Stompin ’76 – whose farm?

This past weekend marked the 30th anniversary of Stompin’ 76, a huge music festival held near Galax, VA. Estimates of the attendance ranged between 70,000 and 100,000 people over three days. The festival was promoted by Hal Abramson, a young first time promoter who pooled resources within his circle of family and friends to pay deposits on a fairly pricey and ambitious lineup.

Performers included a who’s who of bluegrass, with The Earl Scruggs Revue, Lester Flatt & The Nashville Grass, Doc & Merle Watson, Vassar Clements, John Hartford, The Osborne Brothers and New Grass Revival among the acts on the show. A number of popular rock/pop acts were also included, such as Bonnie Raitt, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, John Prine and fiddler Papa John Creach, all of whom had acoustic music associations at the time.

If you happened to see any of the press coverage of this anniversary, you may have noted one tidbit that had been included in the Stompin’ 76 press releases, to wit that the event had been held on “Doyle Lawson’s farm.” That caught our eye, and we contacted Doyle Lawson (of Quicksilver fame) to see if he had been involved in this historic venture.

When we spoke, he had also been made aware of the reference on Abramson’s site, and informed us that, no, he certainly was not the Doyle Lawson mentioned in reference to Stompin’ 76.

“I was performing with The Country Gentlemen at the time, and we didn’t even play that festival. I’m sure I couldn’t have put two acres together back then, much less a farm!”

We passed along the promoter’s contact info to Doyle, and the festival web site now makes clear that the farm was not owned by our Doyle Lawson.

The Stompin’ festival occurred at a time when the 1969 Woodstock festival had taken on an iconic status. The sales of the triple live album of Woodstock performances, along with the popular movie about the festival (still being show at the time in midnight theater screenings) had driven recurring news coverage and a number of similar concert events in its wake. When Stompin’ was announced, it came to be seen as “The Woodstock of Bluegrass,” and people from all over the US made plans to attend.

Festivalgoers described it in glowing terms, and the promoter, Hal Abramson, has a site dedicated to the history of the festival. He also tells a lovely tale, but folks living in the Galax area saw it as nothing more than a major inconvenience. Roads were backed up for miles, making it impossible for locals to get around, and the amount of trash left behind overwhelmed Carroll County’s municipal authorities. Some weekend residents camped in locals’ backyards, and public nudity and urination was widely reported.

There was a culture clash as well between the Galax residents and the concertgoers, and local ordinances were passed into law shortly after the festival to make future events of this sort illegal. The festival also got national news exposure as, like Woodstock, they expected only a fraction of the attendance that actually materialized on site, and were unprepared to accommodate such a huge crowd. Performers had to be brought in by helicopter, and despite the huge turnout, some acts were not paid until later that year.

After the Stompin’ festival, it became quite common to find these new fans attending bluegrass festivals in the southeast, and the contrast between the families and pickers in their campers and the college-age newcomers camping in their cars was often fairly stark. A number of festivals began to attract a rough biker crowd, a change that was not welcome to the bluegrass fans who had been supporting the new festival genre, just over a decade old at this time.

Many festivals began to institute a strict policy against intoxication or public drinking, and “No Motorcycles” was not an uncommon item on festival posters in the late ’70s, upsetting many loyal fans who simply rode, and had no intention of stirring up trouble. Long running fiddlers conventions, such as the Old Fiddlers Convention in Galax and a similar one in Union Grove, NC became quite strict in their policies, and the Union Grove contest was discontinued shortly thereafter. Some NC pickers believe that the influx of new fans, more intent on partying than music, killed Union Grove.

Folks who recall, or even attended the festival, can see a copy of the original show poster online, and even purchase a commemorative T-shirt.

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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.