Larry Stephens covers Bean Blossom: Last Saturday

Bean Blossom: Last Saturday

It’s been a good week at Bean Blossom with mostly good weather. I’ve spent some weeks here in my rainsuit more than not, but not this year. Twice I’ve predicted storms would hit and they then passed us by, so I’m predicting rain today. The weather maps show storms on the way so maybe my prediction will steer them away. (I’ll carry my rainsuit just to be safe.) We spent a pleasant night listening to light rain on the roof of the camper.

First up is Tommy Sells & Big Country Bluegrass for their second day of shows. Behind them is Karl Shiflett & The Big Country Show. Karl is a performer, using a single vocal mic with the band dramatically weaving in and out of its range. Based in Texas, he always spends the week here and is a familiar sight in his bib overalls. Son Kris now lives in nearby Bloomington, married to Crystal Brummett. (Making the bluegrass connections, Crystal’s mother, Kim, was married to Bluegrass Boy Butch Robins for a few years and grandpa Don, an excellent mandolin and guitar player, and I have played country and bluegrass music together since the ’60′s.)

Campers are beginning to filter out. Some need to get home for church and other Sunday commitments, some have long trips ahead of them. The threat of rain all day no doubt dampens the enthusiasm of some, but some will stay until Sunday to start their trips back.

A walk around the grounds reveals a lot of now empty camper spaces but there are still jams here and there, friends getting in some last minute music. Dumpsters are starting to overflow but Dillman pays attention to a basic necessity: the septic trucks have been an almost constant presence this week. The parking area behind the stage – that’s where the performers park – is full today. They show up in nearly new Prevosts, old busses with hundreds of thousands of miles, 15-passenger vans, sometimes their cars. It just depends on how well they’ve been doing the past couple of years and how close they are with their money.

The vendors are still open, hoping for that last dollar. Guitars, pizza, oriental food, walleye and catfish, backrubs, coffee – a good variety of food and stuff. The artists sell their wares under the pavilion along with the University of Illinois, whose books about bluegrass are always a hit.

James King is up twice again today, singing a few songs pulled from the past and a lot of his hits. James spent several years with Ralph Stanley so he has a host of traditional songs to offer. It’s too bad he seems to be on some lean times right now with his band. Even though they’ve been together since March – not long but I’ve seen musicians learn a lot of songs in three or four months – the mandolin player especially was having a lot of trouble on his breaks. On his evening set he’s joined by former band member Adam Haynes, now part of Grasstowne.

One of the great ones who is no longer with us is Charlie Waller. The Country Gentlemen were one of the bands that kept bluegrass music going when rock ‘n’ roll threatened to kill it and country music. Charlie had one of the purest voices I’ve ever heard and his son, Randy, sounds so much like him it’s eerie. Randy is traveling with the new version of the Country Gentlemen, I guess. While his website shows one set of musicians, the CG version we saw here was another group entirely, who seemed to be Jimmy Bowen & Santa Fe. This is a carryover from last year when his band was apparently a pickup group that included legendary CG banjo player, Eddie Adcock. Unfortunately, last year he and Eddie spent more time clowning around with each other and sharing vague jokes with the crowd that there was almost no music. This year was much better with a lot of good music, mostly old CG songs his dad made famous like "The Legend of the Rebel Soldier," "The Banana Boat Song" and "Little Bessie." Don’t sell Randy short, though. There’s more to him than just copying his dad’s music.

One connection he makes is interesting to longtime CG fans. One of their biggest hits (confirmed on a recent airing of an old Ronnie Reno TV show that featured Charlie Waller) was "Bringing Mary Home." Today Randy makes a connection between the song and Resurrection Cemetery in Justice Illinois where Resurrection Mary has allegedly been seen for decades. I can’t find a connection, but who knows?

In Randy’s evening set Jimmy Bowen sings a beautiful tenor line on "The Waltz of the Angels." Their version is one that leaves you wanting more and was much more powerful than most of the original versions, like the one by Lefty Frizzell. He closed out with the song that bluegrass bands love to hate, though I love to do it, "Fox On The Run."

Grasstowne was back again this year. Started by veterans Steve Gulley (Doyle Lawson, Mountain Heart) and Alan Bibey (IIIrd Tyme Out, BlueRidge), the band includes Justin Jenkins (Blue Moon Rising, here yesterday), Kameron Keller and Adam Haynes (Dailey & Vincent, James King, Continental Divide). They did songs off their recent CD (reviewed here a short time ago) as well as being part of the Bill Monroe tribute ("Heavy Traffic Ahead"). They also put on a "meet the band" showcase at the little cabin on the hill south of the stage. It was interesting listening to their stories about how they got started in the music business and details about their personal lives. As Steve Gulley pointed out, the ability to approach the artists is one of the better things about bluegrass.

A perennial favorite is Jesse McReynolds. On the road alone since brother Jim died at the end of 2002, Jesse proved again he still has star power. We’ve heard "Sitting On Top of the World" several times this week but Jesse was the only one to have a novel arrangement. His band includes grandchildren Luke McKnight, Garrett and Amanda McReynolds.

Last up was Bobby Osborne and the Rocky Top X-Press. This is a day loaded with the stars who helped shape and form bluegrass. Osborne and McReynolds both ventured into country during the lean years and Osborne has always thought of his music as country (see review here) though his audience has always been primarily bluegrass. Mike Toppins is still with him on banjo but he has a different guitar player while his son is on electric bass today. There’s no mention of longtime sidemen Daryl Mosley or Tim Graves. Bobby does the set we expect including "Rocky Top," "Ruby" and "Kentucky."

