A Visit to a Lost Bluegrass Music Temple

First view of the Blue Grass Park stage through the brush

First view of the Blue Grass Park stage roof line through the brush

By Art Menius, August 31, 2014

Barnum-like music promoter and artist manager Carlton Haney produced the first three-day bluegrass music festival with camping on Labor Day weekend 1965 on Cantrell’s Horse Farm near Fincastle, Virginia. Haney combined his and Bill Clifton’s idea of a big show with all the top bluegrass artists with the concept taken from Newport Folk Festival of a curated, multi-day festival offering some kind of narrative. Carlton capped off the three days with the “Blue Grass Story” on Sunday afternoon, creating a narrative arch for the community that brought the string tribe together. This was folklore being constructed on the ground. View 11 minutes from that first festival here,

After a second year in Fincastle, the original bluegrass festival moved to Watermelon Park near Berryville, Virginia for another two years. On Labor Day weekend 1969, the original festival arrived near Haney’s hometown of Reidsville, NC. On land besides Pat and Hazel Smith just south of Cherry Grove Road on the western edge of Caswell County, NC, Carlton built Blue Grass Park, the prototype for bluegrass festival venues for the next score.

Camp Springs Stage close up 8-30-2014

Camp Springs Stage close up 8-30-2014

There Carlton enjoyed his glory years, promoting bluegrass as a gospel, publishing Muleskinner News, telling the story, using up almost every ounce of energy Fred Bartenstein had. The theatrical documentary, Bluegrass Music, Country Soul, captured the third,  1971 festival. He added events there including the spring New Grass Festival, while also presenting famed festivals in Gettysburg and Berryville. By the late 1970s competition had grown fierce, while Carlton’s physical, mental, and financial health declined. Mike Wilson and John Maness helped promote three or four very presentable Labor Day weekend festivals during the middle 1980s, before the pair moved the event to Maness’ park. 

At one of those events, Carlton took me up the house, still standing on site, which already looked as if vandalized in 1986. Painstakingly, while he was supposed to be stage managing, Carlton located each issue – in order from Vol 1, No 1 – in the chaos. He seemed to have maintained every check book he had ever owned, including banks long out of business. Meanwhile, Maness and the Bass Mountain Boys had been on stage for 75 minutes with no stage manager to wake up the emcee, Bill Hill. When Carlton return to livid Maness, Haney responded, “Art, show John what I gave you! The whole history of bluegrass music.”

Stage right, where I can still see Bill Vernon standing, and remains of a speaker stand

Stage right, where I can still see Bill Vernon standing, and remains of a speaker stand

Camp Springs stage in 1970, still from Bluegrass Music, Country Soul with Lilly Brothers and Tex Logan

Camp Springs stage in 1971, still from Bluegrass Music, Country Soul with Lilly Brothers and Tex Logan

The Saturday of Labor Day Weekend 2014, my wife Becky Johnson decided we should head up to Camp Springs for the 45th anniversary and see if we could still find Blue Grass Park. It did not prove easy. First, I made the mistake of turning off of Cherry Grove Road on to Camp Springs Road and driving fruitlessly up its 2 miles thrice. Finally back on Cherry Grove east bound, both Becky, who had only been there twice, and I felt drawn to turn right on Boone Road. After a couple of passes looking for the “Blue Grass Park” sign that was still hanging in the 1990s, we pulled up to a lonely gate with several no trespassing signs.

Camp Springs Bathhouse

Camp Springs Bathhouse

I had feared a trailer park. What we found was kindly worst. We followed the remains of the entrance road, passed a pine thicket where the band vehicles used to park between Boone Road and the stage area. Turning the corner, feeling like seekers of lost Mayan temples in the jungle, we faced heavy woods, thick underbrush, and to the right of an area where trash had been burned and cans and bottles dumped, stood the Carlton’s old bathhouse. Numerous no trespassing and one “Dead Man Walking if I Catch You Here” messages decorated the cinder block walls. Becky saw a sign warning of “Boobee” traps. The thought of a cannabis plantation crossed my mind.

Becky Johnson drawn like a magnet to this historic Camp Springs stage

Becky Johnson drawn like a magnet to this historic Camp Springs stage

We pushed through widespread poison ivy and briers as if no deer or other wildlife cleared the brush out in what was once the seating area. Finally like a red clay Angkor Wat, the remains of the stage, one so many festivals copied, stood before us in tatters. Where thousands saw New Grass Revival for the first time, where Tony Rice jumped ship from Bluegrass Alliance to J.D. Crowe, where Carlton told the Blue Grass Story, where Bill Vernon and Fred Bartenstein emceed, looked like a burned out mobile home. Carlton doing an impromptu version of the story with Mac Wiseman, Lester Flatt, and Chubby Wise at Renfro Valley, KY in 1971 can be seen here.

