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.