The evening sets were cut to thirty minutes with no encores (though an exception was made for Bobby Osborne), trying to get everyone on stage including Ralph Stanley. The weather is threatening again, though it never materializes. Seats start to fill as Dr. Ralph takes the stage. Son Ralph II isn’t present, at least during the first part of the show, and that’s a change. He’s been at Dr. Ralph’s side for as long as I can remember. This is probably a stab at Ralph II establishing his own identity in the business, just as James Monroe separated from Bill many years ago.

Grandson Nathan Stanley is there, though (see a review of his CD here). Bluegrass has long been a genre in which the big names dress along a broad continuum of styles. Bobby and Sonny Osborne dressed to the nines, and Bobby still does, with a suit and broad rimmed hat. Several acts wore at least jackets this week. A few acts take the stage looking like they’ve slept in their cars while at least half are casual but neat in jeans.

The Clinch Mountain Boys are always in suits and hats but tonight Nathan appears to be channeling Elvis. His hair is coal black, his sideburns are heavy and looong and he takes the stage in a glittering jacket. Looks aside, he’s grown into a good singer and does well as his grandpa’s sideman. Also on stage is veteran James Alan Shelton, seventeen years with Dr. Ralph. His special guest tonight is Tom T Hall. Dixie Hall has been here off and on this week and both attend the festival often. They have contributed songs, time and money to bluegrass in recent years and have become an important influence.

I hate to miss Grasstowne’s last set, but it’s time to head for home. I’m looking forward to next year, which may include a J D Crowe reunion show featuring as many of his former sidemen as Rickey Wasson can line up. That will be a good night. My spot is already reserved.

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Larry Stephens covers Bean Blossom: Friday

Bean Blossom: Friday

The morning is another beautful one here at Bean Blossom. Sunny but pleasant in the shade, I wouldn’t want to be sitting out in the full sun. Popup showers are forecast this afternoon and a chance of bad storms tomorrow. Such is life at an outdoors festival.

The music started at 10:00 and I’m a little late today, dragging a little after last night’s music marathon. I did catch some of Brand New Strings and was impressed. The early bands sometimes fail to catch the imagination but this was a great sounding five piece band (no Dobro). The crowd is good for early morning.

Next up is Blue Moon Rising. New music but it’s bluegrass mixing in some old songs, like "Freight Train Boogie." They have a standard four-piece band (no fiddle or Dobro) and have a good sound but a few misses here and there. Singing is split between the guitar and bass players and they have good bluegrass voices.

Tommy Sells and Big Country Bluegrass has been here several years in a row. There are traditional bands and then there is traditional bluegrass. Traditional bands tend to sound a lot alike, and a lot like Ralph Stanley (at least the ones this year) while most of the groups will do some traditional songs. Big Country concentrates on traditional music but they have their own sound, anchored by Lynwood Lunsford on banjo. A six-piece band (Tommy’s wife, Teresa, and Johnny Williams both play guitar and sing) they gave us a good set of older songs as well as some new ones such as "High Alleghenies."

Lou Reid & Carolina were up next. Reid is a great high tenor and mandolin player. He had a stint with Doyle Lawson and later with Ricky Skaggs and has spent almost two decades (over a couple of runs) with the Seldom Scene. He still appears with the Scene as well as heading up his own band. Wife Christy plays bass and he has a lead singer/guitarist and bass player. This is great bluegrass and gospel music with excellent harmony. Part of Rural Rhythm records, they added tracks to the project CD.

James King, a perennial favorite at Bean Blossom, was back again this year for four shows. A highlight for the past few years is James’ ‘mater (that’s "tomato" for you northerners) sandwiches at the supper break. James has had some health problems of late and comes to the festival with an all new band, with him just since March. Their harmony was good but they still have some kinks in their instrumental work. He always sings some of his big hits such as "Echo Mountain," "Thirty Years of Farming" and "Bed By The Window." It’s always good to see James here at Bean Blossom.

Ronnie Reno is another regular visitor and his band includes Mike Scott on banjo (his CD was reviewed here a few weeks ago). Reno is the son of the legendary Don Reno and hosts his own TV show on RFD TV. He started playing with his father when he was a teenager and later spent years working with Merle Haggard. You always expect a great show with Ronnie Reno and he never fails to deliver.

Melvin Goins finished out the afternoon.

After the ‘mater sandwich break, Brand New Strings opened the afternoon set. They included "Southern Flavor" and "I’ll Meet You In The Morning" in their set and closed with an encore of "Midnight Flyer." This was a good set to open the evening series.

In the soundbooth tent today is Dale Perry. Dale is an excellent bass and banjo player and has appeared with a number of bands, including Quicksilver and Continental Divide. Off the road he has his own recording studio and he appears to be here this week assisting in the Rural Rhythm recording project.

There’s a threat of bad weather but late afternoon (5:00) is comfortable in the shade and the crowd in the open grass left of the shade is starting to grow.

Blue Moon Rising puts on a good second set, part of the recording project, including "Dusty Miller" and "Body and Soul."

By 6:00 I’ve headed back to the camper. It looks like a lot of rain is on the way and the sets are being cut short again today. They’re waiting on one member of Ralph Stanley II’s band to make it in (last heard leaving Louisville) and then he may go on early. I may call it a night. Ralph II puts on his own show then tomorrow night will be with dad Ralph Stanley. He’s veered away from some of Dr. Ralph’s music, adding some country feeling, but it’s tough to escape from the shadow, especially since they sound so much alike.

Larry Stephens covers Bean Blossom: Thursday

Bean Blossom: Thursday

It’s hard to believe but it’s another beautiful day. Despite the rain yesterday, this is the best weather I’ve seen in years at Bean Blossom. There’s a great lineup today and I’m ready to go.

Larry Efaw and the Bluegrass Mountaineers, a Ralph Stanley type band, were scheduled at 10:00 but were broken down on the road. They did make it in for their evening set.

