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Sunday, July 5, 2015

HOBA is great and got me to thinking....

Posted Friday, July 23, 2010, at 12:13 PM

July 12th, I traveled to West Plains for one of my first assignments for Areawide News. My mission was to take photos at the Heart of the Ozarks Bluegrass Festival. Right up my alley since I love bluegrass and outdoor festivals.

The Heart of the Ozarks Bluegrass Association (HOBA) hosts several events each year to help keep the bluegrass tradition alive in these parts. The big surprise is, HOBA owns a nice piece of land just off Highway 63, south of West Plains, where it has developed its own bluegrass mecca. There is a parking lot at the edge of the facility and an r-v park/campground for overnight visitors. The parking and camping surround a sloping, wooded festival grounds with a nice stage at the bottom. The site has a large concession stand and, of course, festival artists set up tables in the trees to sell their wares.

Such a nice place to hear bluegrass music makes me keep thinking back to the early 1970's when I used to make the trek to Beanblossom, Indiana where Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass, began hosting one of the first big bluegrass festivals.

Bill was born in Rosine, Kentucky and spent most of his life in Nashville or on the road so I'm not sure how he discovered Beanblossom. It is one of those towns with a name and not much else but, while the northern and central parts of Indiana are pretty flat, perfect for growing corn and soybeans, southern Indiana is very hilly and wooded with lots of streams. In other words, a lot like the Ozarks.

The first time I decided to travel from Terre Haute, Indiana, where I lived, I called information to see if I could get a number for the festival office to find out when it was and how to get there. The ring, after I dialed the number, was an old fashioned buzzing sound and the elderly operator that answered sounded like she was manning one of those antique machines where the operator plugged a wire into a certain hole when she found out who you wanted to speak to.

The operator told me she didn't "know of no" festival office but she would ring up Birch. Birch was Bill Monroe's brother, a musician himself, who seemed to live in Beanblossom and run the show. Birch was there and very friendly and helpful and a week or so later a friend and I were on our way to Beanblossom.

We wound up at the edge of a beautiful woods where a shakey barn wood stand had been constructed to take our money and give us the rules which boiled down to: no alcohol and no rowdy behavior.

We went back to a campground, a big field where tents and campers were welcome where ever you wanted to put them. We hurriedly set up our tent because there was music everywhere. Pickers scattered all around in groups trying to outplay each other and, off in the distance, a wooded grove where, we were told, we would find the stage for the featured acts.

As we walked that way, we saw the Beanblossom version of Moses parting the sea. A tall man dressed in a white suit with a big white cowboy hat seemed to tower over the crowd that would gather around him then, magically, clear a path as he tried to walk toward the stage area. It was Bill Monroe, himself!!!

I have read stories about how Bill was a cutup, a real friendly man who always took time for his fans. I never really saw that that side of Mr. Monroe.

Whether on stage or surrounded by fans, he always seemed stern and all business.

But how people loved him.

They loved him even though he charged a pretty penny for admittance to his festival. They loved him even though the facilties he offered were spartan (and that's being kind). The stage, located in that grove of trees, was a homemade, rickety affair. A few spotlights had been attached to the stage and on some trees to illuminate the stage at night. There was room to bring folding chairs to sit and listen but much of the seating was created

by cutting down trees a few feet apart and nailing boards across the stumps. It was primitive but heavenly hearing that music out in those woods.

Maybe that is why people forgave Bill for the fly infested concession stands and the "outhouse" bathrooms, a string of "three holers" that were always full, stinky, and, it seemed, near collapse.

Some festivalgoers loved to joke about Bill's legendary penny pinching. "Thanks Bill for the nice bathrooms!!!," some would yell upon exiting after it got dark and they didn't have to fear offending festival security guards.

They were the same guards who would drive through the campground about six a-m shouting "The Rules" into a loud speaker: "IF YOU GOT DOGS, BE SURE TO KEEP THEM DOGS CHAINED UP. WE DON'T WANT NO ONE TO GET DOG BIT"..."DON'T FORGET, NO ALKY-HOL. NO TIME"..."DON'T LEAVE NO TRASH LAYING OUT WHERE THE DOGS'LL GET INTO IT..." Why they choose such an early hour when so many were up all night picking, listening, and, maybe, sneaking a snort or two, I'll never know.

Anyway, the conditions weren't as bad as Woodstock and people sort of accepted them as part of the charm of Bill Monroe's Beanblossom Bluegrass Festival.

People are always polite and generous with their praise at bluegrass festivals but, at Beanblossom, Bill always got the loudest cheers and respect.

I remember one festival when Bill introduced a band that had come as his special guests. People applauded as Bill brought on "The Lost City Cats", a group in official bluegrass band attire: suits and hats and string ties. What really made them unusual was the fact, they were JAPANESE!!!!

Little Japanese guys playing our bluegrass and doing a great job of it as I remember. But applause was reserved after their first number and, as they began a new tune, I could hear grumbling in the crowd. "What are they doin' here", Japs???!!!!, "We fought against them, what are THEY doing here?"

While the boys on stage smiled and soldiered on, giving it their best, the crowd was restless and unsettled. Very different than the usual bluegrass audience.

Finally, at the end of a song, Bill Monroe strode swiftly on to the stage and headed directly for the microphone. He stood there for a moment glaring silently at the audience. When the Father of Bluegrass finally spoke, he did not raise his voice. He just firmly told the crowd, "These here are my friends. They have come a long way to play the music they love for you. I expect you to show them the proper respect."

That was it, he glided off to the side and watched as The Lost City Cats stuck up a new tune to loud applause and rapt attention.

The children listened to their father.

Another Beanblossom moment.

Bill is long gone but the festival continues and I know the festival grounds have been modernized and upgraded. There is probably a McDonald's and mega-restrooms with running water and even showers, maybe even skyboxes for wealthy bluegrass fans (if there is such an animal).

That's probably why I haven't been in 30-years. I have great memories of that handsome, God-like Bill Monroe, the incredible music both on and off the stage, and the hilariously primitive "amenities".

Maybe that's why the Heart of the Ozarks Bluegrass Festival has me thinking about Beanblossom. It's a first rate facility but nothing fancy. Just the way a bluegrass place should be.

HOBA's next event will be a Fiddle Fest in August followed by another full-fledged

bluegrass fest in September. Check out an event there if you get a chance.

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I used to call this blog "Stranger In Town" but time goes by quickly. After a year in these parts, I realize people will still say, 'he's from off' but I now proudly claim I am a "Stranger No More"! After a lifetime in living in big cities, small town life has produced surprises, good and bad but, after more than a year, I love it (most of the time!). I promise to keep on writing about stuff that interests me and things I think of to complain about. I hope you will continue to check in occasionally to read and comment.