Monroe Uncle Pen
Bluegrass Festival

by Greg Adams
photo courtesy Monroe Music Park MaryE Yeomans

Pendleton Vandiver never made any records—he was born before the dawn of the recording era, played his fiddle at local square dances in and around Rosine, Kentucky and died in 1932.

That could have been the end of the story except that Vandiver is Bill Monroe’s Uncle Pen, a twist of fate that has made him the subject of music literature, a hit song and a popular bluegrass event approaching its thirtieth anniversary.

The Uncle Pen Days Festival memorializes the man Monroe described as “one of Kentucky’s finest old-time fiddlers,” and brings to Bean Blossom a long list of bluegrass artists, including many world-famous names.

The 29th Annual Bill Monroe Hall of Fame and Uncle Pen Days Festival runs four days, from Thursday, September 25th through Sunday, September 28th, in which time about thirty acts will perform. Although the early summer Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival enjoys a higher profile, Uncle Pen Days offers the best of bluegrass music in a scenic, autumnal setting, with cooler weather and a unique roster of artists.

A major draw for this year’s festival will be Del McCoury’s induction to the Bluegrass Hall of Fame, an historical event that bluegrass enthusiasts will not want to miss. McCoury began his recording career in the ’60s and hails from a later generation of bluegrass artists than the first wave of Stanleys and Monroes, but it is easy to foresee a time when he may inherit the King of Bluegrass crown. A brief stint with Bill Monroe helped establish McCoury as a name artist, and in the late ’60s he formed his own group. Today he performs with the Del McCoury Band, which includes his sons Ronnie and Robbie as members.

Country music writer Brian Mansfield once described McCoury as “the man who sometimes sounds more like Bill Monroe than Monroe himself,” a trait that has made him a favorite of bluegrass purists. At the same time, McCoury has demonstrated an ability to push the boundaries of bluegrass music and appeal to new audiences without losing his more traditionally oriented followers.

McCoury’s collaboration with country-rocker Steve Earle and an acclaimed rendition of British folk artist Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” on his 2001 album Del and the Boys attest to this versatility. McCoury tackles two more of Thompson’s songs on his new album, It’s Just the Night, released on his own McCoury Music label a little over a month ago.

Despite a few progressive touches, McCoury often mines the nostalgic terrain of bluegrass by performing with only two microphones for his entire band, requiring soloists to step forward into the mike the way they did fifty years ago. That kind of old-fashioned presentation, coupled with McCoury’s classic high lonesome tenor, can create a delightful time-warp experience for those who remember the early days of bluegrass.

And speaking of the early days of bluegrass, two of the highest-profile figureheads of bluegrass past and present will perform during Uncle Pen Days. Ralph Stanley, who in the last few years has enjoyed a career resurgence beyond the wildest dreams of most performers in their seventies, will appear on Friday night in the series.

Stanley remains a popular recording artist and is one of very few in the bluegrass field to have released an album on a major label in recent memory. His critically acclaimed Columbia album Ralph Stanley (2002) rode the crest of popularity bluegrass music enjoyed in the wake of the film O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Jimmy Martin is scheduled to perform on Saturday night during the concert series. Martin is another veteran of Bill Monroe’s band, and many regard him as the finest vocalist to ever work with Monroe. Bill Monroe’s son James, Paul Williams, Charlie Waller & Country Gentlemen, and Rhonda Vincent are only a few of the other performers on the Uncle Pen Days schedule, which is too lengthy to list here in its entirety.

The festival also serves as a bluegrass clinic for aspiring pickers, with music and instrument workshops offered on three of the four days. A worship service will be held on Sunday.

The concerts will take place at the Bill Monroe Memorial Music Park and Campground in Bean Blossom, five miles north of Nashville, Indiana on State Road 135. Free parking is provided and a limited number of sites are available for campers. Children 12 and under are admitted free to this family-friendly event.

Tickets can be purchased by phone at

(800) 414-4677.