Sierra Hull opened the day in the absence of Larry Efaw. She is a crowd pleaser, a very young woman on the road with her own band. Sierra plays the mandolin (and in the afternoon pulled out an octave mandolin) and can rip a tune on it. She has a five-piece band (no Dobro) that features Clay Hess (Ricky Skaggs) on guitar and vocals. Her songs are about love and angst and, to me, she sounds like the Taylor Swift of bluegrass. When it comes to a hard core bluegrass song she turns to Hess and he knows how to deliver.

The Expedition Show was next. Formerly known as the Williams & Clark Expedition, they changed their name after Bobby Clark left. Blake Williams is on banjo and he has the honor of having the longest tenure as a Bluegrass Boy banjo player and later spent a number of years with Mike Snider. He’s joined by his wife Kimberly and two others (no fiddle or Dobro). Williams is a joke teller and the crowd enjoys it but it does cut into the music which is a mixture of country and old and new bluegrass.

The Boxcars were next. This is a super good group of musicians including Ronnie Stewart, a Paoli Indiana native who has appeared with many bands, including J D Crowe, and appeared on many more recordings as a studio musician, veteran Adam Steffey (Lonesome River Band, Dusty Miller, Alison Kraus, The Isaacs, Dan Tyminski Band), Keith Garrett (Friday’s Blue Moon Rising), Harold Nixon (J D Crowe) and John Bowman (The Isaacs, husband of Becky Isaacs). Their first CD was reviewed here a few months ago. They can do new bluegrass or old standards ("Pretty Polly"). Bowman does a touching song, "In God’s Hands," This is a super group that should have a great future.

Melvin Goins & Windy Mountain are Bean Blossom veterans and Melvin and his brother Ray are members of the Hall of Fame here. He started out in 1954 at Renfro Valley with the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers and was later with The Stanley Brothers then with Ralph after Carter’s passing. He’s one of the nicest men in the business and his show is always laid back and entertaining. Melvin is a member of the IBMA Hall of Fame and the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame. Featured in his current lineup is former Bluegrass Boy, Jack Hicks (here’s Jack in 1972).

Special Consensus is back for their second day and then it’s Audie Blaylock & Redline. Talk about drive! Audie spent nine years with Jimmy Martin and has also been with Rhonda Vincent and Michael Cleveland. He can go from Ray Price ("Talk To Your Heart") to bluegrass that pegs the speedometer. Today he included Hank Snow’s "A Fool Such As I," three Monroe numbers for the Rural Rhythm project and closed with "Sunny Side of the Mountain." By the time he was done we were all exhausted.

Marty Raybon finished the afternoon. I’ll come back to him.

The evening set is much the same as the afternoon until 9:40. That’s when Bean Blossom takes a turn.

J D Crowe was here last night and, as always, it was a great set. As they take the stage tonight there’s a difference. Holding a fiddle is former New South member Ronnie Stewart. You can feel the excitement in the crowd as night falls and they start to sing. Make no mistake, the New South are all masters of the trade and J D Crowe is an icon, but Ronnie’s fiddling adds a special element and we can tell he’s having a ball. His family is in the crowd (earlier I met and talked with uncle, Ivan Stewart) and he’s putting on a show. We watch him walk the stage, helping orchestrate breaks, making sure too much attention isn’t centered on him. It’s clear that Crowe has missed him and they do one piece, just the pair of them. The clock passes the hour mark and still they play. Finally, at 11:30, the crowd lets them leave.

We barely draw a breath when Marty Raybon is on the stage. A bluegrasser turned country superstar (Shenandoah) turned bluegrass star, Marty always makes it clear that his focus in on satisfying the audience. A deeply religious man, he shares insights of his life as he performs, but talk is held to a minimum and they perform! Their harmony is good and the banjo player, with him only two weeks, has obviously been working hard. 12:30, which should have marked the end of his set, goes by and emcee Sam Jackson is nowhere in sight, letting Marty party on. As we sit there in the dark, the coolness and damp and twelve hours of music sapping strength and resolve, Marty keeps singing. He goes from bluegrass to Shenandoah and the crowd eats it up. People filter out in twos and threes, too cold and tired to stay, but there’s still a better crowd than on many afternoons. Their excitement is heard in the darkness as he goes to the next song. At 1:10 Sam appears. Is it over? Sam gives the signal for one more song.

There’s no timetable to keep now. One song turns into two or was it three? Are we listening to Marty Raybon or Marty Robbins? (Many years ago the Ernest Tubb Record Shop was supposed to start on WSM when the Grand Ole Opry ended at midnight. But crowds wouldn’t let Marty Robbins off the stage and the Opry started putting him on last. Unlike today, it wasn’t at all unusual for the ETRS show to start thirty or more minutes late as Robbins answered curtain call after call.)

Finally, he says good night. No, the crowd calls him back for an encore. Two songs later he tries again. Back again he comes. He closes with an old Merle Haggard song, "I’ll Never Swim Kern River Again" then brother Tim (on bass) kicks into "Rocky Top." Finally, the crowd lets him go.

Over three hours of fabulous music. This was one of the best nights I’ve ever had at Bean Blossom.

Larry Stephens covers Bean Blossom: Wednesday

Bean Blossom: Wednesday

At 6:00 am the storms rolled in, dumping over an inch of rain on us. Thunder rocked the campgrounds and the combination of rain and lightning delayed the start of music.

The Magnolia Ramblers and Reminton Ryde, scheduled to appear at the top of the schedule as one of their four appearances, had their morning sets cancelled to try to keep the schedule manageable.

