Generations Take the Stage
by Craig Kinney
After the soggy spring rains come the green lushness of June vegetation and the sounds of bluegrass in these Brown County Hills. The upcoming Bill Monroe Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival, to be held June 9th through the 16th, is known as the “Mecca of Bluegrass Music” and with good reason.
The oldest continuously running festival in the world and duly registered as a “Local Legacy” by the Library of Congress in 1999, this bluegrass music festival is a treasure right here in our own backyard. You’ll take the Bill Monroe Memorial Highway to get there.
The festival always offers a wonderful lineup of great musicians. This year’s event includes an expanded schedule with a full week of entertainment and special highlights. On Friday there will be one of only a few annual shows by the “super group” Longview, featuring several of the best of the current generation of bluegrass musicians. On Saturday there will be a reunion of the band that recorded with Jimmy Martin during his great period with Decca in the 1950’s that includes J.D. Crowe and Paul Williams.
These festival performances emphasize the connection between the traditional and contemporary aspects of bluegrass music and its history. Bill Monroe started this music by taking old tunes and giving them a new musical treatment resulting in this style of bluegrass music. The Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival offers you a chance to see first generation bluegrass musicians such as Dr. Ralph Stanley, Doyle Lawson, Melvin Goins, Jimmy Martin, and George Shuffler perform on the same day with the next wave of bluegrass pickers such as Larry Sparks, Dave Evans, Lynn Morris, and David Davis. You’ll also hear some of the newest groups such as the Grasshoppers, the Chapmans, Wildfire, and 1946 making their mark on the music. 1946 bases its sound around the “golden era” of bluegrass from the late1940s and early 1950s.
Of particular note is the return of Dr. Ralph Stanley’s band this year. Ralph has never missed a year at Bean Blossom, and this fact, remarkable as it is, nearly gets lost in the countless achievements and awards he has accrued during his distinguished career in bluegrass music.
Born in Dickenson County, Virginia in 1927, Ralph and older brother Carter started playing regularly in 1947 after having left the Roy Sykes Blue Ridge Mountain Boys. After six months together they made their first recordings as the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys. These recordings included a version of “Molly and Tenbrook” they had heard Bill Monroe perform on WSM radio broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry. That got them into hot water with Bill, who felt they were stealing his material. Bill soon got over it, and they became good friends. Bill hired Carter as a Bluegrass Boy for a time, and also helped the Stanleys to record their version of “Blue Moon of Kentucky” after Elvis had made it a hit.
These early recordings made the Stanleys very popular and in high demand. From 1949 until Carter’s death in 1966 the Stanleys recorded what many folks, including me, feel is some of the best Bluegrass music ever made. Ralph has never stopped recording and touring and many current musicians have gotten their start with him, including Larry Sparks, Ricky Skaggs, and the late Keith Whitley.
Ralph is currently enjoying the respect and recognition his unique talent and lifetime of dedication deserves but so rarely receives. His musical contributions to the film O Brother, Where Art Thou gave him, at age 75, yet another new audience and his first (and second)-ever Grammy awards. These are only the most recent achievements in his banjo-case full of awards including his Honorary Doctorate of Music from Lincoln Memorial University, being named a “Living Legend” by the Library of Congress, the first recipient of the “Traditional American Music Award” from the National Endowment of the Humanities, and countless awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association.
Despite all of this high praise, Dr. Stanley is one of the nicest folks I’ve ever had the honor to speak with. In the liner notes of one of his recordings there is a photograph that suits him well. It shows him posed against a tree with his banjo, but a limb of the tree is casting a shadow across his face, leaving his banjo in the sunlight—a fitting treatment of his humble personality.
Dr. Ralph Stanley will bring all of this experience and talent with him to this year’s Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival.
There is a lot of other great music to be heard and friends to be met this June.
For tickets and information contact the Monroe Music Park and Campground at (800) 414-4677,
(812) 988-4622, or visit their website at <www.beanblossom.com>,
e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
Craig Kinney is the host of “Rural Routes” bluegrass show on WFHB, and can be reached at email@example.com