Happy Poppy: Good Times on Poppy Mountain
For Bluegrass Unlimited 2001 – unpublished
By Art Menius
[I wrote this on assignment for Bluegrass Unlimited in 2001. Due to poor communication on my end, by the time I turned it in, they had accepted another piece about Poppy Mountain. Although I got paid, it was a shame it never ran as I rather liked the article. No doubt because I spent to long playing with it. This September 2000 junket to the east side of Morehead would be the first for Becky and I into Kentucky east of I-75, presaging our move to Letcher County seven years later.]
“Happy Poppy!” The greeting sounds trite, but it proves so true. The Poppy Mountain Bluegrass Festival, a multi-faceted happening with five days of music each September on a 1000 acre tract between I-64 and US 60 east of Morehead, Kentucky, annually proves itself a genuinely happy event. Even when the weather turns unseasonably cool, as it did on the Friday and Saturday of the 2000 Poppy Mountain, thousands still enjoy the great music and good times there with upbeat spirits.
That doesn’t happen by accident. Promoter Marty Stevens, right hand man Tim Cahall, and host band IIIrd Tyme Out work extremely hard at ensuring fun for the masses. “I think it’s just hard work that’s made Poppy Mountain,” says Stevens. “We advertise the year round, and I plan on it, and I live with it night and day. I just put my whole heart and soul into it. You see the way I greet the people. I’m with them from early in the morning until late, late at night to make people happy.”
The efforts have produced results. “Together I feel that Marty Stevens and IIIrd Tyme Out have built one of the greatest bluegrass festivals going today,” enthuses Ray Deaton of IIIrd Tyme Out. “This is the biggest straight bluegrass festival – I’m not talking about MerleFest or Telluride – that I’ve ever been to. We had 20,000 people in 1999. Last year  when the weather was better, I bet there were 150 jam sessions going. IIIrd Tyme Out loaded all our instruments into that ’49 Plymouth band wagon, and we’d go to a jam session and pick awhile, then pack up and go to the next session. We did that all night almost and had the best time in the whole world. This is Kentucky. This is a Ralph Stanley, Lonesome River Band, Mountain Heart, Blue Highway, IIIrd Tyme Out kind of audience.”
This is hard, old belt bluegrass music country, one of the places where the music survived during the decade starting in the mid-1950s. It remains a thrill to even the most jaded observer to watch Ralph Stanley, Larry Sparks, and Dave Evans where enthusiastic audiences worship them as they deserve, while the big screens flanking the main stage slowly come to life as the chilly September dusk gives way to night. Poppy Mountain lies on the eastern edge of Rowan County, Kentucky, home of some 22,000 almost entirely Caucasian residents. The frequency of single-wides, year round yard sales, and antique barns reveal that booms a century ago in mining, bricks, and logging have long since played out, leaving the county today with an average household income of barely $20,000 a year. Better than one person in four lives in poverty in Rowan County. The area’s great claim to fame, before Morehead State University and the Poppy Mountain Bluegrass Festival, was the Rowan County War of 1884 to 1887. Timber wealth fueled conflict when only 12 votes out of 1100 separated two candidates for sheriff. The recount tally would eventually include 27 killed, 16 wounded, and no one convicted.
From almost anywhere outside Rowan County, one eventually gets on I-64 to reach Poppy Mountain. From the Interstate and the artificial prosperity of chain motels and restaurants the road heads a couple of miles south to Morehead proper. The county seat, incorporated with Rowan County in 1856, it is home to some 8800 folks and almost as many students at Morehead State University, founded as Morehead Normal School in 1887. That gives the town two faces, town and gown, one a rural county seat unwillingly dependent on the interstate and the college; the other a medium sized state university and its community, including students from 40 states and 32 countries. Thus Morehead citizens give almost equally, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, Republican and Democratic candidates and PACs, ranging from conservative Congressman and former baseball player Jim Bunning to the liberal People for the American Way.