Junior Blankenship, opened the day at noon with rain still falling. The crowd was light, a small sea of umbrellas with a few hardy souls in rainsuits. Junior, who spent over eighteen years with Ralph Stanley as a guitarist, works with a banjo and mandolin (I just won’t mention the bass anymore unless it’s special) and is a traditionalist, as you might expect. He gave us songs like “In The Pines” and the Jimmy Martin standard, “Mary Ann.” He has a good show and it’s too bad more people were not there to hear it.

As I looked around the crowd this week I saw several Bluegrass Boys alums who were there for the festival, not appearing with a band. I visited with Butch Robins, who put on an entire afternoon of workshops, and saw Danny Jones, Raymond Huffmaster and Roger Smith. I believe Dillman (a Bluegrass Boy himself) still follows Bill Monroe’s lead in allowing any former Bluegrass Boy free attendance.

While waiting out the rain in my camper I saw David Parmley and Continental Divide pull in with their big yellow bus. When not working on the road David works on tour busses.

With him this year were longtime bandmates Steve Day (fiddle) and Randy Graham (mandolin). Randy and David, along with David’s father, Don, were founders of the Bluegrass Cadinals. Graham often jokes he’s been with David so long that he used to change his diapers, and now David gets to change his. David is a great balladeer and sang “I Never Go Around Mirrors” as well as “Little Cabin Home On The Hill.” Live music is fun to watch. At one point the banjo player missed a note on a break. When that happens you just play through it because most people will never notice, but David and Randy started laughing when they saw someone in the audience who caught the mistake. They just had the banjo player play it again and went on., much to the crowd’s delight.

Little Roy & Lizzy were next. Lizzy Long is accomplished on several instruments and Roy Lewis can play the strings off a guitar and banjo. He traveled for decades with his family but they have mostly retired due to age and health problems. They present a mixture of songs including bluegrass and gospel as well as traditional music, and Little Roy is a tireless source of jokes and pranks, most of which we’ve seen and heard several times.

With the sun finally out it’s time for the Grascals. It’s family day with family of several members present. Jamie Johnson was raised down the road in Milan and his parents are there along with his son. Mandolinist Danny Roberts has two children there and daughter Jaylee, something under a teenager, sung a great version of “Atlanta” with older brother Brandon playing guitar and dad playing mandolin. Bass player Terry Smith (Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, Osborne Brothers) is always a favorite as he adds some tasteful slap bass. They are crowd favorites and big stars of bluegrass but somehow their set seems too familiar, the same one I’ve heard hear at Bean Blossom for several years. They close with an old Osborne’s tune, “High On A Hilltop.”

Banjoist Kristen Scott Benson reminds me of the IIIrd Tyme Out singing “Erase The Miles.” Her husband is 3TO’s longtime mandolin player. He was here the day before and then headed to Pennsylvania, Maine and Canada. Kristen is off on another route. It’s a tough life on marriages.

If you’ve been around bluegrass then you’ve heard of the Lonesome River Band. Anchored by longtime band member (and now owner) Sammy Shelor on banjo, bandmembers include Mike Hartgrove (one of the 3TO founding members) on fiddle and Brandon Rickman singing lead and playing guitar. Rickman takes a back seat to no one as a bluegrass singer. Shelor has been with the band for over twetny years and they’ve developed their own sound and it’s great bluegrass. They end their set with Bill Monroe numbers, taped by their record company, Rural Rhythm, for the Monroe special CD.

Closing out the afternoon was Greg Cahill and Special Consensus for the first of their four shows. Every year a handful of bands are booked in for four shows over two days while most play two, afternoon and evening, and a few play a single long set. Cahill has been a part of the music for thirty-five years and is past president of the IBMA. He’s the only consistent part of Special Consensus and his band seems to have one of the highest turnover rates in bluegrass. They put on a good show though sometimes the turnover shows through.

As the evening shows start everyone keeps a wary eye to the west. A line of severe storms is eighty miles away and may have a tornado in the mix. All the scheduled bands play but their sets are cut to about twenty minutes, anticipating a rain delay. Some of the bands aren’t happy with the abbreviated sets.

By the time the Grascals are back up the threat has passed to our south so we’re back to full sets. The Grascals perform and then LRB while anticipation builds for J. D. Crowe’s set.

The LRB closes with an old Jimmy Martin number, “Sitting On Top of the World” and then the New South starts taking the stage.

Another iconic figure in bluegrass, J. D. Crowe has been in the music for decades and his band has included some great performers like Tony Rice and Ronnie Stewart. Mandolinist Dwight McCall and lead singer and guitarist Rickey Wasson have been with him for fourteen years. JD hasn’t been back on the road long since breaking his arm in February, but he’s back now and as good as ever.

It’s odd but JD’s show never seems old even though some songs, like “Rock Salt and Nails,” are done every year, but he has such an extensive repertoire that they always pull some new songs out of the hat and the crowd loves everything they do. Rickey is amazing, seeming to have a full catalogue of every song JD has recorded in his head along with the album and date. The lineup includes Matt DeSpain on Dobro and Kyle Perkins on bass and we hear some of the best harmonies in the business. This set includes one of their newer numbers, an old Merle Haggard tune, “In My Next Life.” Another great set from JD Crowe.

As Special Consensus closes the day to a thinning crowd we make our way back to campers and tents while the day crowd starts home. Even with the rain it’s been a good day at Bean Blossom.

Larry Stephens covers Bean Blossom: Tuesday

Bean Blossom: Tuesday

Tuesday morning is a cool, overcast day. If it stays like this it will be a great day to sit under the trees and listen to bluegrass. We’re all keeping a wary ear to the weather forcasts for the next two days with a deluge predicted for tomorrow.

First up was the Magnolia Ramblers. A four-piece band, without fiddle or Dobro and using an electric bass, they were good instrumentalists though the bass player did get lost a time or two. Their lead singer and spokesperson, Alan Sibley is the mandolin player and he’s as folksy as they come when he talks but is a very good singer. He appeared for several years with the Sullivan Family (scheduled for Sunday) and has appeared with some of the top names in country and bluegrass. The crowd liked them, calling them back for an encore, something unusual for the early shows.

