Bluegrass History: 50 Years Ago On Labor Day Weekend, Carlton Haney Presented The First Multi-Day Festival

first-bluegrass-festival-poster-1965Fifty years ago on Labor Day Weekend, legendary promoter Carlton Haney of Hollins, VA. invented the multi-day weekend bluegrass festival. That event, near Roanoke, VA, changed the course of history for bluegrass music.

Historic documents courtesy of Ron Petronko.

Historic documents: Ron Petronko.

The festival, held on a horse farm in the tiny community of Fincastle, offered fans an introduction to a little-known music. Many viewed the experience as one of the last opportunities to see bluegrass music before it faded into history, as many of the leading practitioners were thought to be past their prime.

But, rather than documenting the musical past, the new format — multiple bands on stage, camp jamming as a key self-entertainment feature, instructional workshops, and the creation of a retreat-like all-ages weekend community — led to a new lease on life for the musical form.

New audiences — well “beyond the farmers” (as Bill Monroe later said) who once formed the music’s only relevant audience — came to enjoy the charms of bluegrass music. Bluegrass festivals made the genre attractive to college students, young families, hippies, and other urban folks — as well as farmers.

Historic Document courtesy of Ron Petronko.

The exciting new festival concept rapidly spread throughout the US (the first Northern California festival was held in Marin County in 1972) and then throughout the world. These festivals now number in the thousands each year.

Although the historic first gathering was held in western Virginia, advance tickets were sold in New York City. Tickets were $2.50 per day or a thrifty $6.00 for the weekend including onsite camping.

Headliner Bill Monroe signed his contract on July 2, a bare two months before the festival (“P. Rowan” also signed as booking agent). Through a misunderstanding, The Osborne Brothers were listed on the festival poster, but were unable to be there due to a prior commitment.

2015 Anniversaries:

50 Years — First Bluegrass Festival

40 Years — Father’s Day Grass Valley Festival

29 Years — Santa Cruz Bluegrass Fair

22 Years — Good Old Fashioned Bluegrass Festival

As we head out to our favorite festivals to enjoy some bluegrass this weekend and beyond, we can offer our thanks to the imagination of Carlton Haney, who made it all happen a half-century ago.

The International Bluegrass Music Association World Of Bluegrass (September 29-October 3 in Raleigh, NC) will feature a special historical presentation to celebrate the 50th Anniversary.

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