In this environment, a locally produced event that draws folks from several states for up to a week each is a Godsend. The former railroad station by the Licking Valley RR tracks houses the tourist agency. When a stranger asks for directions to Poppy Mountain, the receptionist wishes for a penny for each time she’s fielded that one in the past week and dispatches the visitor another nine miles down US 60 east, just past Hayes Crossing (site of an establishment selling “Bibles and Used Tires”). “You can’t miss Poppy Mountain on the left.”
Marty resides near the festival entrance just off the highway. From there the road climbs to day parking, past the main stage, showcase barn, and carnival, eventually climbing three and a half miles to Marty’s guest house, perched on the summit, the highest point in five quite hilly counties. The initial climb hides the enormous festival from the road below.
Making the ascent in a golf cart, with Poppy Tim at the wheel and four others on board, at times resembles the automobile adventure to Memphis in Faulkner’s The Rievers if everyone along the way had wanted to stop and speak with them the way folks at Happy Poppy did. Once past the main stage and the enormous barn that looms behind it, roads branch out right and left leading to campgrounds with names like Jammin’ Ridge and Guitar Run. “If you’re into jamming. Poppy is definitely one of the most jamming festivals around,” Cahall boasts. “People jam constantly. Out on ‘Jammin Ridge’ the music seldom stops!” The road climbs abruptly to a more level area where a full service carnival offers a variety of fair rides, except on Poppy Mountain the Ferris wheel revolves to the sound of Jimmy Martin records.
Far above the campgrounds now, the intersecting paths are part of more than thirty miles of horse and ATV trails on Poppy Mountain. The well used golf cart putters up to IIIrd Tyme Out’s Ray Deaton, astride an ATV with his bride as part of a long line of four wheelers participating in a game called “ATV Poker” (don’t ask me). “It’s just like a big family here, man!” says Ray. “Everybody hollers and waves at you. Everybody knows everybody. If somebody gets stuck, a half dozen help get them out. That’s what our music is all about. That’s what makes bluegrass music such a special music. My grandson’s here, and he’s absolutely had a blast here. They have so much stuff going on. The have fishing. They have horseback riding. They have a small carnival on the hill. Hayrides. All kinds of stuff that entertains the kids. They have pool tournaments for the adults. We just keep trying to come up with new ideas to make something entertaining for everybody so that everyone who comes to the festival can enjoy themselves.”
The road seems to go straight up, more than a doubly overburdened two-person golf cart can manage. Fortunately, even three miles from the main stage, Tim’s ubiquitous friends are around to help, more smiling faces at Happy Poppy. Down the slope, through the upland marsh, and on up another sharp climb to Marty’s mountain retreat we go. Poppy Tim lived up here when he first moved down from Dayton, Ohio, after attempting to convince Marty Stevens to attend the Poppy Mountain Bluegrass Festival. “Marty asked me what I thought of Poppy Mountain and I, not knowing who he was, said, ‘It’s cool! You have to attend!’ He told me that anyone with that much enthusiasm should come work for him.”
From the third floor balcony atop the 1435 foot peak, the view back stretches down the rolling hills that cascade through 800 feet of elevation to the narrow valley of Triplett Creek that carries US 60 eastward from Morehead through Hays Crossing toward Grayson. We stand at the northern edge of the humongous Daniel Boone National Forest, nearly 700,000 acres of the Eastern Coal Field region stretching all the way to Tennessee and attracting some five million visitors a year. A few miles beyond the hills that form the southern horizon from our perch lays Sandy Hook, home of Keith Whitley.
Coal country. Curly Ray Cline’s world. This is a place where everyone knows Ralph Stanley’s name. The Morehead News for September 15, 2000 reprinted the pay voucher for December 15, 1919 of one Josh Gibson, a Rowan County miner. After loading 18 tons of coal worth nearly $31, he netted less than ten percent, $2.88 cash after expenses including rent, doctor, and company store charges. This is a place that understands Ralph Stanley’s music too well.
