Bluegrass Raleigh

Festival that helped define bluegrass is remembered

Bill Monroe, at left microphone, sings with Carter Stanley at the 1965 bluegrass festival in Fincastle, Va. The historic event is being commemorated on its 50th anniversary during IBMA week in Raleigh.
Bill Monroe, at left microphone, sings with Carter Stanley at the 1965 bluegrass festival in Fincastle, Va. The historic event is being commemorated on its 50th anniversary during IBMA week in Raleigh. Ron Petronko

A 50th anniversary photo show and a Saturday multi-media event are commemorating the groundbreaking event known as the first bluegrass festival, in Fincastle, Va., on Labor Day weekend 1965.

The bluegrass festival held Sept. 3, 4, and 5, 1965 at Cantrell’s Horse Farm outside Fincastle turned out to be the model for the hundreds of open-air music events through the years, across the nation and beyond.

Historian and musician Fred Bartenstein was there, as were seminal figures such as bluegrass founder Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, Jimmy Martin, Don Reno, Red Smiley, Doc Watson and Mac Wiseman. Music and historian Bartenstein and Carly Cundiff Smith of the International Bluegrass Music Museum organized an exhibit of photos taken at the event, set up in the Convention Center lobby. Jordan Laney, a Georgia Tech professor is setting up a Saturday panel discussion.

“People are already starting to come by and be attracted by it,” Bartenstein said Tuesday. “We’re getting some of those original 1,000 people.”

The crowd at Fincastle was notable, though not huge. In addition to the stars who performed, many of the next generation of bluegrass and pop artists showed up to listen and pick informally. They included Saturday night IBMA headliner attraction Sam Bush; mandolinist and Jerry Garcia collaborator David Grisman; David Cohen, of Country Joe and the Fish; Butch Robins, later of Monroe’s band; and banjo gurus Tony Trischka and Peter Wernick.

“That festival repeated up through the late ‘70s,” said Bartenstein, who later worked for festival organizer Carlton Haney. “It moved to Berryville, Va., and to Camp Springs, N.C., in 1969. Bill Monroe’s Bean Blossom Festival was patterned directly on it.”

Haney was a huge admirer of Bill Monroe and organized a series of performances that made up the Monroe story, or “stoh-ree” as Haney famously pronounced it. Both the tribute to Monroe, acknowledging his music and the many band members he schooled, and the idea of a multi-day show were to prove influential as bluegrass spread and grew in popularity.

North Carolina fiddle perennial Al McCanless was a young attendee of the Galax (Va.) Fiddle Contest a few days before the Fincastle festival, along with guitarist Buck Peacock. Both were to become members of Raleigh’s New Deal String Band, a pioneering newgrass act.

“In Galax, there was this huge-a--, red-and-white poster for the festival that listed all these bluegrass musicians we had heard about, but never had heard in person,” McCanless recalled. “We couldn't believe it.” Though neither musician had a car, their determination to see the stars of bluegrass drove them into hitchhiking, first to Greensboro, then up Highway 220 to the Virginia show.

“It sent chills up and down my spine, ,” said McCanless said of the festival, recalling hearing Reno’s guitar playing, being knocked out by Benny Martin’s fiddling and camping out in the cold to make it through the weekend.

Thomas Goldsmith: 919-829-8929, @tommygoldsmith

If you go

The photo show depicting the 50th anniversary of the first multi-day bluegrass festival is in the lobby of the Raleigh Convention Center. Free and open to the public Friday and Saturday.

An event centered on the 1965 festival is from 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Saturday in Convention Center Rooms 305 A/B. It will feature video clips, recollections by those who were present, and recreations of music played there. Free and open to the public.

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