I remember that first festival as though it was yesterday. Of all places, it was held outside of the Motor City. That is right, just outside of Detroit, Michigan. The home of Motown and automobile production, was taking a back seat to bluegrass for a brief moment. For a mere $9, on this particular day (May 30, 1984), one of the truly great bluegrass festivals was available to all attendees.
Have you ever been at, or should I say, “participated” in a bluegrass festival? It is not just a concert. It is more like a revival. People from all over gather to listen to various performers on stage. In addition, many of the attendees travel with their banjos, guitars and mandolins in hand, to see how they will fare with the great parking lot pickers in the area. You just join a small group of musicians and start performing with others. There are usually various groups comprised of players with different skill levels. If at any time, you feel uncomfortable with a particular group, you can move to the next or start a group on your own. There are no rules.
When I wasn’t picking, I made sure I attended the performances of some of the true legendary bluegrass performers. On this particular day, the headliners who were sharing center stage included Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, John Hartford, and the Doug Dillard Band. If you haven’t heard of some of these performers, then you need to take a short course in the history of bluegrass music.
Through this history you will discover that the great Bill Monroe was known as the Father of Bluegrass. He was one of the greatest mandolin players ever. As for Doug Dillard, some of you may recall that he made regular appearances on the Andy Griffith Show. He performed on the show as a member of the fictional bluegrass band called the Darlings. For those who missed seeing John Hartford, you would have seen one of the most under-rated musicians of our day. Hartford, who’s song “Gentle On My Mind” was popularized by singer/songwriter Glen Campbell, was a special and uniquely talented individual. He played either banjo, fiddle, and guitar, while he danced on stage on his own amplified plywood platform.
Detroit may not be known for its bluegrass but on this particular Memorial Day, it is a festival that I could hardly forget. Sadly, John Hartford and Bill Monroe are no longer with us. However, as the cliche goes, their music lives on.
For those of you who have never attended a bluegrass festival, you just don’t know what you are missing. Those regular festival goers will understand what I mean.
If any of you wish to share experiences of your favorite bluegrass festivals, I believe others would enjoy reading your comments. Let us know where the festival was located and who are some of the great legends that you had the chance to see or meet. Do you regularly attend festivals? Do you remember your first bluegrass festival?
Author’s Note: In 1984, I took these photos of Bill Monroe, John Hartford and Doug Dillard, at the Motor City Bluegrass Festival. They provide wonderful memories of my first bluegrass festival.