Every year in June, thousands of people from across the country make their way to a small Indiana burg for the oldest continuously running bluegrass festival in the world, Bill Monroe’s Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival. The small community of Bean Blossom, just north of Nashville, Ind., usually counts a population of 6,000 residents, mostly students, farmers and commuters. But for one week a year, that population increases five-fold, and the air fills with the sound of banjo, mandolin and four-part harmony.In 1951, the father of bluegrass music, Bill Monroe, purchased a small park in Brown County. Many country and bluegrass performers at the time bought parks and venues to guarantee that they would have a place to play. Over the years, Monroe brought in many of the top names in bluegrass to play Sunday concerts at the Brown County Jamboree. Artists like The Stanley Brothers, The Osborne Brothers and, of course, Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys made appearances to enthusiastic but small crowds.
“My brother and me played Bean Blossom way before we even played the [Grand Ole] Opry,” says Bobby Osborne, who, along with brother Sonny, made up the groundbreaking duo The Osborne Brothers. “We played down in the old barn the first time we ever went to Bean Blossom.”
Larry Sparks, who first played Bean Blossom as a member of the Stanley Brothers band and who makes his home in nearby Greensburg, remembers playing that “old barn” in the early part of his career: “It wasn’t a real big crowd on Sundays, maybe 50 people.”
As bluegrass became more popular, by the late ’60s Monroe was encouraged by his friend and promoter Carlton Haney to latch onto the new phenomenon of the bluegrass festival. Haney had organized one of the first bluegrass festivals in 1966 and featured a tribute to the contributions of Monroe to the music, so his word went a long way. So in June 1967, Monroe’s Sunday concert expanded to a weekend of music with several national bluegrass bands performing at the park.
This two-day festival has continued to grow each year and now stretches a full eight days, drawing in an average of 25,000 attendees a year. Approximately 33,800 people attended over eight days last year, and the festival broke the record for the number of tent campers and RVs on the grounds.
Fields of bluegrass
Performers at this year’s festival, which runs from June 14-21, include IIIrd Tyme Out, Special Consensus, James Monroe and Midnight Ramblers (son of Bill Monroe), Cherryholmes, Dailey & Vincent, Marty Raybon (formerly of the country music group Shenandoah) & Full Circle, Jesse McReynolds & the Virginia Boys and James King. A few national acts that have Indiana ties will perform: Kenny & Amanda Smith, Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper and The Grascals (named Entertainers of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association). The weekend builds to the final Saturday performance featuring many legends of bluegrass including JD Crowe & New South, Bobby Osborne and the Rocky Top X-Press and Dr. Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys.
Joining those national acts are several regional and local bands, including Bloomington’s Sweetgrass and Indianapolis’ Cornfields and Crossroads. It’s the first time performing at the festival for both bands. For some members, like Deb Flowers of Cornfields and Crossroads, it will be their first time attending the event. “Not too many people can say their first Bean Blossom experience came from up on stage,” she says.
The music isn’t the only attraction for many festival attendees. It is also an opportunity to reconnect with friends from across the country, or even the world. Many bring their instruments and participate in what is called “parking lot picking,” a tradition at bluegrass festivals in which amateur musicians form jam sessions, often joined by the performers they have come to admire. Those picking sessions form a bond between the fans and the artists that serves to strengthen their love of music.
Maintaining the title of the longest running festival isn’t easy. As gas prices climb past the $4 mark, attendees have had to make choices in the way they spend their fuel budget. “So far, people are telling us that due to gas and leap year that they are foregoing a couple other bluegrass festivals to stay with us for the week,” Zimmerman says. “Which is a good sign!” She also noted that ticket sales had begun to pick up heading into May.
Another development that has annual attendees nervous is the news that park owner Dwight Dillman is putting the property up for sale. Hanging out the “For Sale” sign in July 2007, Dillman, who has owned the property for 10 years, was ready to pass it on to someone who could continue to grow the festivals (there are eight festivals held on the grounds throughout the year ranging from bluegrass to blues to folk). The Bean Blossom Brown County Jamboree Preservation Foundation, Inc. was recently created with a mission to raise money to purchase and operate the site, insuring its bluegrass legacy and tradition. In an act of good faith, Dillman has removed the “For Sale” sign from the property.
Bobby Osborne, who played Bean Blossom in the ’50s and will return for the festival’s Saturday night show, understands why fans are fighting to keep the festival alive.
“I know when I first started going there it was just the thought of being at a festival that Bill Monroe started,” Osborne says. “And I think the fans felt the same way. It’s just the thought of being where Bill Monroe walked the grounds. I think for the fans and the players, going to Bean Blossom is like a man working his way up to the Grand Ole Opry.”
WHAT: Bill Monroe’s Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival
WHERE: Bill Monroe Music Park & Campground, 5163 S.R. 135 N., Bean Blossom, Ind.
WHEN: June 14-21, $20-$35 single day pass, $165 eight-day pass, all-ages