My wife and I have lived in Bloomington Indiana now for the last five years or so. While living here there are several things we have always planned to do: see an IU football game, not for the game (for no one wants to see the Hoosiers play football) but because my wife is a band geek, and she’d like to see the marching band perform. We’d like to go to a basketball game, as basketball is the one sport IU consistently does well. We feel we ought to see the Indy 500 and the Kentucky Derby just once, though neither of us can gather up any kind of excitement for that. And we always plan to attend the Bill Monroe bluegrass festival.
Until this week, we’ve seen exactly none of those things. Since we are headed to China in August, we finally decided to buckle down and attend the bluegrass festival. Even then, we had plans to attend every night of the eight-day festival, but due to problems of infinite proportions, we were only able to make it Tuesday and Saturday.
You could say bluegrass is in my blood, though I didn’t know it for many years. My great-uncle played with Dolly Parton when she was little, and my cousin plays guitar in Ricky Skaggs band. Most of my dad’s family plays some sort of instrument, and they say family reunions are a sight and sound to behold.
None of this information was actually known to me for many years. I thought we were a pretty boring family for most of my youth. In fact, I can remember my parents deciding to go to a bluegrass festival when I was in my early teens and I had to ask what the heck bluegrass was.
“It’s like country, but faster and with more twang,” Mom told me.
The Bill Monroe Bluegrass Festival is the oldest bluegrass festival in the world. It has been picking and a grinning for the last 41 years. Everyone who is anyone in bluegrass has played this stage. This year over 50 acts played morning, noon, and night for 8 straight days.
On Tuesday we saw Karl Shiflett, Anita Fisher, Bluegrass Strangers and IIIrd Tyme Out. It was a full day of fun, sun, and good music.
There were rows and rows of lawn chairs set up in front of the stage and we couldn’t quite figure out if they were all owned by individual concertgoers, or if they had been set up by the venue. They were all unmatched, but most of them were empty and they were perfectly set up. It seemed strange to me that so many people would have come in and set up their chairs in neat little rows and then abandoned them.
This worked perfectly on Tuesday, and we found great seats just a few rows back from the stage, and right in the middle.
IIIrd Tyme Out was the highlight of Tuesday. Russell Moore has some of the best vocals in bluegrass and the rest of the band can pick right along with him. They can play traditional bluegrass like the old folks, but aren’t afraid to add something new to the mix and update those old sounds. Plus they are a ton of fun to listen to and watch.
Saturday was much fuller than the Tuesday afternoon crowd, and we were all there to see one man, Dr Ralph Stanley. Legend is too small a word for the man. He is the living embodiment of bluegrass music. He is distinguished and incredible. A giant in a little man’s shoes.
We took seats again up close, but after a few songs, someone approached us stating that we were, in fact, in their chairs. Looking around and seeing how full the venue was getting, we decided to pull our own lawn chairs out of the car and sit to the side so as to not miss anything.
We saw very enjoyable performances from Alecia Nugent, Paul Williams, Jim Lauderdale, JD Crowe and of course Dr. Ralph Stanley. As I said though, the crowd was all holding their breath for Ralph Stanley. When the time finally came, and the announcement was made, we all went nuts.
For the first few songs Stanley didn’t sing a note. He allowed his band to play instrumentals and his guitarist sing a tune or two. I began to wonder if the good Dr. hadn’t fallen ill and couldn’t sing, or if he was too old to do much more than joke with the band between songs.
My worries were unfounded, it seems, as Stanley finally took center stage, and enchanted us all with his distinctive voice. His voice is not what I would ever call beautiful, it is certainly original, and it delivers a perfect old-timey sound. It roared and called out to the crowd on this night.
Stanley is a generous performer and spent much of his long set talking about the records his band mates and children have recently put out. Most of the band got to perform at least one song, and in a very sweet moment a little boy from the area came out and nervously belted out an old Stanley Brothers tune.
Even with three encores the crowd screamed and begged for more. Stanley closed with an a capella version of “O Death” that I believe must have stilled the entire state.
We left a little after 11. Kids were still playing ball and freeze tag, the food vendors were still churning out their unique brand of edibles, the stars were still shining brightly, and the music was still playing. But we were hot, covered in dirt and completely exhausted.
You could do worse things on a summer Saturday night in Indiana.