A Great Time on Jerusalem Ridge!
The Jerusalem Ridge Bluegrass Celebration ("JR"), just concluded, may be in its infancy (as compared to festivals such as Bean Blossom which have been going for decades) but let me tell you folks that a GREAT time was had by all who made the trip up the road that winds up the hill from Route 62 to Monroe's boyhood home (and these days there IS a light in the window). Even the New York Times saw fit to send both a writer and a photographer out to check out the action at JR.
Over the course of the 3 happy days I spent there in the dappled light cast by trees standing in groves throughout the concert area I heard a WHOLE lot of good music - good traditional bluegrass, traditional country (a bit), and even some old time music. Make no mistake about it, nobody fooled around playing jazz chords or taking breaks that went too far out on the limb.
There were two stages going during the daytime, the smaller one up across from the Monroe homestead where folks like Merlene Austin and other volunteers gave detailed and interesting tours of The House Where Bill Lived.
I met a nice older gentleman (somewhere up in his 70s) named John from 970 miles away, somewhere in Wisconsin, and he told me he'd driven all the way to Jerusalem Ridge just to volunteer to park cars! He's a big RFD-TV fan and he just wanted to help out.
All around the grounds I engaged folks in conversation and almost without exception I learned one thing: these folks came to this spot on this weekend because they heard about it on RFD-TV...and they wanted to come and hear the Cumberland Highlanders and some of the other folks they'd seen on TV - to meet Doc Mercer and see his living room where the shows are taped. I heard this story again and again. There were THOUSANDS of folks at Jerusalem Ridge; seems like it was one of the biggest crowds I saw all summer.
I last attended the JR festival two years ago. At that time I thought they had a very respectable crowd but this year's crowd was HUGE...must have been four times as many people as I saw just two years ago! For the most part they were older folks (retirement age and older) but they weren't afraid to bring their lawn chairs and sit all day listening to the likes of Ralph Stanley, Larry Sparks, David Davis, Melvin Goins, and about 40 other bands. I met folks from several foreign countries there as well, some of whom were on their way down to IBMA. There was even some very good jamming, especially in front of Monroe's homeplace where the jams seemed to go day and night. Most of the people jamming were young people (well, under 50!) but there were plenty of older folks who were keen to sit and stand around listening for hours.
I heard a 12-year-old named Julie from NC, a fiddler with a powerful voice....when first I heard her singing I had to go over close and see if maybe she wasn't a dwarf....a whole lot of sound and a deep, far more mature voice was bellowing from those childish lips! She could hold her own in a jam that's for sure as she sang old time country songs like the Great Speckled Bird.
As with several other festivals I've been to this summer, the kids who could pick and sing were encouraged to come out on the stage and sing or play for the huge audience that cascaded all down the ample hillside toward the stage. Wish I could post a photo on here of what the crowd looked like....it was a glorious sight! It was a good, responsive, patriotic, God-fearing crowd, too, and they didn't mind at all when Larry Sparks began telling of his personal relationship with the Lord and how he loved singing gospel music. That love came right through his voice and touched my heart I'll tell you. Isn't "The Last Suit You Wear" a great song? I talked a little with Larry after the show and he's sure looking forward to being in Nashville for the IBMA.
The bands said they did quite well selling CDs; I didn't hear much grumbling from anyone, just a few observations that if the festival crowd grew much next year they'd have a job finding enough parking places and chair spots on the hillside in the concert area (there are quite a few places short of bringing a spade and "digging in" where you simply can't keep a chair upright!).
So there was a lot of fine traditional music and I heard folks saying that "this is just like the old days of bluegrass..." made me smile (you'd like it there, RaymondE). Some folks I spoke with said they used to be fans of bluegrass music long ago but had lost touch with it and didn't know where to hear it -- until they started finding it on RFD-TV. Through that they'd come to this festival and were so happy and planning to return next year. So there's a new market for bluegrass, folks.
Ms. Lizzie Lewis, president of the Florida delegation of the Bill Monroe Fan Club, and about 90 years old, sat onstage the entire weekend listening to all the music, not letting the evening chill faze her, and giving several of her prized Monroe photos to the homeplace for display. Gloria Belle and Mike Long were there doing several guest spots. I had the great pleasure of meeting Jim Smoak and hearing him get up and pick and sing.
Tom Ewing was there selling his "Bill Monroe Reader" and Danny Jones was there playing mandolin with Melvin Goins; Wayne Lewis was around all weekend playing with the Cumberland Highlanders; there were several Blue Grass Boys there keeping up the tradition. I had to miss the Sunday morning graveside service in Rosine since I was due to work as a volunteer for IBMA in the afternoon, but it was a gorgeous early fall morning when I headed down the hill past Charlie Monroe's place and on out into the modern bluegrass world. I was more than a little sad to leave the cocoon of "real" bluegrass and good folks I found there at Bill's childhood home.
If you haven't been to the festival at Rosine and you love traditional music you really need to get there next year. Ralph Stanley will be appearing there again for two days and it looks like they'll have another wonderful lineup. Campbell and Julie Mercer and their volunteer staff do a marvelous job making folks welcome and putting on a class act show.