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Letter from Katie: American Pickers

For some years in the 1970s and the early 1980s, I earned a living playing bluegrass festivals. Bluegrass festivals are weekend musical events mostly held in the spring and early summer, and I’ve always loved performing at them; it’s a little like working for the circus.

All kinds of people attended. I’d see farmers wearing overalls so new the britches made a whipping sound when they walked, and city folk in expensive Nikes, wearing aviator-style sunglasses and carrying mandolins or guitars worth a small fortune. One summer day when we pulled into Renfro Valley Bluegrass Festival, I saw a man who was a part-time musician leaning on a Porsche chopping chords on a mandolin, the cuffs of his white dress shirt rolled back precisely at the wrist. He was good, and my old friends from Louisville, Edna Mae and Cody Wolfe, were part of a small group of people gathered around to listen. Edna Mae wore a housedress and a hairnet, and the corners of her thin mouth were turned down slightly. We hugged and I said, “Edna, I didn’t know you were going to be here.”

“Well, I wrote you day before yesterday that we was a’comin’,” she said. “Come on over where we’re camped and I’ll feed you. I’ve been cookin’ for two days.”

Sure enough, by the side of their old station wagon Edna and Cody had laid out a supper to make your mouth water: a ham, baked beans, potato salad, cakes and pies, a tub full of banana pudding, and a great big jar of iced tea. If the surroundings had been a little more elegant you might have called it a tailgate party.

The food set on Edna Mae’s old-fashioned dishes was always welcome to the musicians who had difficulty getting to the concession stands between sets. What with handing out autographs and participating in the “shake and howdy” part of the weekend, attending backstage rehearsals and the stomach-twisting anxiety of the performance itself, it was just plain hard to get anything to eat if you were a performer. So the hospitality provided by Edna Mae and Cody was important in a way few people understood.

Nowadays bluegrass festivals are big business, and folks like Edna and Cody Wolfe could hardly afford the price of admission, much less the expense of feeding musicians. Besides, most festivals offer food as part of the musicians’ contract “rider”—the part of a contract that covers extras like red M&Ms and bottled water. In those early years, though, it was fans like the Wolfes who sustained players, and their support laid down a fine foundation for bluegrass festivals and bluegrass bands and musicians.

On a warm spring day, when the earth smells new, when the dogwood and redbud trees are in bloom, and the white fluffy clouds dance across the spring sky, I start to think about parking lot pickers and open-air stages, and about people like Edna and Cody who’d go just about anywhere to hear the music they loved, who fed their own souls while they dished out baked beans and potato salad to the rest of us.

 

Bluegrass festivals began in the mid-1960s, when Carlton Haney produced the first one in Fincastle, Virginia, as a tribute to Bill Monroe. The ticket prices were about $25 for the weekend in those days. Now they can run over $200 for three to five days. Still, they’re a great value. Where else can you hear a dozen or more bands, sit in on a bunch of jam sessions, and stand behind an entertainer in a Nudie suit waiting in line for a Port-O-Let?

Here, the season kicks off in May, on Mother’s Day weekend, with the 44-year-old Appalachian Festival at Coney Island. Our festival was started—believe it or not—as a project of the Junior League of Cincinnati, an organization of affluent women committed to doing good works. Approximately 34 percent of Greater Cincinnatians are of Appalachian descent. Back then, Cincinnati was just beginning to acknowledge its mountain roots. In 1970, Junior Leaguers set out to make the city aware of this slice of its cultural pie via a stunning music and crafts festival. There were incredible crafts—art quilts you’d sooner hang on the wall than put on the bed, beautiful pieces of pottery glistening with colorful glazes, and the kind of handmade baskets destined to be displayed on the polished wood of a Hyde Park dining table.

The musical groups were spectacular, too. Roy Acuff was the headliner at the first festival, but I remember the Osborne Brothers best from those early days. Bobby Osborne had a high tenor voice that would shatter glass, and he and his brother Sonny had a hit in the late 1960s with their recording of “Rocky Top.” By the time the Appalachian Festival got underway here, “Rocky Top” was a theme song of colleges all over Tennessee, and no self-respecting band at a country wedding could get through an evening without playing it at least once. Audiences drove bluegrass bands to distraction with their requests for the hit. Bands took to putting up signs saying, “We don’t play ‘Rocky Top,’ ” and the Red Clay Ramblers actually wrote a number called “Play Rocky Top” just to address the hysteria over the piece.

