An Interview with Thomas A. Adler
By Mandolin Cafe
May 29, 2011 - 6:00 pm
Bean Blossom - The Brown County Jamboree and Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Festivals is the title of a new book published May 15, 2011 by the University of Illinois Press.
Bean Blossom was written by Thomas A. Adler, a former executive director of the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, Kentucky, and a long time musician, folklorist, radio show host and Bean Blossom Festival attendee since 1968.
Adler's history of Bean Blossom traces the long and colorful life of the Brown County Jamboree and Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Festival. In the book he discusses the development of bluegrass music, the many personalities involved in the bluegrass music scene, the interplay of local, regional, and national interests, and the meaning of this venue to the music's many performers—both professional and amateur—and its legions of fans.
After reading an advance copy, we caught up with the author and asked him to share some of the information readers will find in his finely detailed book about the history and events surrounding a simple Indiana park thought by many to be the original "University of Bluegrass."
Thomas A. Adler
Mandolin Cafe: Most of us think of Bean Blossom as a place of historic significance for bluegrass music, but your book covers much more of its history. What were some of the events that created Bean Blossom and what path did it take to get it to where it is today?
Thomas A. Adler: That's a BIG question! I realize that when you say "Bean Blossom," you're really talking not about the town, but about the music park and the festivals staged there. The music began first, around 1940 or early 1941, when a local square-dance promoter named Guy Smith put on a free show, literally at the side of the road, by the small town's one highway intersection. Smith and friends promoted the free show each Sunday, and it quickly attracted huge crowds, who began to call it the "Brown County Jamboree." Soon more local entrepreneurs moved in to help commercialize the free show, selling tickets and holding it inside a fence next to a gas-station and lunchroom.
In September of 1941, a recently-settled Bean Blossom landowner named Francis Rund offered to rent a huge tent for the show. So the show moved onto Rund's land, just a short distance north of the crossroads. That month they staged a Grand Opening show with three-and-a-half hours of mostly-local talent. That solidified Rund's claim to the show. For the next ten years, Francis Rund and his family owned, promoted, and ran the Brown County Jamboree, building a long, low "barn" for the shows. They brought in radio barn-dance stars from Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Chicago, and Nashville, and - like most early rural country music parks of the 1940s - put on Sunday-afternoon and evening shows each weekend from about May through October.
Of course, there's a lot more to the story, but in late 1951, Bill Monroe played his first show at the Brown County Jamboree. Just before the year ended – and for reasons that are still not completely clear – he bought the show, the barn, and about 55 acres of the surrounding land from Francis Rund. Bill installed his older brother, Birch Monroe, as the show's manager, and soon began promoting his own weekend country music shows at "Brown County Jamboree Park."
Other than Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys, very few bluegrass musicians appeared there for the next few years. Gradually Bill began to allow more bluegrass acts to play the weekly Brown County Jamboree, but no bluegrass festivals were held there until Bill's first, in June, 1967. That June festival has been held every year since then, so it's now the oldest continuously-running annual bluegrass festival anywhere. This June will be the 45th annual!
Ticket for the first tent show - September 28, 1941
Source: Thomas A. Adler
Mandolin Cafe: The book is packed with personal interviews and information from key bluegrass figures including many former Blue Grass Boys and other first and second generation musicians and fans. We're guessing it helped to be an insider to obtain access to these individuals. What is your personal history with Bean Blossom?
Thomas A. Adler: I first came to Bean Blossom in 1968. I was an outsider in many ways - I was from Chicago's south side, where there was very little live bluegrass. But I had met Neil Rosenberg, who was then a graduate student in Folklore at Indiana University; and I was already on a path leading toward my own eventual graduate degrees in Folklore. And, like Neil, I had been a bluegrass banjo player for about a decade, and realized that Bean Blossom - both the Sunday Jamboree shows and the annual June bluegrass festival - was a living laboratory for these sorts of musical and cultural traditions. I guess being a banjo player made me an insider in some ways, too; I didn't find it hard to talk to other pickers and fans there, and found the whole place fascinating. As a graduate student at Indiana in the 1970s, I was living only 25 miles away; so I did some interviews with Birch, saw many shows by Bill and other artists, and even played a few Jamboree shows as part of a Folklore Institute graduate-student bluegrass band called the Pigeon Hill String Ticklers - our name was adapted from one of Neil's own prior Bloomington, Indiana bands, the Pigeon Hill Boys.
