Time Catching Up With Bluegrass Legends
They traveled millions of miles down dusty backroads and four-lane highways, played in schoolhouses, tents and finally concert halls.
But now, time is catching up with the first-generation of bluegrass musicians.
And a Sept. 12-14 gathering in Owensboro to celebrate what would have been Bill Monroe’s 100th birthday may be the last performance for some of them.
Monroe, “the father of bluegrass music,” was born on a farm outside Rosine on Sept. 13, 1911. He died on Sept. 9, 1996, and is buried in Rosine Cemetery.
Already health problems have forced Doc Watson, 88, and Mac Wiseman, 86, to cancel their performances at the International Bluegrass Music Museum’s Bill Monroe Centennial Celebration at the RiverPark Center.
And Gabrielle Gray, the museum’s executive director, said Kenny Baker, 85, the man Monroe called “the greatest bluegrass fiddler in the world,” died last week after suffering a massive stroke.
The Centennial Celebration’s lineup included every active member of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Hall of Fame.
Gray said the museum board will now have to decide whether to invite musicians who aren’t in the Hall of Fame or shorten the program.
One possibility is the new inductees into the Hall.
The IBMA is scheduled to announce the names of this year’s inductees in Nashville on Aug. 17.
But some years, the inductees aren’t living or are no longer performing.
The current lineup ranges in age from 69 to 91 years old.
It includes banjo great Earl Scruggs, 87; Ralph Stanley, 84; Curly Seckler, 91; J.D. Crowe, 70; Everett Lilly, 87; Jesse McReynolds, 82; the Lewis Family, (the youngest member is Little Roy Lewis, 69), Rodney Dillard, 69; Melvin Goins, 77; Paul Williams, 76; Bill Clifton, 80; Tom Gray, 70; and Eddie Adcock, 73.
The celebration will mark the first time this many bluegrass legends have performed at one event, Gray said.
“I checked with Lance LeRoy (a Hall of Fame agent and manager),” she said. “He said there has never been a festival with a lineup like this. We’re going to have one enormous headliner after another.”
But Gray said, “This might be the last chance to see some of these legends perform.”
And it may be the last year for the museum’s Pioneers Gathering and Blue Grass Boys reunion.
Last year’s event drew 35 former members of Monroe’s band and 31 other pioneers of bluegrass.
“But each year, more of them aren’t able to make the trip,” Gray said.
The festival will also see the premiere of a new Bill Monroe musical — “Young Monroe” — in the RiverPark Center’s Cannon Hall as well as the premier of a new documentary about Monroe’s band, the Blue Grass Boys.
The museum is producing the documentary — “The Blue Grass Boys: Tales of Bill Monroe” — and interviewing as many former members of the band as it can locate.
“We’ve recorded interviews with 251 first-generation musicians,” Gray said.
Former Blue Grass Boys Tom Ewing and Peter Rowan were the most recent.
The museum has also filmed the photo archives of Bluegrass Unlimited magazine.
“The problem is getting (the documentary) down from 14 hours to two,” Gray said. “There are so many stories that are too good to eliminate.”
Information about the festival can be found at http://www.bluegrass-museum.org/general/CentennialCelebration.php.
Opening ceremonies are scheduled for 1 p.m. Sept. 12 with the museum’s Monroe-Style Mandolin Camp faculty and campers.
The faculty for the music camp includes some of the nation’s top mandolin players — Mike Compton, who has performed with Elvis Costello and the Nashville Bluegrass Band; Richard Brown, who plays with the Boston-based Reunion Band; David Davis, who performs with his band, The Warrior River Boys; Butch Waller, who performs with California-based High Country; and Roland White, a former member of Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys.
At noon on Sept. 13, everyone at the festival will gather to sing “Happy Birthday” to Monroe.
Gray said tickets — which range from $100 to $175 for all three days — are still available for the centennial at the museum at 117 Daviess St. or by calling 926-7891.
“We’ve been so busy with ROMP that we haven’t started pushing the ticket sales for the centennial,” she said.
ROMP drew roughly 15,000 people, including children who didn’t need tickets, to Yellow Creek Park in Thruston for three days in June.
Many people in town for ROMP bought tickets for the centennial, Gray said.
The centennial performance will be recorded to make a DVD.
But the DVD won’t be sold on the open market. It will be available only as a perk to people who buy or renew museum memberships.
“We did that with the 2005 and 2007 Legends Concerts,” Gray said.