The late Bill Monroe, who's often called the father of bluegrass music, would have turned 100 this autumn. The Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival, which Monroe founded more than 40 years ago, will honor the centennial of his birth during its annual week-long music event this month.
But there's more to the story of Bean Blossom than Bill Monroe. The very words "Bean Blossom" have come to evoke not just a small town in southern Indiana, but a distinct cultural celebration of bluegrass music to fans around the world.
Folklorist, banjoist, and longtime Bean Blossom Festival attendee Thomas Adler is one such fan. His new book Bean Blossom: The Brown County Jamboree And Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Festivals tells the story of how the festival came to be.
The Brown County Jamboree Years
Live music performances in Bean Blossom began at the dawn of the 1940s just off State Highway 135, as a means of attracting customers to Bean Blossom businesses; they were soon moved onto the property of grocery store owner Francis Rund. The performances gained popularity when they began to be broadcast on Midwestern radio. The town's close proximity to Camp Atterbury helped, too: a special bus line carried soldiers to Bean Blossom so that they could enjoy the music.
To accommodate the crowds, Rund built a large barn for the weekly shows, which came to be known as the Brown County Jamboree. Throughout the 1940s, the Jamboree featured artists of both local and national renown, rodeos, and hillbilly-entertainment variety acts.
The Monroe Era Begins
Bill Monroe, whose music star had been steadily rising for years, never actually played at Bean Blossom during the 1940s heyday of the Brown County Jamboree. But several months after performing for a big crowd there in October 1951, he purchased the land from the Rund family.
Monroe was said to like the scenery of the locale, reminiscent as it was of the Kentucky countryside where he'd grown up. He may also have been inspired by his rival, Roy Acuff, who had bought a music park several years before. And Adler speculates that Monroe, a great lover of foxhunting culture, may have been drawn to Bean Blossom in part because there was a large foxhunt going on the night that he first played there.
Whatever the reasons Bill Monroe hit upon Bean Blossom as his country-music park home, he and his brother Birch established it as a venue over the next several decades for their brand of bluegrass music, even as the rock and roll of the 1950s and '60s shook up the traditional country-music scene.
Ups And Downs
Bean Blossom was not without its troubles in its early years. The Monroe brothers' management could be thrifty to a fault, and was perhaps too set in its old Kentuckian ways. But Thomas Adler says the rise of bluegrass festivals in the 1960s, spurred on in part by the folk revival and the counterculture's growing attraction to American roots music, helped to save Bean Blossom. Future Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia drove cross-country to Bean Blossom in 1964, with aspirations of possibly joining Bill Monroe's band; his visit was a sign of things to come.
In 1967 Monroe launched the festival-at first calling it a "celebration," wary of the hippie-ish connotations of the word "festival." Adler's book chronicles the festival's subsequent success, and its peaks and valleys across the next four decades, through what he calls its recent renaissance in the years following Bill Monroe's death in 1996. He places Bean Blossom in the lineage of what he sees as an often-overlooked part of American music history, the rural country music park:
Doing this history was a chance to not only focus on the bluegrass part, but to put it in that larger historic and geographical context of other parks that were dedicated to presenting musical styles.