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.
I’ve never been to a Bluegrass Festival. Sounds like a lot of fun especially if a group is going together. We used to do this for Marathons and besides having a ball we got to see a lot of the big cities in the U.S. Maybe we need to start planning “Bluegrass Road Trips”.
Sounds good to me. I used to live in Virginia where we had a bunch of festivals. While I lived there I only went to a couple of small festivals they had in Richmond, but I really enjoyed the music and the people I met. I always meant to get to Galax, VA, where they have a pretty big, annual bluegrass fest, but I didn’t ever make it. I’d love to go check it out now.
Bluegrass festivals are a blast. I usually get to one or two during the Summer in Tennessee and North Carolina, but even better are the impromtu events that are held in backyards, boat docks, and my favorite is a small farm in Bristol, Tn every Wednesday evening and some of the finest pickers in Tennessee show up. Bluegrass is just a way of life up there and very different from South Florida.
I’m leaving Thursday for my first Bluegrass fest in Murphysboro, TN , just south of Nashville. I’m realy looking forward to it.
I’ve never been to a bluegrass festival, but i have been to Murfreesboro. I think for our part of the continental U.S., the Smokey Mountains are one of God’s great creations. There is a civil war historic battlefield there. One of these days i’ll have to take a trip and visit a bluegrass festival. I’m with Doug, go and experience it at it’s source! My appreciation for this genre of music has really grown recently thru Fretmentor’s bluegrass class. I’ve missed out all these years!
Bluegrass festivals are now the major source of our vacations! Last week, we went to the Red, White, and Bluegrass festival in Morganton, NC. We saw over 25 bands over the course of 4 days, including The Grascals, The Steeldrivers, Jr. Sisk,, Cherryholmes, Larry Sparks, Larry Stevenson, Blue Highway, Dailey and Vincent, Dan Tyminksi, and many more. While the big names are a major draw, we always find a local group, or lesser known band that turns out to be our favorite performance of the weekend. Almost every band, after the set will do a “meet and greet” so you can buy their cd’s, get an autograph, or just say “Hi”. If you haven’t been to a Bluegrass festival before, find one and go and have a great time!
I just returned from my first bluegrass/oldtime music festival, Uncle Dave Macon Days in Murfreeboro, TN. Had a blast. It was an amateur contest/showcase. Best of all, all three days are free, just bring a chair. There were contestants of all ages from 6 to 90. I was most impressed with the skill level of the youngsters and I learned what “fiddle sticks” are. Now if I could only learn to play as well as some of those 10 year olds.
I grew up in Kentucky and had several brushes with a few of the early greats of bluegrass. I actually have a banjo ( very cheap and unfortunately unsigned) that I won at a concert and was personally handed to me by none other than Lester Flatt in 1974. The 12 to 14 year old mandolin player standing next to him on stage that I actually had lunch later with was a kid named Marty Stuart.. Also on that venue that day was Mac Wiseman and Doc Watson… I later played guitar briefly with a pickup bluegrass band in Owensboro and had the opporturnity to meet Bill Monroe through our banjo player John Laswell who traveled with him for two summers while he (John)was in college. And lastly, I’ll stop bragging after this one, I had the opportunity a couple of years later to see two young guys in a band called New Grass Revival. I remember being totally blown away by this guy on the banjo and equally impressed by the mandolin player in the band. They were playing in the middle of the Goodlettsville, Tennessee mall, just outside of Nashville and nearly begging people to stop and listen to them. Their names? Bela Fleck and Sam Bush…. Memories of days that even Nashville had difficulty recognizing the greatness of bluegrass!!