Even though it’s a great morning for music it’s still early for a lot of people. I’ve played for crowds this big at a pizza parlor. They’ll be here later, though, because this is IIIrd Tyme Out day.

The schedule is tight today, maybe a band or two too many. Most of the bands have a thirty minute slot and that’s just not enough. Today’s the day the kids in the Bluegrass Camp play and they are a demonstration that bluegrass has a great future.

First-timers Remington Ryde were up next. A five-piece band that now includes Indiana native and James King Band veteran Greg Moore, their music was traditional-based and okay. Their harmonies were not the tightest of the week so far and their one-mic approach just didn’t work well, making it hard to hear them sing. Their lead singer isn’t a bad singer, but his voice lacks the sparkle of, say, Tim Shelton of NewFound Road. The best backup musician in the group is the fiddle player. For his fiddle piece he at least didn’t play "Katy Hill" (one of a handful of tunes that get worn out at festivals). He picked "Angeline the Baker" and did a fine job on it. Now, if they could just come up with better jokes …

The Moron Brothers were up next. (See Monday for more about them.)

The Wildwood Valley Boys are always a treat for me. They come from southeastern Indiana and are lead by Tony Holt, a fine singer. If you’ve been a fan of bluegrass for a while you’ll remember one of the great groups of the past, The Boys From Indiana. Aubrey Holt, Tony’s father, has aged a bit from the appearance seen in the video, but he sings as good as ever and travels with son Tony and the band. John Rigsby helped out on fiddle and they played some songs from their new CD. This was great traditional bluegrass.

Charlie Sizemore is another artist who supports traditional bluegrass. He’s a singer and songwriter who spent time with Ralph Stanley in his younger years then left the music to become an attorney before coming back into the fold. His band is without a fiddle player but does have a resophonic guitarist and a stick bass. He currently has one of the top bluegrass CDs in the nation. He kicked it off with a new, hard driving number and concluded with his number one hit about his longing to be in Alison’s (Krauss) band.

After another appearance by the Spinney Brothers, Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper took the stage. I’ve seen Michael perform many times and he’s one of the best bluegrass fiddlers ever to play the music. Our mutual friend, Brian Leaver (late of the Wildwood Valley Boys) brought him out to my house to play one night and it was a pleasure to sit and play music with him for a few hours. But, this day I was curious. Just days ago I saw the news on bgrass-l that longtime bandmembers Jesse Brock and Tom Adams were gone, intent on starting their own band. Charlie Cushman, with him since just January is still with him, now joined by David Peterson (David Peterson and 1946) singing lead and multi-instrumentalist Jeff Guernsey on mandolin, at least on a temporary basis. Jeff played with Lloyd Wood along with my dad many years ago. Great traditional music with great playing and singing. The band is flying out to Telluride after they leave here tonight.

Appearing again this year is Lorraine Jordan and Carolina Road. Band members include Tommy Long, Ben Greene (James King, David Parmley, Bluegrass Cardinals), and Eddie Biggerstaff on bass. Lorraine is one of the founding members of the Daughters of Bluegrass and is committed to traditional bluegrass. She’s always a pleasure to watch. Rural Rhythm Records recorded part of her set (and IIIrd Tyme Out’s) for a "Live at Bean Blossom" theme album.

Closing both sets was IIIrd Tyme Out. Russell Moore is the sole founding member now and his singing is a good as ever. Steve Dilling on banjo and Wayne Benson on mandolin/mandola, friends for many years before joining 3TO, joined within six months of each other in the early 90′s. Justen Haynes on fiddle and Edgar Loudermilk on bass (and bass vocals) round out the musicians. Donnie Carver has been with the band since 1996 as their audio technician, running the sound board wherever they appear. Always a crowd favorite, they demonstrated again why they are one of the top bands in bluegrass with favorites like "Woman Dressed In Scarlet" and one of their most requested songs since debuting on their first album, "Erase The Miles." As part of their Bill Monroe tribute they closed with "The Old Crossroads," "Bluegrass Special," and "Uncle Pen."

And Tuesday was Bluegrass Camp day. Run by Rickey Wasson (J. D. Crowe) and wife Sarah, with the help of many volunteers, they give training each year to youngsters wanting to play bluegrass music. This year eighty kids appeared on the Bean Blossom stage.

It was a great day at Bean Blossom.

Larry Stepens covers Bean Blossom: Monday

Bean Blossom: Monday

Monday is a beautiful day here at Bean Blossom – clear skies and comfortable temperatures.

The day kicked off at 10:10 with Don Stanley & Middle Creek. Unfortunately, they’re more inspiring on YouTube than they were at Bean Blossom. Since the 2010 appearance shown on YouTube it looks like he’s replaced his mandolin and banjo players and it showed in the performance. The leadoff position is brutal if you have a delicate ego because it’s hard to get people in their seats. The few that were listening when Middle Creek took the stage were not very enthusiastic.

Next up was the Moron Brothers, first timers at Bean. Two retirees, playing a banjo and finger-style guitar (and a harmonica), they are twin brothers. Their set was down-home, pickle barrel humor with an occasional song thrown in. Half the songs were their own compositions, novelty songs that the crowd enjoyed. They are decent pickers and have surprisingly good voices. Forty-five minutes on stage was plenty but they’re probably a good time at a jam. Like some jammers, there’s a tendency to play sixteen bars sixteen times. "After us, momma had quadruplets. She asked Daddy if she could name them and he agreed. She named them Adolph, Rudolph, Getoff and Stayoff. They didn’t have any more kids."