The "new" stage at Camp Springs

The “new” stage at Camp Springs

Something of “Kathaleen’s” Kitchen could be seen in the distance. More adventurous than I and possessing two good knees, Becky 

campgrounds at Camp Springs 8-30-2014

campgrounds at Camp Springs 8-30-2014

took off through the underbrush and pine trees. She found a logging that took her to Carlton’s old house and the pond behind the stage. 

We drove on to Milton, NC. We talked about Caswell County’s need for more tourism attractions and how Blue Grass Park reminded us of the once-overgrown Historic Occaneechi Speedway looked in Hillsborough, NC before citizens took action together to restore it. As many bluegrass music devotees are exist, cannot Carlton’s Blue Grass Park be saved in cooperation with Caswell County Economic Development and the Caswell County Historical Association to created a living historical site that tells the bluegrass music story while presented concerts and festivals.




Broken Circle Breakdown: An Enchanting Bluegrass Music Love Story

By Art Menius 4-27-2014Image

Following its nomination for Best Foreign Film in this year’s Oscars, Felix van Groeningen’s 2012 film from Belgium, Broken Circle Breakdown can now be viewed on iTune, Amazon Prime, and similar paid services as well as limited theatrical release in art houses and performing arts centers via Tribeca Films. His fourth feature, Broken Circle Breakdown previously found box office and critical success in the low countries, leading to two wins at the Tribeca Film Festival last year.

See trailers: http://bcove.me/0ici1bfo

Three currents run through this cinematographic lonesome river. First, Broken Circle Breakdown provides a compelling and quite believable exploration of Europeans obsessed with an American cultural form and the universal experience of falling in love with a particular genre of music. Didier not only picks banjo, but farms, drives a pick up, and wears a cowboy hat. He owns a horse named “Earl” for Scruggs. Elise runs a tattoo parlor and sings with a sultry soulfulness shaped by Alison and Rhonda.

A torrid love story provides the second theme. The sex scenes prove way hotter than in High Lonesome and infinitely more pleasant, if not exactly safe, than DeliveranceBroken Circle Breakdown, moving backwards and forwards in time from first meeting until final goodbye, traces the entire arc of their time together. Their fights, flirtations, and lovemaking ring true consistently. The screen play presented the story consecutively with the time jumping a product of creative storytelling through editing.

Third, and somewhat less pleasingly, the cloying and familiar tale of a sweet child dying at age six because, Didier believes, President G.W. Bush cut back stem cell research. As you can see, the marketing materials don’t put this storyline front and center.

Flemish vocalist and TV star Veerle Baetens plays the then tortured Elise, whose third suicide attempt after the child’s death sadly proves the charm. Five string man Didier, played by Johan Heldenbergh, committed career suicide shortly before by launching into an emotional and rambling diatribe against God between songs at a bluegrass gospel concert with all the band dressed in white suits. Heldenbergh, who appeared in two of van Groeningen’s three previous films, created the 2009 stage play “The Broken Circle Breakdown.” He learned how to play the banjo, guitar, and mandolin for the role as Didier. For the movie, he sings with the Broken ImageCircle Breakdown Band, but you only see his five-string picking while hearing Hank Van Damme (Karl Eriksson) play.

The film gets so many details right. Two minutes into his first conversation with Elise, he is talking about Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music. The image of Elise’s face lighting up at the precise moment where she realizes “this is my music” is absolutely perfect. She eventually takes the stage name of Alabama Monroe. Before they make love for the first time, he happily explains why Manzanita is his favorite album. “Tony Rice had such a sweet voice,” he tells Elise, “and then he lost it. What a shame!”

Van Groeningen explained that:

Didier and Elise play in a bluegrass band and that is no accident. Bluegrass is integrated in a variety of ways into the story and forms the intrinsic link between all the main issues that appear in the film: life, death, birth, America, motherhood and fatherhood, finding consolation, life after death,… Music is also what unites the couple…. Sometime a song is purely narrative and helps to tell the story or is even used as an ellipsis. In other places, we select a given song
because it underpins the emotions…. Bjorn Eriksson composed the [new] bluegrass songs and also created the score. Meeting Bjorn was very important for the film, in lots of ways. You have to know that a lot of bluegrass musicians have something nerdy, but that is not how I saw Didier and Elise. Bjorn has been a bluegrass aficionado since he was 16. But he’s also a very cool guy, and so meeting him, influenced not only the sound but also the look of the film. Bjorn conducted the recordings and guided Johan and Veerle’s performances to the max (they sing everything themselves). Bjorn himself plays dobro and guitar.


