Nancy Cardwell spent a few days last month at the annual Silver Dollar City’s Bluegrass & Barbecue Festival in Branson, MO and sent along this detailed report. Nancy is Special Projects Coordinator for IBMA in Nashville and also works extensively as a free lance writer, including ongoing work for Bluegrass Unlimited. She is also an experienced bluegrass musician and plays bass on a free lance basis with a number of groups.
A Spring Pilgrimage to the Ozarks & the Kick-off to the Summer Festival Season
by Nancy Cardwell
If you’ve ever had such a great time at a bluegrass festival that you wished it could just continue a few more days past the weekend, Silver Dollar City’s annual Bluegrass & Barbecue Festival in Branson, MO might be your cup of ice cold, sweet tea!
For three weeks every May, families from all over the country gather at this unique, 1880s-era theme park in the Ozarks to hear some of the finest bluegrass bands perform on a variety of stages‚Äîvarying in size from an intimate cabin front porch to a main street gazebo and a state-of-the-art theater that seats 1000 fans in air conditioned comfort. With performances on nine stages daily and attendance at around 10,000 a day, it’s one of the largest multi-day bluegrass festivals in the world.
This year’s May 13-31 event featured Dailey & Vincent, The Grascals, Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, the Next Best Thing, Marty Raybon & Full Circle, Sierra Hull & Hwy. 111, Audie Blaylock & Redline, the Steep Canyon Rangers, The Muellers, Balsam Range, Lonnie Hoppers, Cody Shuler & Pine Mountain Railroad, The Harmans, David Davis & the Warrior River Boys, the Kruger Brothers, Nothin’ Fancy, The Easter Brothers, Monroe Crossing, the Sawtooth Bluegrass Band, Bluegrass Brothers, The Rolf Family, Hunt Family Bluegrass, Men of the Week, the Faris Family, the Peterson Family Band, The Martin Family Band, the Blue & Gray Pickers, The Ozark Alliance, The Bost Family, The Sterlings, The Millers, the Link Family, the Triple L. Band, the Stockdale Family Band, the Downing Family, the Redhead Express, Gold Heart Sisters, The Huntley Sisters, Brightwater Junction, the Farnum Family and Road Less Traveled, among others.
Bull Harman & Bull’s Eye from Florissant, Mo. took home the first place trophy at the 3rd Annual Single Mic Championship (May 16-17), and the Meyer Bluegrass Band from Sheldon, Mo. won the top prize at the Youth in Bluegrass Band Contest held May 23-24.
Nineteen bands from nine states competed in the Youth in Bluegrass competition, sponsored for the eighth year by local public radio station, KSMU-FM (Springfield, Mo.), where Mike Smith, the broadcast voice of bluegrass music in the region, has been hosting his show, Seldom Heard Music‚Äîjoined in recent years by co-host Harry Moore, for more than 25 years. In order to enter the contest, a band must feature entertainers age 21 or younger. Many of them are family-based groups. Cash prizes from $400-1200 were awarded to the top five bands.
The youth weekend is usually as much fun for the bands as for the audience, with lots of backstage and after hours jamming going on. “The youth contest made for a great weekend,” Silver Dollar City’s D.A. Callaway said. “We had a pizza party and music jam on Saturday night of the big contest. We had a big tent set up, with benches and picnic tables. The kids ate 60 pizzas, and a big square dance broke out about dark.”
The Single Mic Championship, believed to be the only contest of its kind that judges participants on their Flatt & Scruggs-style choreography around a single microphone on stage, offers a professional photo session and a full page ad in Bluegrass Unlimited to the winning band, as well as a future booking at Silver Dollar City for the top three groups.
- 1st Prize Meyer Bluegrass Band Sheldon, MO
- 2nd Prize County Line Bluegrass Greenville, KY
- 3rd Prize Stockdale Family Band Bolivar, OH
- 4th Prize New Horizon Regent, ND
- 5th Prize Road Less Traveled Searcy, AR
Third Annual Single Mic Championship Winners Include:
- 1st Place Bull Harman & Bull’s Eye Florissant, MO
- 2nd Place Southern Raised Crane, MO
- 3rd Place Men of the Week Linn Creek, MO
- 4th Place The Hootin’ Annies Edwardsville, KS
- 5th Place Triple L Band Portales, NM
The Grascals, Nothin’ Fancy, Dailey & Vincent and Sierra Hull anchored the line-up for the last four days of the festival, and for Danny Roberts, mandolin player with The Grascals, it was like “old home week.” Although originally from Kentucky, Roberts says he played at the popular theme park “probably twice a year with New Tradition, all the years we were together, and now we’ve been here every year with the Grascals except for the first year when we were with Dolly. So it’s very much like home here.”