Immediately beneath lies the festival – carnival, campgrounds, and eventually the barns and the multitude of microscopic figures enjoying the show. Smoke fills the air above the campgrounds since Poppy Mountain provides campers with free firewood. “We’ve cut wood all week long, and every body here has a fire. It takes a lot of firewood to get that done,” says Marty. Indeed, the genius of Poppy Mountain can be found in the layout of the campgrounds: “We have the campers separated out. The people that want to stay up all night and jam and have a good time we have out this a-way on Jammin’ Ridge. We have our handicaps over here. We have our medium people that like to party sometimes and stay up a little bit back to the left. I have the ones who want peace and quiet way back around there.”
The reverie from the top of Poppy Mountain gives way to the arrival of a tour bus at the summit. At Happy Poppy folks can climb aboard and enjoy a junket colorfully narrated by a driver who quite favors Ron Thomason of the Dry Branch Fire Squad and can be almost as entertainingly long winded.
The way back down was faster albeit not devoid of fright or at least legitimate concern. Back at the main stage the Poppy Mountain way was in action. Word had arrived backstage that while the soundman was on duty at Happy Poppy someone robbed and vandalized his home. Soon emcees Colonel Matt Paul and Sam Jackson had organized a series of auctions of everything from autographed CDs and T-shirts to a watermelon autographed by Marty and raised more than $1000.
IIIrd Tyme Out gave generously to the auction for it does far more than lend its name as hosts. Ray, Steve, Russell, Wayne, Mike, and Donnie fully integrate themselves into the Happy Poppy experience. Steve Dilling’s mom, Linda, cheerfully took care of the green room in 2000. A walk upstairs to the pool hall in the loft of the big barn finds Russell Moore happily and talkatively shooting game after game with fans. Furthermore, all too early the next morning he and Dilling will return to host a billiards tournament. In other words, they participate and even organize core Happy Poppy activities, as well as helping with some more traditional festival management tasks. Wherever you go, you seem to run into the 3TO guys or family members, and they always seem to be having a great time.
“I booked all the bands on this festival,” related Deaton. “For two days I parked campers. If someone has a problem, I find the person who can take care of it for them. I get the checks and give them to Col. Matt Paul to pay the bands. Whatever comes along I try to do it.” The band even plays a private concert for members of their fan club at Poppy Mountain.
The mountain takes its name from McKinley “Poppy” Fraley. Young neighbor kids Marty and Melvin Stevens spent much of their youth playing, hunting, and fishing along its slopes and streams. When the property became available at auction, Marty couldn’t resist owning the lovely site of so many memories. “I think the name is what triggered the whole thing,” opined Melvin. “Marty said ‘Poppy Mountain,’ and I said, ‘That’s the name right there. That’s a name that will capture peoples’ attention.”
When the brothers Stevens acquired the Poppy Mountain tract, it contained few improvements other than the massive barn behind the main stage. Today it houses the green room, a restaurant, a pool hall, a small store, and plenty of bluegrass music, automotive, and rural Americana memorabilia. All under a new roof Marty installed when snow collapsed the original, leaving the white stuff piled on and around his precious vehicles. He had every kind of insurance save for earthquake and snow.
That’s been one set back in mostly steady, sometimes dramatic, improvement in the physical plant. On the next plateau above the big barn and Jammin’ Ridge sits the “CMT Barn,” so-called since Carrie and Marty Horton and Tim built it in 1997. “Paul Webb, Joe and Janie Hamm, and Owen Burton put many hours into it,” says Poppy Tim. “This barn is in our opinion, one of the prettiest stages in the festival circuit! It now has a permanent sound system mounted in it as well as the capacity to do great summer shows in it.”
This smaller barn serves as a secondary, indoor venue where emerging acts showcase on a loft stage looking down upon audiences of fifty to two hundred folks. By 2000 Poppy Mountain could also boast of the new store, and much more — 1200 hook-ups, workshop and jamming stages, the Poppy Mountain train that Marty built, a fishing pond within earshot of the main stage, and a hard top road for the sharp initial ascent from US 60 to the broad plane holding day parking, the first RV area, the main stage seating, and most of the vendors.
