47th Bill Monroe Bluegrass Festival, 2013

by Jeff Tryon

When Dr. Ralph Stanley II takes the stage at the 47th Annual Bill Monroe Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival, he will be surrounded by ghosts and legends.

In a place that has been around as long as the Bean Blossom festival, when so many great players have stood in that place, legends have been made and bluegrass spirits are bound to linger.
Dr. Stanley will be surrounded, not just by his band, the Clinch Mountain Boys, not just by the thousands of adoring fans who will jam-pack the venerable setting; he will be surrounded by a great cloud of bluegrass witnesses, who have each played their part, stretching back in history to before there even was a Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival.

Dr. Stanley will be joined at this year’s festival by such bluegrass luminaries as the James King Band, Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, and Jesse McReynolds and the Virginia Boys, along with emerging artists like Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers, and over 50 other groups, from the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band to the Moron Brothers.
And you know the music on stage at Bean Blossom is only the tip of the turnip. Bluegrass echoes everywhere through the park all week long in informal pick-up jam sessions.

There will be no shortage of lonesome, with performances by the Lonesome River Band, Flatt Lonesome, and Larry Sparks & The Lonesome Ramblers.

There will not only be a doctor in the house at the festival this year, there will be a lawyer onstage. Acclaimed vocalist and guitarist Charlie Sizemore also runs a successful law practice in Kentucky. His career began at the age of 16 when he replaced Keith Whitley in the Clinch Mountain Boys.

Legends? There’ll be plenty on stage, from the well-established to the someday-will-be.

There’s the ever-present legend of Bill Monroe himself, “the Father of Bluegrass,” who founded the Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival in 1967, after purchasing in late 1951 the Brown County Jamboree, which had been running in some form since about 1939.

The name of the oldest continuous annual bluegrass festival in the world was changed in tribute after his death in 1996.

There is a legendary recording of the festival, the 1973 MCA Records’ double-LP “Bean Blossom: Back Home Again in Indiana” documenting the 7th Annual event and featuring Monroe, Jimmy Martin, Lester Flatt, and Jim and Jesse McReynolds.

But there is probably no living bluegrass musician who is more of a legend that the iconic Dr. Stanley, who received his honorary doctorate of music from Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, TN in 1976; the “National Heritage Award” in 1984; and the “Living Legend Award” from the Library of Congress and National Medal of Arts in 2006.

And in 2002, the good doctor broke through to a new audience and a new generation, winning his first Grammy Award with his haunting rendition of “Oh Death” from the movie soundtrack of “O Brother Where Art Thou.”

In his six decades of touring and playing, his band has spun off some of country and bluegrass music’s biggest names, including Ricky Skaggs, Larry Sparks and the late Keith Whitley.

Dr. Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys are still touring several weeks a year.

And the ghosts?

Well, you’ve got to think that the spirit of Bill Monroe must occasionally make a visit to the stage where for 30 years he relentlessly pursued the high lonesome sound, all the while mentoring and encouraging generations of pickers and players and just generally making himself beloved to plain folks.

Also, it was at Bill Monroe’s Brown County Jamboree in Bean Blossom in October of 1966 where Carter and Ralph Stanley performed their last full show together as the Stanley Brothers, ending a 20-year run, and an era.

Tragically, Carter Stanley died in December of that year at only 41 years of age.

And while thinking of bluegrass spirits who might somehow be drawn back to Bean Blossom, how about Jerry Garcia, now recognized as much in bluegrass circles for his work with the band “Old and in the Way” (with Peter Rowan, Vassar Clements, John Khan, and David Grisman) as for his beautiful guitar solos with the seminal psychedelic rock and roll band The Grateful Dead.

Garcia, a good banjo player, was devoted to the music and made a pilgrimage to Bean Blossom in the early 1960s to hear Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys and to copy tapes of old Brown County Jamboree shows that he had heard about.

Garcia’s 30-year run with the cult-status rock band ended when he died of a heart attack in August 1995.

Now, it’s come full circle as Jesse McReynolds has released “Tribute to Jerry Garcia & Robert Hunter: Songs of the Grateful Dead” and a live recording of a 2010 show at the Fillmore West called “The Wheel: A Musical Tribute to Jerry Garcia.”

The 47th Annual Bill Monroe Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival runs from Saturday June 8 to Saturday June 15. For tickets and information call 800-414-4677 or (812)-988-6422 go to <www.beanblossom.us>.