The Spinney Brothers traveled fourteen hundred miles from Nova Scotia for their first Bean Blossom appearance. A four-piece band (guitar, mandolin, banjo and stick bass) they featured traditional bluegrass and country music, gathered around a single vocal mic. They’re appearing again on Tuesday. Good singing and playing and good interaction with the crowd. They’re an excellent band and hopefully we’ll see more of them on the circuit.

David Davis and the Warrior River Boys are no strangers to Bean Blossom. Like the Spinney Brothers, dressed nicely with ties, he always puts on a good show. Like all bands that appear year after year, they do some songs every year, like "Lonesome Cry of the Whippoorwill," but people never seem to tire hearing them. An interesting part of live shows is if your music has any warts, they’ll be exposed, so you’ll hear some misses on the instruments and some off-key notes.

The Larry Gillis band from Georgia was back this year. Gillis, a veteran of three decades on the road, plays banjo and has a young woman playing fiddle, two guitar players (one of them his teenage son) and (of course) a bass. The fiddler was enthusiastic and vocal, shouting out encouragement during the songs; her fiddling isn’t bad but has room for improvement. Gillis’ singing is strictly traditional but their set could have used a little more variety. They did have a great self-written instrumental, "Trouble In The Swamp."

Kenny & Amanda Smith are regulars at Bean Blossom. Overall the most talented band so far on Monday, Kenny is an extremely talented guitar player. Amanda does the lead singing and has a beautiful voice. They are well supported by a young mandolin player, a banjo player and a bassist. While they are not newgrass, they don’t do many traditional numbers, either. Watching them reminds me of one of the faults I find with many bluegrass bands – not much contact with the audience, not a lot of showmanship; five people staring down at their instruments and hardly any patter between songs. While a lot of the crowd doesn’t seem to mind, I’ve seen some very positive reactions on those rare occasions when a bluegrass band puts on a show.

NewFound Road is a four piece band (no fiddle or Dobro) that features great singing and harmony. Unlike several of the bands so far this year, we could hear and understand the lyrics. (Lack of enunciation seems to be an endemic problem in bluegrass.) They mix in some classic country with hard driving bluegrass. In a departure from most bands, at one point everyone but the mandolin player left the stage and he played a solo, obviously connected to an effects unit. They tore through "Salt Creek" and gave a touching rendition of that great Gaither hymn, "He Touched Me." This is a great group of young musicians. And did I mention traditional bluegrass? They did as good a version of "Little Maggie" as I’ve heard.

Goldwing Express rounded out the afternoon. A father and three sons, the sons are half American Indian and they support their heritage. As much about showmanship as they are about music, they put on a show that the crowd always enjoys. Dad only plays rhythm on his mandolin but stays busy with tall tales. The three sons are all excellent musicians. They split their time between the road and Branson. They close at least one segment at every show with a song dedicated to their deceased mother, "Live Forever" written by Billy Joe and Eddy Shaver. That morphs into a tribute to servicemen and women and they have everyone who has served come to the front to be honored, closing out with "God Bless America." I’ve heard some put this down as blatant showmanship, but the crowd is always touched. My choice is to believe in their sincerity.

As the sun went down there was a full moon over the roof of the stage and not a cloud in the sky. The evening was cool but the music was hot. Kenny and Amanda Smith’s set was pleasing the crowd and it was easy to see why he’s considered one of the hottest guitar players in bluegrass. They were called back for two encores before finally escaping to the top of the hill and their record table.

NewFound Road is a group you need to see if you like bluegrass. For their last set they mixed traditional music with trasditional-sounding music they’ve penned along with music imported from other genre ("Ain’t No Sunshine," the 1971 hit for Bill Withers.) The crowd loved it. They are a very dynamic band, especially the mandolin player who wanders all over the stage which adds excitement and interest to their show.

Closing out the night was Goldwing Express. Appearing in every set with them was nine-years-old Kyle Ramey. That young man can play a mandolin! He’s a pretty good fiddle player, too. They also featured Kyle and three other youngsters on a gospel number and they showed the crowd how to sing harmony. By then the crowd was getting small and the evening cool, but they kept the Express on stage for encores.

Another great day of bluegrass at Bean Blossom.

Larry Stephens covers Bean Blossom: Sunday

Bean Blossom: Sunday

I missed Sunday but half the bands played two days this year.

The Jesse Perdue Band is made up of local musicians. The Daniel Patrick Band was scheduled to play but the Sullivan Family had to cancel because of family issues. The Bartley Brothers were also scheduled.

Rounding out the schedule were bands doing two days of shows: Tommy Brown & County Line Grass, Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers and Goldwing Express.

Bean Blossom, as many of us simply refer to the festival, is the site of the Bill Monroe Bluegrass Festival, at forty-five years the longest continuous running bluegrass festival in the world. Located a few miles north of Nashville, Indiana, owner Dwight Dillman has continually made improvements to the grounds since he bought it from Bill Monroe’s heir, son James, in 1998. As much as the festival was loved before then, Mr. Monroe wasn’t big on aesthetics (like bathrooms).

The campground sells out every year, usually going into a leased field for overflow (which means no water or electricity) plus there are several cabins for rent and motels within easy driving distance. The festival grounds are the big draw for sleepy Bean Blossom at the intersetion of State Roads 45 and 135. Besides a couple of churches, the busy spots are McDonalds Grocery and Jim Brester’s veterinary clinic (where I’ve been a regular visitor for four decades).

If you’ve never been to Bean you owe yourself a visit. Out in front of the stage there’s a sea of chairs of all descriptions. You can plant your posterior in an empty chair – and many stay empty during the afternoon sets, some until the big shows the last Saturday – but it’s a sin to move someone’s chair.