In addition to bringing his family with him to enjoy the festival‚Äîthis year his parents were there‚ÄîDanny says he looks forward to the chance to connect with fans from west of the Mississippi in Branson. “There’s a lot of people out this way that I got to know from the New Tradition days, and I get to see them again,” he says. “The Grascals play a lot more in the East, and New Tradition worked more in the West. There are a lot of great bands out here, and I get to see a ton of people I don’t see anywhere else, but here. It’s just a lot of fun.”
The obvious draw (and genius) of hosting a bluegrass festival at an amusement park‚Äîparticularly one like this that’s steeped in the local Ozarks culture‚Äîis that the overall event offers a variety of entertainment for a hardcore bluegrass fan’s entire family. With artists and craftsmen demonstrating their skills around every corner (candy makers, glass blowers, blacksmiths, basket weavers, woodcarvers, quilters, etc.), combined with some of the most exciting roller coasters and water rides in the nation, there’s always something interesting to do for visitors of any age.
It’s also an opportunity for many folks to hear bluegrass music for the first time. “We have several kids here with their parents who come up and say, ‚ÄòYou know, I like bluegrass. I didn’t know I liked bluegrass,'” Roberts says. He’s also a fan of the barbecued chicken sandwiches, and Danny’s eight-year-old daughter, Jaelee, likes the White Water park next door to SDC and the “Fire in the Hole” roller coaster‚Äîan attraction that incorporates the fiddle tune, “Fire on the Mountain” into its soundtrack. “She also loves the petting zoo,” Danny adds. “She always says, ‚ÄòDaddy, can I have a bunny?’ And I say, ‚ÄòHoney, you can’t take their bunnies.'”
Dale Martin, lead guitarist/vocalist with The Martins, a Jefferson City, MO-based band that will showcase at IBMA’s World of Bluegrass in Nashville this fall, said his family has been performing at Silver Dollar City since 2002, when they won the first Youth in Bluegrass band competition. Dale, his siblings (age 10-22) and their father, Elvin, make up the band.
Although they tour nationally, Dale always looks forward to coming back to SDC every year. “It’s always exciting because there’s so much going on all around you,” he says. In fact, “When you’re onstage, you’ve got to focus and make sure you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing. It’s easy to lose your concentration, with so many people walking around. It’s an exciting place.”
From a fan’s perspective, Dale sees a lot of drawing points. “I would definitely come here to see music,” he says. “It’s a great atmosphere, the stages and theaters are nice, and the sound is always good. They always have a great line-up. There are good bands here.”
Dale’s sister, Jeana Martin, married Eddie Faris, the banjo player with The Faris Family‚Äîa band that was also booked to play the Bluegrass & Barbecue festival the last weekend of May. In fact, they were married on Bill Monroe’s birthday last September‚Äîthe 13th, On the recommendation of Darrin Vincent, Ricky Skaggs hired Eddie in January to play arch-top guitar and sing the baritone part with Kentucky Thunder. At least a couple of times during the weekend, the two bands guested on each other’s stage shows, which made for some exciting finales.
The second half of the Bluegrass & Barbecue Festival name, of course, is “barbecue”‚Äîanother item of high interest to many bluegrass fans. For 19 days in May, the Red Gold Heritage Hall turned into “The House of Barbeque,” with a massive, nine-foot wood-fired smoker outside generating the intoxicating aroma of slow-cooked ribs, chicken, brisket and pulled pork.
Inside, along with music shows performed by the highly entertaining country/bluegrass/gospel/yodeling trio, Pure Heart, were stands featuring barbecue styles and sauces from North Carolina, South Carolina, Memphis, Kansas City and Texas. For those truly intrigued by barbecue, an hour-long cooking class was offered several times throughout the festival in the City’s new Culinary & Craft Center.
