Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival

June 13-19 Bean Blossom, Ind.

A sense of being on hallowed ground always takes over when you enter the gates of Bill Monroe Memorial Music Park and Campground, 5 miles north of Nashville on Indiana State Road 135. When it's a perfect blue-sky, humidity-free day in June with bluegrass music ringing in the air, you might be convinced it's heaven.

Bill Monroe, the founding father of bluegrass music, purchased this patch of Brown County in the early ’60s and developed his festival stage and campgrounds into a mecca for the bluegrass faithful. He built it, they did come and they continue to.

Following Monroe's death in 1996, Dwight Dillman and family purchased the park, improving and building on Monroe's vision to provide a place that keeps bluegrass music alive and keeps the fans coming back for the magic of "good ol' Bean Blossom." It's a place where you can sit in your lawn chair under a shade tree and soak up the sounds of bluegrass greats all day long.

Or, if you are one hungry to play bluegrass, Bean Blossom is an incubator of musical expression and learning. Workshops and all-night campground jams are everywhere, ready to help bluegrass beginners step it up and go. Some pickers don't even make it to the performance stage all week, so intent are they on learning by playing.

The annual Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival just had a 38th running from June 13-19 and it's still out front as the premier gathering of bluegrass fans and performers. This year's festival experience ranged from a sleepy day of bluegrass gospel music (with cicada overtones) on opening Sunday, to the intense peak of Jimmy Martin's kinetic and emotional performance the following Saturday.

In between there were countless golden moments to be had — discovering new bands like Frank Ray and Cedar Hill, attending workshops like "Country Vocals In Bluegrass" (which featured a priceless one-time pairing of Rhonda Vincent and Charlie Waller) or just chilling out back at the van while listening to music from the stage on the park's on-site FM station.

In many ways, though, the heart of this year's festival focused on Jimmy Martin. Known to many as "The King of Bluegrass," 76-year-old Jimmy Martin is currently undergoing chemotherapy for bladder cancer. He really should have been home resting Saturday night, but as he put it after walking on stage to a standing ovation, "Three weeks ago I didn't think I'd be here and if it was up to three or four doctors I wouldn't be."

Martin's spirit and spunk joined with a special energy felt on the festival's sloping hillside, full of fans focused on the stage. It was the long week's most poignant moment. Tears were flowing on stage and off as Martin reflected, "If we never meet again this side of heaven, I'll leave here loving all of you." Jimmy Martin then kicked out "You Don't Know My Mind" like he was still 26.

The world of bluegrass music carries a close personal bond between fans and performers. The bluegrass blend of folk, country, blues and instrumental virtuosity brings listeners special gifts — from emotional comfort to the energizing thrills felt while watching instruments being picked in ways that defy the laws of physics. Bluegrass artists make themselves very accessible to their fans, typified at Bean Blossom by the long gravel path running up through the crowd from the stage to a meet-and-greet shelter at the top of the hill. Seeing a bluegrass icon mosey up this path to hang out with fans, shaking hands and saying hello along the way, shows how deep these bonds are felt by fans and performers alike.

About 10:15 Saturday night, an after-set crowd surrounded Jimmy Martin at a booth selling DVDs of George Goehl's critically-acclaimed documentary The King of Bluegrass. Fans from 8 to 80 scrambled for autographs. Martin sat patiently providing them, sharing a profound moment of a certain kind of love you can only find at Bean Blossom.


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