There’s always movement. Campers coming and going, golf carts on the move, people sitting and leaving and sometimes dancing a jig, Segways and a Red-Headed Woodpecker twenty feet overhead feeding its young in a hole in a hickory tree; the smell of wood smoke and the lights of a bus taking a band to some far-off destination for their next show.

Sam Jackson emcees year after year. He earns his keep hawking the wares on top of the hill. “Get that good old kettle corn. Take what you have left and pour some milk over it for breakfast. It’s some kind of good, I guarantee it.” “Ribeye sandwiches so tender you wonder how the old cow held together to walk around.” “Get some of that gooood catfish, and have it for breakfast with some eggs and potatoes.” He makes it look easy – but it’s not.

Then there are the days when you keep a wary eye on the sky. It wouldn’t be Bean Blossom without some rain.

As evening comes the crowd starts filling in the open lawn to the left of the stage. You’ll see some dancing, some frisbee, people tanning and people sleeping. Sometimes there’s some drinking and a rowdy or two, but Dwight’s security quickly steps in.

Finally, the last act is about to finish. Love the music as much as you want, as midnight nears you’re ready to call it a day – maybe.

Because there are always jams around the campfires. Some people come just for the jams and the friendship and rarely, maybe never, listen to the shows. Many bands roll in, play their shows and then head out to the next show. A few stay for two days of shows and some may stay for a few days. Rickey Wasson, J. D. Crowe’s front man, and his wife Sarah stay for several days as they put on a bluegrass camp for aspiring young bluegrassers. Don’t be surprised if you see a bluegrass star on stage then jamming at a campfire an hour later.

A recurring theme, especially with first-time bands, is what an honor it is to play on the stage that Mr. Monroe called his own. Some people put it down as just talk but I know how it feels to be up there and it is special. (I’ve never played the big June show, but playing any show from that stage is special.)

By Saturday I’m ready to hook up to the camper and head home, only a county away, but every year I reserve spot 26 for the next year. It seems to be a habit I don’t want to break.

Larry Stephens covers Bean Blossom: First Saturday

Bean Blossom: First Saturday

The day is hot and muggy. Rain threatens from back in Missouri. A walk around the campground shows that a lot of people haven’t made it in yet this year. Grounds owner Dwight Dillman is hoping for a record breaking year so I’m sure the empty spaces will fill.

Some faces are familiar, I’ve seen them every year for the past decade. Some never appear around the stage, content with jamming and visiting back at their campsites. Some only show up for the big names. Everyone has a good time, though.

The Hill Benders were first up. They were an energetic band, departing from the stand-at-the-mic and rarely smile demeanor some bands have. Their music tended toward the edgy, almost newgrass part of the time. They were credible as instrumentalists but sometimes had more flair than polish.

Larry Keel & Natural Bridge were next. Good musicians – Keel qualifies as “great,” but in the talk-and-play mode that doesn’t generate a lot of crowd enthusiasm. Not that the crowd didn’t enjoy them, but not enough to demand an encore.

Tommy Brown & County Line Grass took the stage next. Brown adheres to the Monroe-Stanley style of music and has been on the road a long time playing it. Unfortunately, that means even if they do a new song it doesn’t really sound new. It’s still good music but won’t win many new people to bluegrass. I had a tough time understanding the lyrics to the songs, even telling the difference between one song and the next (which was my wife’s remark).

Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers took the music up several notches. Mullins is a veteran on the bluegrass circuit and on the radio. Mullins owns and operates Classic Country Radio, a network of three southwest Ohio radio stations featuring Classic Country, Bluegrass and Gospel music. Traditional but new, too, a mix of old songs and new compositions, his band was a pleasure to watch and hear, musicians and singers as good as they come.

If you were a fan of BlueRidge then you’ve heard Junior Sisk sing and play. He now leads his own band and holds strictly to the traditional sound. He’s a great bluegrass singer who puts everything he has into every performance.

I only caught pieces of Larry Stephenson’s appearance. One of the challenges of a bluegrass festival is time management. Here at Bean Blossom the music has started by 11:00 am and runs until near midnight for eight days. The only break is a half hour for supper (unless they’re running late) so you have to find time for a bathroom break and a meal here and there, as well as a walkabout to see what else is happening. This includes workshops on the hill behind the stage.

So I was out and about while Stephenson was on stage, but I’ve seen his show many times in the past and, from what I could hear, he was doing his usual fine job with a new song or two and several that the crowd asks for every year.

The evening show included two one-show bands. Most bands appear twice, thirty to forty-five minute sets. Larry Sparks, one of a legion of Ralph Stanley graduates, has an unmistakable voice and guitar playing style. One of his signature songs, “Love of the Mountains,” is the epitome of bluegrass music. Another of his hits was “John Deere Tractor” and he did both for us as well as some “Carter’s Blues.” Sparks, who has professed on the stage to have been less than a role model in his earlier years, always puts his commitment to being a Christian right up front and features his preacher for a couple of minutes of testimony. It says something about the bluegrass crowd that there’s rarely a complaint about this minute of preaching.

Closing out was the Tony Rice Unit. An icon of bluegrass music, he is universally respected for his guitar playing but was also a great singer in his younger days. His voice almost gone after years of hard singing and living, he can barely be heard when he speaks. His band includes younger brother Wyatt, a star in his own right, Josh Williams playing mandolin, Rob Ickes on Dobro and Bryn Davies doing a fantastic job with the bass. She played several soloes and takes a backseat to no one on the big upright.

Rice has long been known for his eclectic interests with the guitar, including many influences from other genre. His jazz influences were evident and he included some numbers from his album, Manzanita. His intro to one number was at least two minutes long. He’s always a crowd pleaser, even late on a muggy night under the stars.

A great first day at Bean. It’s time for bed, falling asleep to the smell of woodsmoke and the sounds of music played around the campfires.

