for the next 20 years.
In fact, people in town still talk about “the show that didn’t happen,” on March 7, 1969. It would have been the 21st annual Flatt & Scruggs show at Sandy Ridge, but when townsfolk showed up, they found The Osborne Brothers on the stage, as Lester and Earl had split up after their Opry performance the previous weekend. News didn’t travel quite so fast back then.
The Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum in Nashville still offers a show poster from that ill-fated concert, though they identify it as from 1958.
Lemons tells stories about seeing Flatt & Scruggs pull in for their first show driving a ’39 Ford, with the sound gear and instruments in the back, and the bass tied to the roof. They had borrowed the car from Jim Eanes to make the show, and had Jim Shumate, Howard Watts and Mac Wiseman with them. They continued to return every year, and by the end had a shiny new bus parked out front of the school to advertise the shows.
Earl Scruggs had told a number of people that he thinks they played at Sandy Ridge High School as many time as they played anywhere else, other than the Grand Ole Opry.
Cleo Lemons continued to promote these concerts, with appearances from The Osborne Brothers, Jim & Jesse, Lester Flatt, Bill Monroe, The Stanley Brothers, Reno & Smiley, and The Lewis Family. Initially they were sponsored by The American Legion, but over the years served as benefits for the local fire department, Ruritan Club, and other civic organizations. In many years, a second concert was held in the Fall as the shows were extremely popular.
The concerts continued, but Cleo couldn’t. Now in his mid 90s, he still attends each year, but the organizational and promotional work has been picked up by Jay Adams, banjo player with Rich In Tradition, who will perform along with The Churchmen on next weekend’s 57th annual show. Jay has been taking care of this event for the past five years, and plans on keeping it going as long as he can.
The annual bluegrass shows now benefit the Sandy Ridge Elementary School. Jay says he remembers attending many of the shows at the old high school, and getting his love of bluegrass from seeing so many epic bands live. He said that it was an old building, built in the ’20s, when auditoria were designed to carry sound efficiently from the stage to the audience.
In fact, it is said that Lester Flatt tried to buy the old auditorium when it was scheduled to be demolished, but the town wouldn’t sell. Flatt ended up taking over the park at nearby Pilot Mountain instead.
The 2015 Sandy Ridge show will be held on March 21. Tickets and details are available online.
May it run for another 57 years!