Bluegrass Picking with J. D. Crowe
Jessamine County honors hometown boy J.D. Crowe with an annual Bluegrass Festival
When it comes to small-town festivals growing into a much larger affair, the annual J.D. Crowe Bluegrass Festival held in Jessamine County during the Labor Day weekend takes the blue ribbon.
In 2001, the festival’s first year, it featured eight acts and drew a crowd of about 1,000. Last year’s festival featured more than 20 acts and drew crowds that numbered at least 5,000, with car and license plates from as far away as Colorado and California.
According to Wayne Bledsoe, editor of the national magazine Bluegrass Now, a bluegrass festival that draws 3,000–4,000 a day is “very successful.” Bledsoe says, “There are probably not more than a dozen festivals this size.”
“Growing that fast, you just don’t do that very often,” says festival organizer and bluegrass musician Dean Osborne.
But the J.D. Crowe Bluegrass Festival isn’t your typical bluegrass festival. For example, most bluegrass festivals come about because some person or organization wants to make money.
Osborne says the idea for this festival came about when good friends County Judge/Executive Wm. Neal Cassity and Jessamine County resident Mike Carr (half of the Moron Brothers, a bluegrass comedy act) began throwing around the idea of a music festival.
In addition to having one of the greatest bluegrass musicians (J.D. Crowe) living right at our back door, says Osborne, Jessamine County’s historical ties to bluegrass music were also strong. Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt, two of the pioneers of bluegrass music, had made a nearby trailer court their home base as they worked for WVLK radio by day and toured the area by night in the late 1940s and early ’50s, a “golden era” for bluegrass in the area.
By hanging around Flatt and Scruggs’ concerts at the old Woodland Auditorium in Lexington, Crowe was able to learn from the masters. Other bluegrass musicians such as the Stanley Brothers and Jim and Jesse also made this area their home base during that time.
Cassity, a long-time friend of Crowe’s, liked the festival’s connection to the county’s history and agreed that it was about time the county did something to honor Crowe, who definitely qualified as a “hometown boy made good.” “The J.D. Crowe Bluegrass Festival celebrates both our history and one of our county’s most talented residents,” Cassity says.
The second year, Blue Grass Energy Cooperative stepped in as a major sponsor for the event. The Nicholasville/Jessamine County and Wilmore parks and recreation departments contributed manpower and several other local businesses contributed money and support. “It usually takes a pretty good cause to bring all of those types together,” says Osborne.
With the County Judge Executive’s office and the parks and recreation departments at the helm, the festival was designed as a fun, family-oriented event that would encourage the appreciation and growth of bluegrass music in the area by modeling Crowe’s relaxed, approachable style. Even Crowe enjoys himself so much that he has a hard time tearing himself away after his performances. He is often seen riding in a golf cart to visit late-night jam sessions held at the festival’s camping grounds.
The festival is held at the 110-acre Ichthus Farm in Wilmore, the site of the world’s largest Christian rock concert held each year by Ichthus Ministries. In 2004, the festival’s smallish stage was replaced with a 90' x 40' amphitheater-style stage that could handle even the largest of mega-concerts. The site currently accommodates approximately 20,000.
Although it took a few years to build festival recognition, attracting a crowd wasn’t a problem after recognition grew and big-name musicians—such as the Osborne Brothers, Josh Graves, and Larry Cordle—began playing at the festival.
Crowe, a Grammy-winning musician who has been called a “living icon of bluegrass music” and a “national treasure,” played a major role in establishing bluegrass and banjo picking as art forms in the region and mentored younger players such as Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs.
“When they (bluegrass musicians) heard that it was J.D.’s festival, they were practically lining up to appear,” says Osborne. “Everybody wants to be part of something that honors J.D.”
2005 J.D. CROWE
BLUEGRASS FESTIVAL INFO
Labor Day Weekend
Ichthus Farm, Wilmore
One-day tickets are $10-20 advance or $15-25 at the gate depending upon which day you go. An all-weekend ticket is $35 advance or $45 at the gate.
WHAT TO BRING
Large tents are provided for protection from sun and possible showers. Some lawn chairs are provided, but it’s a good idea to bring your own. So it’s possible to stop in and enjoy the show with absolutely no advance planning. If you do have time to plan, though, here are a few suggestions:
Dancin’ shoes…or sandals—It’s difficult to listen to back-to-back bluegrass artists without feeling the urge to kick up your heels at least once or twice. Bluegrass “dancing shoes” can be anything from sandals to boots.
The kitchen sink—Whether you have a pop-up camper or a Winnebago with all the comforts of home, you can bring it along (although space is plentiful, hookups are limited). Campers are welcome at the festival, and staying on site guarantees that you’ll be there for late-night jam sessions, for which the festival has become famous.
Your appetite—Even if you manage to resist the piping-hot bean soup with cornbread during the Thursday night Bean Supper and Jam Session that kicks off the event, it will be tough to pass up concession booths that offer festival delicacies such as burgers and blooming onions.
Lemonade, iced tea, or soft drinks—but no beer or alcohol. The festival is held at Ichthus Grounds and adheres to Ichthus Ministries’ strict “no alcohol” policy.
Banjos, mandolins, fiddles, or guitars—local musicians can bring their instruments and “rattle the dog” with bluegrass idols during the Bean Supper and late-night jam sessions.