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.