Brown County Jamboree Poster
The author's band, the Pigeon Hill String Ticklers captured on this Brown County Jamboree poster from July 27, 1975.
Source: Thomas A. Adler
Mandolin Cafe: What kind of personal connection did you have to the Monroe family?
Thomas A. Adler: Well, not a truly close connection. I first saw Bill perform back in 1963, at the University of Chicago Folk Festival, and had already loved his music for about five years before that. In the 1970s, I got to know Birch somewhat, because I hung out so often at the Jamboree. When he first hired the Pigeon Hill String Ticklers, he found that name too complicated or something, so the Brown County Jamboree poster advertising our first show listed us as "Tom Atler and His Band." Later, he got it right. And later, I visited with Birch at home a few times, in Martinsville, Indiana. In 1977, I did a short interview with him about the history of the Brown County Jamboree, but at that point I was still years away from deciding to write a complete history of the music park. And though I saw Bill at the Jamboree and the bluegrass festivals a good many times, I didn't really meet him one-on-one until the mid-1990s, when I was director of the International Bluegrass Music Museum. When Bill visited the Museum, we took him out to dinner at Moonlite Barbecue, and later I visited him at his farm and got him to create an oil-painting that we auctioned off as part of an IBMM fundraiser. I went to a couple of big Monroe birthday parties at the Goodlettsville farm, too. But I can't claim that I was close to him, not at all. And all of that was before I began really doing interviews and the other research that led to the book. Fortunately, James Monroe responded positively to my questions, and was very helpful in filling in some critical historic details. Of course, I've often wished I had begun the book research in earnest when Birch and Bill were still alive, but I didn't really begin until about 2000 or 2001.
Brown County Jamboree Poster
The author's band incorrectly identified as "Tom Atler & His Band" captured on this Brown County Jamboree poster from October 27, 1974.
Source: Thomas A. Adler
Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys, 1973
Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys at 7th annual Bluegrass Festival, June, 1973. L-R: Kenny Baker, Jack Hicks, Bill Monroe, Bob Fowler and Guy Stevenson (hidden). Photo credit: Thomas A. Adler.
Mandolin Cafe: In your opening remarks in the book, you challenge your readers with this question: "To what extent has the musical history of the park at Bean Blossom and the Brown County Jamboree influenced the rest of bluegrass, as both a musical style and an evolving genre of musical performance?" If we were to ask you to answer that in 2-3 sentences what would be your response?
Thomas A. Adler: Again, a deceptively LARGE question! During the Rund decade, 1941-51, bluegrass was just barely beginning to emerge as a genre, moving (as Neil Rosenberg most aptly put it) from the unique and singular "sound" of Bill Monroe's band to a recognized and imitated "style" performed by Monroe and, initially, a very few other groups.
Monroe first appeared at the Brown County Jamboree in late 1951, only a few months before he purchased the park. For the first few years, Bill and Birch Monroe hosted very few acts that would likely be called "bluegrass" by modern observers (most notably the Stanley Brothers and a bit later, Reno and Smiley). This exclusive and constrained view of "bluegrass" reflected Bill's strongly held view – at that time –that his "sound" was truly unique, and was really a part of the larger and older stream of "country music." So, up to that point the extent of Bean Blossom's influence on bluegrass was: not much.
But this pattern began to powerfully change at this park in the period from 1958 to 1963, when fans began to use the term "bluegrass" and to recognize bluegrass music as a distinct stream, separating from the changing mainstream of country music. A few more bluegrass groups, like Red Cravens and the Bray Brothers, or local groups like the Moore Brothers began to play bluegrass and to come to Bean Blossom during that period.
Then, after Ralph Rinzler became Monroe's manager and asked Neil Rosenberg to manage the Brown County Jamboree Park for the 1963 season, Bill was slowly (and somewhat reluctantly) persuaded that he really was the "father" of a growing style with a growing fan base. After the multi-day bluegrass festival era began in 1965, the national audience exponentially expanded, and Bill began hosting his own bluegrass festival in 1967.