The song had a refrain—Rocky Top, Tennes-see—ee-ee—ee—that proved to be irresistible, and the Osborne Brothers (originally from Hyden, Kentucky, then residents of Dayton, Ohio) became one of the first crossover groups in bluegrass. Their appearance at the Appalachian Festival here drew visitors from far and wide, visitors who bought tickets and stared at quilts draped artfully on hay bales, standing alongside college professors, Junior Leaguers, and first-and second-generation Appalachians who were part of the mainstream for the first time.

Over its four decades, the Appalachian Festival has moved around from Cincinnati Gardens to the Convention Center to its present home at Coney Island. It’s still held the second weekend in May, and at under $10 a day, it’s the best bargain around.

 

Just south of us, the Lexington Festival of the Bluegrass is held on the second weekend of June, at the Kentucky Horse Park. The stage is large and shady and set atop a slight rise, with a plywood floor out front for folks who just can’t keep from dancing. From the stage, where I have played myself many times, you can see hundreds of festival-goers and lines of merchandise booths—a stretch of real estate where you can buy records and CDs, get a new leather banjo strap or a floppy suede hat.

Promoter Bob Cornett and his wife, Jean, started the Lexington Festival of the Bluegrass in 1974, and it had all the makings of a great festival even then, with terrific performers, food, and down-home merchandise. But this festival’s real claim to fame is its outstanding reputation for “parking lot picking”—the informal jam sessions that make bluegrass festivals different from any other musical event.

One year when I played at the festival, I was on stage following a freckle-faced duo—a boy on banjo and a girl on mandolin. They were joined by a guitar player, and all three were singing harmony on Bill Monroe’s “It’s Mighty Dark to Travel.” The girl had on a T-shirt that said “Mandolin players do it better” (it’s obvious that she was not particularly concerned with her wardrobe) and the trio was excellent—in tune and in time on the hot summer afternoon.

At 6 p.m. the stage emptied and there was an hour break for dinner. Then, after 7, each band came back for their second set—the all-important evening performance, when you’re expected to pull out all the stops and leave the stage to a standing ovation. But it doesn’t end there, because on the festival grounds, the jam sessions go on without interruption. So, after playing their second set and slapping on some bug repellent, the freckle-faced girl and her group ran into a bass player they knew, added that instrument to their combo, and took their place among the parking lot pickers.

It was hot and it was late, but they just swung into high gear. As a crowd formed around them, they blasted out Earl Scruggs’s version of “Train 45” at breakneck speed. “Sounds just like J.D. Crowe,” some man said.

If the players heard him, they didn’t take notice. It certainly didn’t turn their heads. They just kept playing for the pure joy of the music. But it was a compliment of the highest order. As far as bluegrass is concerned, J.D. Crowe owns Lexington. For that matter, the reach of his virtuosity extends far beyond.

Crowe grew up playing the banjo in Lexington and a kind of Abe Lincoln mythology surrounds his ability. As a boy, he is said to have practiced until the school bus arrived in the morning then picked up right where he left off when he got home. His father, who knew he was a prodigy, took him to Earl Scruggs for lessons. Scruggs didn’t know how to teach what he played, though, so he suggested that the father bring the boy around whenever he and Lester Flatt were in town; that way little J.D. could watch what Earl was doing with his right hand close-up. It might be said that Crowe learned to play the banjo by osmosis. Whether that’s true or not, he was in demand professionally by the time he was 15, and the album he and his band, the New South, released in 1975 is still one of the most influential bluegrass albums since Flatt and Scruggs took the music world by storm with “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.”

J.D. Crowe has never left Kentucky, never moved to Nashville or California as many other star pickers have done. The state has, consequently, lavished him with awards, recognition, even a Ph.D. Dr. Crowe is in an enviable position: he has a band he can play with when he wants, and at 75, he can take a few well deserved weekend breaks. However, you will almost always see him at the Lexington Festival of the Bluegrass. This year he will appear on Saturday with the Masters of Bluegrass on the evening show, and that alone will be worth the price of admission.