“Poppy Mountain has something for the entire family to enjoy,” explains Cahall. “If you like trails, Poppy has over 25 miles to ride your ATV’s and hiking trails lead to our seven fishing lakes (private property in Kentucky means no fishing license!). Maybe it’s the free taxi rides all over the mountain in the twenty-plus classic automobiles that may have drivers such as Melvin Goins, Ray Deaton, Russell Moore, James King, or just about anybody else imaginable from our wonderful volunteers. The horse back riding is very popular among the younger set as well as some of our more mature guests! The prizes seem to be pretty exciting as Saturday Night approaches and everyone is anticipating winning the car we give away each year among other prizes.”
Says Goins, “They’ve got so many things here that they can do that you don’t find at other festivals. Marty has an automatic drawing card here even if there was never one g-chord struck on the stage. November I’ll be in the entertainment business for fifty years and I have never known a festival that has grown and took off and become known around the world like Poppy Mountain. It’s a honey jar drawing flies. Marty has so much to offer here it is hard to lose.”
“The many activities have been a plan of mine,” Marty explains. “I built the train. I have always been an old car man. I saw how I could use them, finally. The old cars really aren’t good for anything on the road, but this festival has been good for them. I like police cars, taxis, and fire trucks. It fits in perfectly with this crowd. They love getting in them and riding them. That’s how that evolved. Step by step. Every year I add another piece or two.”
Building the Poppy Mountain physical plant to this extent has required extraordinary effort. Stevens says, “I leveled all the hills and put in all the electric. Before next year’s festival, I’m going to level the hill behind the showcase barn. I’ll make it flat back to that gate. That will make that field hold five times as big. It’s been tough. I’m proud of it. I’m glad I did it, but I don’t know about doing it again from scratch for eight years.”
Like so many bluegrass presenters, the producing bug bit Stevens while enjoying himself at a festival. “I have always loved bluegrass, and my father loved bluegrass. He loved festivals. I was over around Vanceburg – the Dave Evans & River Bend festival – and I saw so many people having a good time that I thought that some of these days, I’m going to have me a bluegrass festival, and I’m going to do it right. A few years later I got this place. My brother, Chris Pinion, and Melvin Goins, me, and my dad met up here and talked about it.”
“I came here on a cold frosty evening, the year before this festival started in 1993,” recalls Melvin, who resides fifty miles east in Ashland. “We met right where you and I are sitting [now the main stage green room]. We had a great big round table. Marty was wanting to put on a bluegrass festival, but he said, ‘I don’t think it will ever go.’ Marty said, ‘Let’s get out and walk around a bit.’ We went out the back and up the hill, cold, rainy, and frost on the ground. We came back in, and he said, ‘What do you think?’
“Marty was kind of afraid about this hill here. It was kind of steep, and it wasn’t black topped the first two years. I said, ‘Well, Marty, from my experience if this is run right it will be big. It will be a gold mine.’ That is exactly what’s happened, because it is just like setting a tree out. It has grown every year; this makes the eighth year (2000). I said, ‘If I was a gambling man, which I am not, I’d bet my last dollar on this.’ So he went ahead and took the chance.”
Nonetheless, Melvin balked at Marty’s initial talent budget. “I said, ‘You ain’t going to get no orchestras for that. You have to pick your headliners. How much do you want to spend on advertising? You get out of it just what you put in on advertising. The Bluegrass Unlimited is a must. That’s the next thing to the Holy Bible in bluegrass. So we kind of throwed it together.
“Well, man, the first year people just came in from everywhere. Marty is a go-getter. He’s a businessman. He doesn’t start something and not finish it. He goes in for the home run. Marty has had some many people who have helped him support this.”