From then on, "Bean Blossom" (meaning, once again, the music park and its events, and especially the festivals) began to dramatically shape the way in which other festivals were created and structured - as when Bill Grant asked for Bill's blessing and copied what he liked about Bean Blossom to found his own festivals in Hugo, Oklahoma, as did Dick Tyner for southern California, Luke Thompson in Louisiana, and many others. Monroe himself similarly copied his own Bean Blossom festival model to produce similar events in other locations. For pickers and fans who came to Bean Blossom from across the nation, the influence was immediately profound, for the intense ferment of parking-lot picking and jamming at the Bean Blossom festivals quickly helped spread the knowledge of new tunes and even new instrumental substyles (like Bill Keith's melodic banjo approach). Pickers would sometimes ruminate aloud, "I wonder what they'll be picking at Bean Blossom this year..."
The Old Brown County Jamboree Barn at Bean Blossom
The parking lots around the barn were the site of numerous jams and parking lot picking sessions. Photo credit: Henry Glassie, 1970.
Mandolin Cafe: Times certainly have changed. Bean Blossom's facilities and grounds were often built and maintained by Monroe's musicians, the kind of work we doubt any band leader requires of their personnel today. What are a few examples of the kind of work his band members performed at the park?
Thomas A. Adler: Bill asked many (but not all!) of his musicians to pitch in with physical labor at Bean Blossom and at his farms in Tennessee. Some, like Edd Mayfield in the '50s, Kenny Baker in the '60s, and Wayne Lewis in the '70s and '80s, had grown up doing ranch and farm work, and had little problem with such requests; they had laboring backgrounds, already knew how to do basic construction and farm maintenance work, and understood the cooperative rural background out of which Bill's requests came. They would readily pitch in alongside Bill (who never shied away from hard physical labor himself) to cut trees, mow fields, re-roof outbuildings, repair fences, and feed and tend cattle and draft animals. Some later musicians, like Indiana-born fiddler Glen Duncan (a Blue Grass Boy in the mid-1980s), were never asked to do such labor - perhaps because, as Glen said, "he knew I wouldn't do it!" In between there were many Blue Grass Boys, like Roland White, Peter Rowan and Lamar Grier, who agreed to do whatever Bill asked, but found it unfamiliar, exhausting and difficult. There's a funny story in the book by Lamar Grier, recalling how he and Peter Rowan failed to keep up with Bill when he asked them to pitch hay-bales up to him in a second-story loft in Bill's horse-barn at Bean Blossom.
Marty Stuart and Roland White
A very young Marty Stuart (left, with mandolin) and Roland White at The 6th annual Bluegrass Festival, June, 1972. Photo credit: Howard Wight Marshall.
Mandolin Cafe: The book seems to be filled with names of many great fiddlers drawn to Bean Blossom. Was Monroe was more of a draw to fiddle players wanting to learn from him than, say, mandolin players?
Thomas A. Adler: Probably so. Of course, Bill's love for fiddling, fiddlers, and fiddle-tunes is well-known, and owes a lot to his years with his mother's brother, Pendleton Vandiver, immortalized as Uncle Pen. Some fiddlers, like the Tennessee-born "trick fiddler" Shorty Shehan, came to Bean Blossom well before Bill, but stayed there for years after Bill bought the park. And right after buying the park, Bill installed his fiddling older brother, Birch, as the park's regular caretaker and manager. In the mid-1950s Roger Smith, a talented fiddler, banjo-player and teacher, moved to Indiana from Virginia after Carlton Haney let him know he'd be able to work with Bill. Kenny Baker appreciated the musical freedom he enjoyed as Bill's fiddler, and his own great work as a Blue Grass Boy, in turn, drew in others like Glen Duncan and Jim Moss, who learned from Baker's example how powerful and moving bluegrass fiddle playing could be when set into the musical context of Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys. I suspect a good many fiddlers were drawn in by Monroe not because he could help them at all with specific fiddling techniques – he couldn't – but out of respect for his immense ability to remember old tunes and to create new ones. But then, a lot of mandolin, banjo, and guitar players appreciated that part of Bill's musical personality as well!
1976 Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival
Mandolin Cafe: Newsweek carried a Monroe quote you mention in the book where he states "My hippie fans know when the music is played right." There's been a history of some friction in bluegrass between younger and older musicians and fans but Monroe didn't seem to be bothered by this.