In addition to the intoxicating scent of good barbecue, the entire Silver Dollar City experience is an olfactory adventure. As you get off the parking lot tram, the scent of sunscreen and the warm smell of sun-soaked pavement fades into a parade of interesting fragrances.
There’s the heavenly scent of mature trees and fresh breezes that populate the entire, deeply shaded park, for one thing‚Äîplus the light perfume from a variety of colorful flowers blooming everywhere. On the way to the Hospitality House at the park entrance, the aroma of homemade cinnamon rolls wafts over from the bakery on the left. On the way to Brown’s Candy Shop‚Äîwhere homemade peanut and pecan brittle making is demonstrated daily (with free samples!), there’s the popular funnel cake stand. Across from that, just down the way before you cross a bridge, is the Wilderness Road Blacksmtih Shop, where senior blacksmith Wayne Rice demonstrates his craft, creating curls of smoke and the distinctive odor of salt coal burning in the forge.
The rush of steam and a train whistle from the Silver Dollar City Line signals the advance of an authentic, steam-powered train that burns another type of coal in the engineer’s car. In the woodcarver’s shop there’s a hint of sawdust, and the light fragrance of hot scented wax hangs in the air at the dip-your-own candle shop. The scent of freshly baked apple pies and blackberry cobbler emanates from Mary’s Pies. And of course there’s nothing that smells better to a bluegrass fan than the slightly musty, vintage aroma that settles into old instrument cases and resides in the sound holes and f-holes of treasured instruments‚Äîalthough most of us don’t close enough to inhale the scent of the instruments the bands are playing.
Silver Dollar City is built on the site of Marmaros, an 1880s Ozark frontier village at the entrance of what was known as Marble (now “Marvel”) Cave. The winter of 1959-60, the members of the Herschend family, who still own the park, built the shops in the main square area of Silver Dollar City so tourists would have something to do while waiting for the next cave tour. The first public relations director, the late Don Richardson, had the idea of calling the place “Silver Dollar City” and gave the big coins in change. Still a privately held corporation with interests and ownership in a number of additional properties now (including Dollywood), Silver Dollar City hosts two million visitors every year.
The sights and sounds and smells of Silver Dollar City weave together to form an almost palatable sense of peace and relaxation for most visitors. There’s a large wooden antique clock at the park entrance, with an arrow that points to the early 1880s‚Äîand time literally does seem to slow its pace just a bit, compared to the real world most of us live in. It’s OK to walk slowly (or run to the next ride, if you’re 10 years old and are really excited), to take the time to hear stories or listen to an old fiddle tune, to chat with strangers seated near you while waiting for a concert to begin (new shows start about every 30 minutes, somewhere on the park), to watch craft demonstrations, and maybe even try some things yourself. It’s a safe, friendly, naturally beautiful environment where guests experience “recreation” in its literal meaning‚Äî”re-creating” and renewing the spirit.
At the 26th annual International Country Music Conference held Memorial Day weekend at Belmont University in Nashville, TN last month, Dr. Crispin Sartwell, from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, presented a paper on the topic of Reactionary Progressivism: Tradition as Innovation in Bluegrass Music, which focused on patterns and theories of the progression of time, in an attempt to explain the cycles and development of the bluegrass music art form. Although he grew up in an urban area in the East, Sartin said when he fell in love with bluegrass music it caused him to miss the Little Cabin Home on the Hill childhood that he never actually had. He longed for this so much, that he now lives in a cabin in the woods, and his children will have the roots described in those traditional bluegrass songs.
Silver Dollar City, with its authentic, homespun atmosphere and hospitality, is the perfect backdrop for a festival that features bluegrass music. It’s the three-dimensional, real-life version of the feeling Sartwell and many other fans connect with the genre. The good thing for the bluegrass industry, is that the venue hosts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year‚Äîall of whom have the opportunity to experience our music in a friendly place, presented in a highly skilled and professional way by some of the best musicians around.
The National Harvest Festival (Sept. 12-Oct. 31) will include appearances by The Chapmans, Big Smith, Midnight Flight, Special Consensus, Williams & Clark Expedition, Bankester Family, NewFound Road, The Quebe Sisters Band, Bluegrass Brigade, Bluegrass Missourians, Gold Wing Express, Eli Barsi & Pickin’ Council, Jazzabillies, Lonesome Road and more.