“Looking for a Fight” by the Sweetback Sisters


The Sweetback Sisters
Looking For a Fight
Signature Sounds
4.5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Rockabilly is alive and well with the Sweetback Sisters. Rockabilly, swing, honky-tonk – three faces of the same band – is an old and exciting sub-genre of country music. The beginning is usually traced back to Sun Records with such notable singers as Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Johhny Cash, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison.

Emily Miller (lead vocals, fiddle and guitar) grew up in a family band playing traditional American music in Hong Kong (not many in country music can boast of that background) and she’s active in harmony singing workshops around the country. Zara Bode (lead vocals and guitar) has acting experience and works doing vocal background recordings when not touring with the Sisters.

Peter Bitenc has been playing upright bass in bands since he was fifteen and is active in several bands in addition to the Sisters, playing jazz, rock and bluegrass. Ross Bellenoit (electic guitar and harmony) studied classical and jazz guitar and has been associated with Bob Dylan and John Carter Cash. Stefan Amidon (drums and bass vocals) does a great job on the drums (I love to pick on monotonous drum players!) and has a degree in jazz performance. He, like the others, has been active in a number of bands in addition to the Sisters. Jesse Milnes rounds out the band. He plays fiddle, guitar and sings harmony and is the only member whose upbringing has overtones of country life. He was raised and lives in West Virginia.

They may not be recognized names in the national country music scene and they may have eclectic backgrounds and tastes, but they know their way with a country song. If you like the sounds of traditional hony tonk and country swing music, you’ll be keeping this CD handy for a long time.

Half the songs were penned by the band. The title song includes some good harmony singing and some trading of lyrics as well as a great walking bass line on the chorus. I can just see the smoky bar with the band on the dim lit stage. Then they throw in some variation with “Cowboy Ham and Eggs.” I’m not a huge fan of novelty songs but this one is more than that. Written by Tim Spencer, it was sung in the movies by none other than Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers (titled “Come And Get It” there). Tim spent many years as one of the Pioneers and appeared with friend Leonard Sly (better known to the world as Roy Rogers) before the Pioneers were formed. The Sisters are pretty faithful to the Pioneers’ version and listening takes me back to post-World War II days. This is a gem that they found somewhere.

While rockabilly-centric, the band keeps things interesting by demonstrating they can be balladeers, too. They include a great treatment of the late Hazel Dickens‘ “Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There” (originally released by Hazel and Alice Gerrard, Hazel & Alice, 1973). It’s the familiar story of the wronged woman who now haunts the honky-tonk but the harmony of Zara and Emily makes it a compelling number. “Home,” (written by Zara) is a song of loss and sadness. I like the way they do the song here, minimal backup, quiet and reflective, but I suspect, if it’s ever covered, you’ll hear more of a Patsy Cline treatment of the song.

If you want to put the “rock” in rockabilly, what better than a song written by Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne, better known as The Traveling Wilburys. The Sisters do more than justice to it – they rock it! But on “The Mystery of You,” with guest Andy Keenan on the steel guitar, they give us an upbeat, middle-of-the-road country song.

This is a talented group and an excellent CD. If you like traditional country you’ll like what they do.

“Some Strange Country” by Crooked Still


Crooked Still
Some Strange Country
Signature Sounds
4 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

Sometimes pegged as part of the roots, alt-bluegrass movement, Crooked Still’s Some Strange Country is a fusion of roots, bluegrass and new age music, Enya meets Alison Krauss. No doubt they have faithful followers out there – it’s not likely they could keep up the touring schedule they have without fans – but for the uninitiated (which may be most bluegrass folks) this is hearing music, not listening music. The key to understanding their music is to remember what they want to do, not what we expect to hear.

You know what I mean by “hearing” music: I hear “Moon River” when I’m on an elevator, but I listen to Dailey & Vincent. That doesn’t mean this CD isn’t entertaining, but for me, from a bluegrass perspective, it’s a vacuum filler. Listening to the CD while I write the review I lost track of what I was listening to. They do play bluegrass events once in a while, scheduled at Gray Fox for one. I have a hard time imagining a very warm response at someplace like Bean Blossom, though.

Singer Aoife O’Donovan’s voice is ethereal, much like Alison singing “When You Say Nothing At All” or Enya singing “China Roses.” You have to strain to hear the lyrics and the messages aren’t exactly “Cabin On The Hill.” The lyrics are included in the insert but the font size is, of course, tiny and they chose a beautiful but hard to read script typeface printed against an olive background. It’s almost like a dare to see if you can read more than one at a time without a headache. And these are long songs. I’m surprised “Barabara Allen” isn’t included somewhere.

They don’t seem to target bluegrass as a primary market, but they do have a couple of links on the CD. Ricky Skaggs sings harmony on “The Golden Vanity,” one of several traditional songs on the CD. Without the liner credits it would be quite a catch to know it’s Skaggs, though. Tim O’Brien sings on “I’m Troubled” (I do like their version better than the Garcia/Grisman version) and “Calvary,” a gospel number (I had to read the lyrics to figure that out) with a weird banjo intro.

They are good instrumentalists. The banjoist (Gregory Liszt) spends most of his time providing fills, but rapid, syncopated, repetitious fills without any misses takes skill. Tristan Clarridge plays some excellent cello, Brittany Haas plays five-string fiddle and Corey DiMario is their bass player. O’Donovan adds some guitar, organ and piano. Additional contributors include Sarah Jarosz and Annalisa Tornfelt.

This is pretty strange country if you look at it from a bluegrass perspective. When you look over their discography it’s clear they’ve always flirted with bluegrass (“Darling Corey,” “Rank Stranger,” “Poor Ellen Smith”) but that isn’t their emphasis. If you view this from the perspective of what they want to accomplsh with their music, they’re doing a fine job.