 

The following week, June 8 through 15, is reserved for the Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival in Bean Blossom, Indiana. Bill Monroe had been impressed enough with that first festival at Fincastle, Virginia, back in 1965, that he wasted no time starting his own himself in 1966, in what is now known as the Bill Monroe Country Music Park.

When I first went to Bean Blossom it was still in its “primitive” phase: There were long lines at the food concession stand (That’s stand singular: there was only one for all those people!) and the Port-O-Lets backed up. Ed Pinkston, a local instrument maker, used to say you had to practice hillbilly yoga to attend Bean Blossom. When I asked him what hillbilly yoga was, he answered, “Eat a fried egg every mornin.’ That’ll keep you out of the Port-O-Lets.”

I was there one year when the weatherman warned of a “thermal inversion”—heat the intensity of which I’d never felt before, with not a lick of breeze blowing. That weekend the level of protest about the sanitary facilities reached a new high: It was a lot like the French Revolution. Attendees wanted to drag the Monroe family off to the Bastille.

On the other hand, one of my favorite nights at Bean Blossom was a Saturday night, standing in back of the stage, listening to a group of the best fiddlers in bluegrass tearing up a tune called “Gold Rush.” That night there was a campfire, and the fiddlers stood behind a log, which they used to rest one foot on at a time when their solo was over. Fiddlers have to keep their bow arms “oiled up” and limber, and playing onstage with a band for an hour, maybe two, a day just isn’t enough practice. Consequently, at a festival like Bean Blossom, where a lot of bands converge with the same repertoire and musical background, you can count on finding plenty of jam sessions at night.

That Saturday night I heard Bill Monroe’s fiddle player, Kenny Baker, his Stetson hat tilted just so over one eye, pulling his bow over the strings of the violin like buttery toffee. I heard Byron Berline, and Tex Logan. I heard the West Virginia fiddlers Joe Meadows and the gifted young Buddy Griffin, who later came to play with my own band. I saw Ricky Skaggs that night, too—he was young and still playing the fiddle, and I heard the blood-curdling high lonesome sound of his tenor singing.

Festivals really started seeing success in the 1980s, and bigger, more complex events followed. MerleFest in North Carolina (named in honor of Doc Watson’s son, Merle) and the Telluride Festival in Colorado are now the size of small cities; transportation is required between the stages. Both festivals, and others like them, boast hundreds of bands, many not even bluegrass, and the price of a couple of tickets can be truly astronomical.

About 10 years ago I was in California at two enormous bluegrass festivals: Grass Valley Father’s Day Bluegrass Festival in northern California and the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. I was amazed at the thousands in attendance at each. At Grass Valley, the RVs were huge and rich-looking and lined the park from one end to the other. And that was a week before the festival even started! The price of admittance was so high that the board of trustees had to establish scholarships for talented musicians who couldn’t afford it. After all, the festival would not have earned the credibility it enjoyed with no talented amateur musicians there watching and playing along.

On the other hand, The Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park was free, paid for by the late billionaire Warren Hellman. Mr. Hellman, a venture capitalist who played the banjo himself, started the festival in order to highlight the city’s interest and history with the music he loved.

When I was there, I remember the morning fog made the park look like something out of a Tolkien novel: ancient crooked tree trunks, thick foliage, the distinctive look and aroma of eucalyptus. I saw an old Chinese couple doing their morning t’ai chi, unaffected by the commotion around them. The various stages’ sound systems were first-rate, and so were the performers. I was bowled over to see Dolly Parton on one of the women’s music stages, though as my old friend, Becky, later said, “She was so far away you could barely see one little sequin.”

Still, it was amazing. In my day, I used to sing on hastily constructed stages in the rain for 75 audience members sitting in their lawn chairs with trash bags and newspapers over their heads. Now I was in a strange land where the worst weather that could be thrown at me was fog, and that usually burned off by afternoon. Plus, Mr. Hellman flew the musicians out at his own expense and housed them at nice hotels. “O brave new world,” I thought, “that has such creatures in’t.”

Bill Monroe used to say that he didn’t write all those songs, he just grabbed the notes out of the air before anybody else did. At Golden Gate Park, I realized that bluegrass was magic after all.

Originally published in the April 2013 issue.