From the start Stevens had a stated goal as a guide. “I said, ‘Let’s do it, but if we do it, I am going to push it as hard as I can to be the number one festival in the United States.’ My plan from the word ‘go’ has been to do everything I can to make it number one.”
To do that, Poppy Mountain has built the festival experience, not just a year-to-year line-up. People now recognize Poppy Mountain brand as meaning happy times and so much more than just musical performances. Poppy Mountain offers a powerful roster, but so do a good number of smaller festivals. “Every year that the people come here, they get a surprise. People don’t know what to expect from one year to the next. It keeps your attention,” said Goins.
Five years into building the physical plant and promoting the Poppy Mountain brand, Stevens formed a strategic alliance with a popular bluegrass act ascending to the top. “We knew Sandy Knipp,” recalled Deaton. “He is an awful nice guy, who used to help Marty promote and book this show here at Poppy Mountain. Sandy had some problems with his kidneys, and I called Marty and said I wanted to do a fundraiser for Sandy. So I got a bunch of bands together, and we did a fund drive and show to raise money for Sandy. That was the first time I really met Marty. He came out to our bus that night and said, ‘Guys, how would you like to host Poppy Mountain.’
“We had played this festival only one time at that point. The response that we got… We have a big fan base in here. I just like the lay out, the set up of the festival. So we worked out the business part of the arrangement. Marty told us that the first year we became the host band ; it took a 60% growth. I think it took a 40% growth the next year.”
Poppy Mountain has revived the endangered tradition of two-day bookings, which allow the musicians to relax, have fun, and visit. Rather than rushing back on the road, they have time for themselves, their peers, and their fans. That makes for a far better festival experience for all concerned. The two-day bookings help make Poppy happy.
“The advantage he has at this place is the ground and all the acres,” figures Goins. “He has so much room to expand here and do things with the festival that other people don’t have. Like a tree if you put fertilizer around it then it’s going to grow, and that’s exactly what has happened here at Poppy Mountain.” Each year brings expansion and new features. For 2000 Marty brought a general store that operated from the 1930s through the 1970s to the site and reopened it as a restaurant and museum, complete with an old 78 jukebox featuring bluegrass and honky-tonk classics.
Marty rightly has few regrets with how his festival has evolved. “If I could do anything that I’d like to do, it would be from day one that I opened the gates – no alcohol. It’s too late now. I think it’s under pretty good control. That would be the number one thing if I were starting over. And I probably might say from the beginning no four wheelers. Yet I have them under control for the most part.”
According to Poppy Tim, “The greatest satisfaction comes from knowing that we gave a really great time to the guests…. This is my way of making the world a better place, as well as trying to make a bit of a living. Sunday morning as we wave to all our guests and invite them again to the next festival, tears can be seen falling from each of our eyes with happiness! I also have a lot of satisfaction knowing that we have been an asset to the local community, as well as our bluegrass community, in that the services we have given in lines of parade donations, benefits, helping with other shows, and etc…. Poppy Mountain is becoming known for it’s benevolence as well as bringing the economical impact up for the surrounding counties.”
“The word of mouth is what I think made Poppy Mountain,” Stevens opines. “I’ve had a lot of people that have helped. I treat them right, and they tell other people. It doesn’t take long to take a dollar and double it. The next day it’s four, and the next day it’s eight. That’s just about the way it has been here. It didn’t double this year, I can see. But it has grown, and I have more campers than in 1999. We could have a campground here year-round, but I don’t have time. I’m too busy with bluegrass. You see me everywhere. I’ve been to every festival I could get to this year. That’s what makes it grow. Get out and meet the people. Ask them to come. The more people you can shake and howdy, the better it is.”
Stevens keeps on planning for the future. “The tenth year’s when I really plan to have it all done. I said I’d do it for ten years. I’m going to advertise for ten years. I’m going to push at everything for ten years. When I get to the tenth year  I’m going to have a big blowout. I’m going to have everybody I can and have the facility ready for them. I can handle the crowds.” Happy Poppy!