Back in Blue: Yesterday’s Louisville bluegrass festival becomes today’s

Aug 1, 2006 at 6:08 pm

J.D. Crowe
J.D. Crowe
People talk a lot about Kentucky’s music, the immutable and mighty bluegrass, something that gives us a notable place in the history of world culture. Here in Louisville, we’ve done a decent job reflecting that in recent years, mostly in the form of various festivals such as the International Bluegrass Music Association’s annual convention and FanFest, which had an eight-year run at the Galt House, and last year’s inaugural Banks of the Ohio festival.

Many young folks — like me, for one — may not recall firsthand, but it wasn’t so long ago that we had a huge one.

The Kentucky Bluegrass Music Festival was a major Louisville-based bluegrass shindig held every summer for several years in the 1970s and early ’80s (I’m told KFC was the big sponsor), before fizzling out in 1981. This week marks the return of that long-lost festival to the Belvedere, which — save for some highway noise — is sweet turf for this kind of gig.

Not only has the festival returned, but The Cumberlands, who headlined alongside Bill Monroe at the very first Kentucky Bluegrass Music Festival, will be there as well. Harold Thom, The Cumberlands’ singer and guitarist, learned to play guitar from Hank Williams. Personally. The Hank Williams. If there is someone else more qualified to help Louisville get back on track in observing Kentucky’s and America’s musical traditions, I’d like to meet him or her.

Thom told me about The Cumberlands’ career, which went from regular shows at local venues to eventually only playing special events. He explained that Louisville had a vibrant acoustic music scene for many years, but electric music eventually became more popular, a trend that made it harder for acoustic performers to find work. Before long, Thom said, the organizers of the original Kentucky Bluegrass Music Festival’s began to change it.

“The whole thing self-destroyed because they didn’t stick to their guns, so they ruined it,” Thom said.
He notes that bluegrass’s decline in popularity paralleled the advent of garage bands that would play for next to nothing. But with its inclusion in popular films like “Bonny & Clyde” and “Deliverance,” and, more recently, “O, Brother Where Art Thou,” it’s clear bluegrass never lost its appeal in some circles.

Helene Kramer of Bisig Impact Group — the Louisville marketing firm behind this festival and several others, including the Kentucky Reggae Festival, Oktoberfest Louisville and Rock the Water Tower — talked about the need for a major outdoor bluegrass festival here in Louisville, the largest city in the bluegrass state, as various T-shirts have reminded us over the years. There are still several major bluegrass festivals held in other parts of Kentucky, and a few smaller scale and/or indoor festivals in Louisville, including this year’s newcomer, BOTO. But not since the ’80s has Louisville seen a large-scale bluegrass event attracting the tens of thousands of folks that the old Kentucky Bluegrass Music Festival was known for.

Interestingly, there are statistics that back this all up. A Simmons Market Research Bureau report found a 104-percent increase in bluegrass music purchases since 2000. Playing on those numbers, and the downtown festival’s legacy, Bisig decided the time was ripe for reviving a moribund bluegrass event.

The lineup at this year’s two-day festival is heavy on performers from our bluegrass state. Headlining are Pine Mountain Railroad (OK, they’re from Knoxville) and J.D. Crowe, a native-Kentuckian and bluegrass veteran. There will also be Louisville favorites like Fire the Saddle, Relic and Hog Operation and, of course, the Cumberlands, who not only continue performing but also just recently released a new album that features a collection of Civil War-era songs.

“The idea

J.D. Crowe
J.D. Crowe
was to get as many different types of bluegrass performers as we could,” Kramer said.
There’s more than music, however, such as the inflatable play areas for the youngsters, and food from local restaurants, including Bourbon Brothers’ Barbecue. If bluegrass and barbecue together in the same place don’t bring Kentuckians out in droves, I don’t know what will.