Thomas A. Adler: Well, yes and no. Doug Hutchens, a Blue Grass Boy in the 1970s, has written about the ambivalence Bill felt towards young fans in the early '70s, especially the long-haired and tie-dyed t-shirted ones that attracted the label "hippie" in those days. At that time, the always-well-dressed Bill did not like the look of long or unkempt male hair and attire, and made no secret of it. He also stereotyped young long-haired fans - or even worse, young long-haired pickers – as really being "rock'n'roll" people whose appearance would antagonize the audiences he considered to be his own mainstays. At Bean Blossom in the early festival years, many such fans and pickers would camp at the top of an undeveloped hill behind the outdoor stage, and the area was quickly dubbed "Hippie Hill," a name that endures to this day. Early Bean Blossom audiences often commented on the voluntary self-juxtapositioning at the festivals of "hippies" and "rednecks," using those terms to label the northern-urban-progressive and southern-rural-conservative constituencies drawn together by the sounds they both loved.
Still, Bill saw how the young Bluegrass Alliance's musicianship excited the Bean Blossom festival audience in 1971, and quickly extended that band's booking. Yet just a few months later, he told Birch, who managed the weekly Brown County Jamboree shows, not to hire any long-haired rock-oriented musicians, specifically intending to bar the emergent Newgrass Revival from playing there. Still, Birch went ahead in August of 1972 and hired the first incarnation of that band to play a Sunday show. Bill, in short, appreciated great music and musicianship, but was - like a lot of America in the post-Woodstock era - suspicious of the younger generation even as more and more of them were coming to appreciate Bill, bluegrass music, and Bean Blossom.
The Newgrass Revival at The Brown County Jamboree
The Newgrass Revival at The Brown County Jamboree, August 6, 1972. L-R: Courtney Johnson, Sam Bush, Ebo Walker, Curtis Burch. Photo credit: Thomas A. Adler.
Mandolin Cafe: There's a remarkable photo of Birch Monroe on stage being backed up by members of the early Newgrass Revival. Birch is in black dress pants, white shirt and tie, cowboy hat with his fiddle. Ebo Walker on bass is shirtless with a headband and Courtney Johnson and Sam Bush are in t-shirt and jeans. Were you there for that performance and what is known about the circumstances that put them on stage together for that particular photo?
Thomas A. Adler: I was at that August, 1972 show, which Birch had arranged despite Bill's prohibition against "rock and roll" musicians. At Indiana University we had hired the newly-founded Newgrass Revival for a show just a few months before, in May, and I had quickly become a fan and convert to their sound. I still marvel at their sound as I listen to the tape of that show, particularly loving Sam Bush's fiery and ferocious mandolin work on Ralph's Banjo Special as they played it then. And, as a bluegrass banjo player, I was very taken with the novel chromatic ingenuity of Courtney Johnson, so different from Bill Keith's melodic approach - and knew I'd have another chance to learn a few licks from him when they came to Bean Blossom. We stood in the parking-lot outside the old show-barn there, and though Courtney was not a terribly articulate teacher of the banjo, he was warm and friendly and totally obliging in showing me what he did. Moments like that are what made Harley Bray and his brothers say that Bean Blossom was really "the University of Bluegrass." Inside, during the NGR's show, I took a series of photos, including the one you mentioned. It was a common occurrence for Birch to appear on Brown County Jamboree Sunday shows, and if the headlining band agreed to back him up as he played his favorite old-time fiddle numbers (like Coming Down from Boston, or Carroll County Blues), he would welcome that opportunity, usually at the beginning of the visiting band's second set. I sometimes think of that photo as showing a collaboration between, as some might facetiously put it, "the father of Newgrass and the Uncle of Bluegrass."
Bean Blossom Town Sign
Bean Blossom town sign, 1972. The sign at the other end of town on Highway 135 uses the alternate one-word spelling "Beanblossom." Photo credit: Thomas A. Adler.
Thomas A. Adler: Since Bean Blossom – my history of the rural country music park – will soon be available, I'd like to urge interested fans and readers to follow up on this interview by seeking out the book itself. While my book has now fixed what I learned about this historic park in unchanging print, the music history of that place just keeps on unfolding; I'll always be learning more about Bean Blossom, and I welcome every chance. In fact, readers of this Mandolin Cafe interview, or of the book, are happily invited to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with Bean Blossom remembrances. I'll welcome your emailed stories (photos, videos, t-shirts, posters, scrapbooks!) and hearing about your own special experiences at the Brown County Jamboree, the Bill Monroe Memorial Music Park at Bean Blossom.
- Purchase: From University of Illinois Press
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- Official Bean Blossom web site
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Ol Tom worked really hard on this project....hope to see him at Beanblossom in a couple of weeks and buy the book. I think this will be my 40th year...would like to do every one of 'em again. Loafer
RB250 (Doug Stangle)