On the banks of the Ohio: Brand new bluegrass festival puts the pickin’ back into downtown Louisville

By now everyone who really cares knows the IBMA bluegrass convention took its gig to Nashville last year after an eight-year run at the Galt House in Louisville. That affront will probably remain some sort of rallying cry in local bluegrass circles in perpetuity, but there’s no reason to expect the genre’s proponents to hang their heads and quit evangelizin’ — and organizin’.

This weekend Louisville sees the debut of a new festival that, while not expressly created in response to the exodus, certainly seems ready to claim its own spot in a tradition that predates IBMA’s arrival here in 1996.
LEO caught up with Mike Bucayu, who’s figured prominently in birthing and then organizing the new event, dubbed Banks of the Ohio Bluegrass Festival. Bucayu’s tale is oft-told — he was in hardcore bands until he caught a bluegrass bug sometime early last decade. Now he’s one of the most outspoken and visible boosters of bluegrass in Louisville, through the group Bluegrass Anonymous, which hosts an open jam session each Wednesday at BBC in St. Matthews. Bucayu is also immersed in the music through his day job; he handles community relations for First Quality Music Supplies, the homegrown Louisville business that builds and sells acoustic instruments.

As is the norm, he’s enthused about the new festival, but quietly fretting about how well it’ll get out of the gate. The devil is in the details, certainly, but given the generally communal spirit that surrounds the bluegrass scene here, things will surely work out all right. We pinned him down recently to talk about BOTO.

LEO: Who’s involved in planning BOTO, and how long have you been at it?
Mike Bucayu
: BOTOFest was kind of a brainchild of Bluegrass Anonymous. It was a natural progression from starting an association, to hosting bluegrass shows and workshops, to weekly jams, and now a full-fledged bluegrass festival. We created a separate entity from Bluegrass Anonymous, as BA was more of a grassroots organization. We decided to call it BOTOFest Bluegrass Productions. This enables us to do a lot of things outside of a grassroots organization. Lori Strange is our festival coordinator and has been instrumental in strategies and the logistics of doing this project. Tammy Renee Richardson handles a lot of administrative and volunteer duties. Joanna Young is in charge of Children’s Programs and grants. My part as festival program director includes booking the bands, promotions, and more. As a group, we are handling quite a lot.

LEO: Was the loss of IBMA the impetus?
: Not really. It was disappointing to have IBMA move to Nashville, but it also created a great opportunity for us to have our own Louisville Bluegrass festival. Bluegrass has had such a long tradition in downtown Louisville, from places like the Red Dog Saloon and the Great Midwestern to the festival of the United States, which later became known as the KFC Bluegrass Festival on the Belvedere. So BOTOFest is not replacing the IBMA convention. To me, it’s more of continuing the bluegrass music, keeping it alive downtown.

LEO: How will you pay for it?
: We’ve been fortunate to have folks who are big supporters of bluegrass and liked our idea about doing a festival. These individuals ultimately donated seed money to get this moving forward. We were also fortunate to have music businesses like D’Addario strings and First Quality Music believe in what we were trying to do. It was sometimes tough to get interest in this festival because it’s the first time. WFPK, of course, came on board, as well as Maker’s Mark and the Bluegrass Brewing Company. We’ll be looking for more sponsors next year, so if anyone is interested, contact me!!!

LEO: How will it be set up?
: The festival area is in the west tower of the Galt House in the Archibald Cochran room. All of our activities are indoors. The Galt House has done great renovations, including their new Conservatory. We’ll have a few vendors, and I’m working on some last-minute fiddle, mandolin and banjo workshops, which are still not etched in stone. If the weather is nice, it will open up more areas of picking. During and after the shows, look and listen for the jamming.

LEO: How long will it last each day? Is there an “official” and “unofficial” part?
: Festival/show start time on Friday is 7 p.m. with the Lost Mill String Band. J.D. Crowe and the New South close out the show starting at 10 p.m. After that, plan on picking. (He refers to all-night jams in the hotel. —Ed.)
On Saturday, from 9 to 11:45 a.m., the First Quality Music Academy is having a program featuring the youth of bluegrass music. There will be individual performances and then four groups featuring some of our area’s younger pickers.
BOTOFest starts back up at 1 p.m. with the Betweeners. There’s a dinner break at 5 p.m., followed by Mike Cleveland at 7 p.m. Mountain Heart closes the night beginning at 9 p.m., Times, of course, will be subject to festival time.

LEO: How many people can you accommodate — what will constitute a good crowd?
: We’ve received a lot of interest from all over the country. The IBMA/Galt House left good memories in many people’s minds. We are expecting a good crowd. The room holds 1,500-plus people. From what I can gather, it will be pretty packed both nights, but we’ll have to see. Folks from Ohio, Missouri, Hawaii, New York, North Carolina, Florida etc. are planning to come. We’re looking forward to making sure everyone enjoys their time with us.

LEO: Let’s talk about the IBMA move to Nashville. You went down last fall. What were your impressions — were you surprised either way?
: From a vendor point of view — setting up the First Quality booth was much easier and more manageable in Nashville. We were able to meet with more of our customers and fellow vendors.
A lot of impressions I got from some of the attendees were that they did not like Nashville — it was too expensive and there wasn’t much jamming.

LEO: Right.
: I think the jamming will grow and people will get more comfortable with the new location. People were the same way when IBMA moved from Owensboro to Louisville. I still think our downtown is much cooler, though.

LEO: You were once a prominent hardcore musician in Louisville. What got you interested in bluegrass?
: I am into all sorts of music. Back when I was playing in bands, I enjoyed the raw, intense and aggressive nature of that music. Of course, it was a few years ago, and soon my ears, brain, body and mind were starting to burn out. I found the acoustic/bluegrass music a soothing antidote. But I also found there was a raw, intense, and aggressive nature to bluegrass music, too. Listen to Roscoe Holcomb. Those vocals are about as raw as you can get. Listen to Jim Mills’ driving banjo! Pretty darn aggressive. Yep, I still have all of my old punk records, but it’s still just a fraction of what kind of music I have in my collection. I’ll pull out some of those old records and throw ‘em on the turntable and crank it up!
In bluegrass music, I’ve met the kindest and most sincere people. There are so many talented pickers out there. It’s great to see a lot of younger folks getting into playing bluegrass.

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