Falling in love with a banjo player inevitably leads to getting knocked up and no sooner does Elise start singing with the band than she learns she is 13 weeks pregnant. They name their daughter for Maybelle Carter, but cancer claims her much younger. While Maybelle suffers bravely throughly endless treatments and doctors “who won’t give up,” the band grows steadily more successful – moving from bars to concert halls, dressing sharply, and delivering convincing covers of well known titles from “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” “Over In The Gloryland,” and “Rueben’s Train” to “Didn’t Leave Nobody But The Baby” via Gillian Welch, “If I Needed You” from Townes Van Zandt, and Lyle Lovett’s “Cowboy Man.”

The Broken Circle Breakdown (BCB) Band now tours with increasing frequency in Europe with more than a dozen dates listed for May 2014 alone. The soundtrack from the movie spent eleven weeks at the top of the Flemish Ultratop 50 while going Flemish Platinum and hit number 35 on the Dutch album chart.

“Four stars! One of the finest final scenes in a movie this year… if there were any justice, Veerle Baetens would break out as an international star.” – New York Daily News


“Belgium’s submission for the 2014 foreign language film Oscar is a powerful and haunting tale of love, death and bluegrass — a mournful song played on a broken instrument, with striking visual accompaniment.” – The Observer



  • Best Actress, Best Screenplay, Tribeca Film Festival (2013)
  • Best Actress, European Film Awards (Berlin 2013)
  • Best European Film, Panorama Audience Award, Berlin International Film Festival (2013)
  • Best Film, Best Actress, Best Director, Ensor Awards of Flemish Cinema (2013)
  • Nominated for Best Foreign Film, 2014 Academy Awards

Concerts at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro, NC


My commitment to the community is to restore The ArtsCenter (300-G East Main St; Carrboro, NC 27510) to a position of primacy among folk and roots presenters between Alexandria, VA and Decatur, GA. Although we present concerts in the 355 seat Earl & Rhoda Wynn Theater and 106 seat West End Theater mostly Thursday through Sunday evenings, we sometimes present on any night and host jam sessions and song circles on Monday evenings. We share the use of these facilities with ArtsCenter Stage, the ArtSchool, more than a dozen resident theatre, comedy, improv, film, and dance companies, ArtsCamp, Youth Arts Blocks, and rentals ranging from Cat’s Cradle concerts to community square dances to bat and bar mitzvahs. For that reason, The ArtsCenter presents an average of 60 concerts for adults per year. Visit our website to learn about shows and concerts for children and families.

I have three decades experience in folk and bluegrass music and the support of outstanding concerts at The ArtsCenter sponsors including Chapel Hill Restaurant Group, Giorgios Hospitality Group, Atma Hotel Group (including the new Hampton next door), Furniture Lab, Brooks Pierce, and the North Carolina Arts Council.Image

Most of all we need your support as a donor, business sponsor, or ArtsCenter Friend, and as a ticket buyer. All these can be accomplished by visiting artscenterlive.org or calling 919-929-2787.

The ArtsCenter currently has this remarkable lineup of concerts scheduled

Monday, October 21, 2013 Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys
Wednesday, October 30, 2013 disappear fear (SONiA)
Saturday, November 09, 2013 Sam Bush
Friday, November 08, 2013 Quiet American with Adam Hurt & Beth Hartness
Friday, November 15, 2013 The Honeycutters
Sunday, November 17, 2013 Charlie King & Karen Brandow
Wednesday, November 20, 2013 Jake Shimabukuro
Thursday, November 21, 2013 Kirk Ridge, Lizzy Ross, Rebecca Newton, Jack Herrick, Joe Newberry, Nancy Middleton
Saturday, November 23, 2013 John Gorka
Friday, December 06, 2013 Dar Williams
Wednesday, December 18, 2013 FiddleX Holiday Concert
Friday, January 03, 2014 Robin & Linda Williams
Tuesday, January 07, 2014 Genticorum
Friday, January 10, 2014 Nu Blu
Saturday, January 11, 2014 Hot Club of Cowtown
Sunday, January 12, 2014 Dana & Susan Robinson
Thursday, January 16, 2014 Sparky & Rhonda Rucker
Friday, January 17, 2014 Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen
Saturday, January 18, 2014 GangstaGrass
Thursday, January 23, 2014 Cahallen Morrison & Eli West w/Bevel Summers
Saturday, February 01, 2014 Grace Pettis
Saturday, February 08, 2014 Joe Pug
Sunday, February 09, 2014 David Jacobs-Strain
Friday, February 21, 2014 Ennis
Saturday, February 22, 2014 Lucy Kaplansky
Tuesday, February 25, 2014 Clive Carroll
Sunday, March 09, 2014 Guy Davis
Wednesday, March 12, 2014 Rory Block
Thursday, March 13, 2014 Paul McKenna Band
Wednesday, March 19, 2014 Pete & Maura Kennedy
Friday, March 21, 2014 Missy Raines & the New Hip
Saturday, March 22, 2014 John McCutcheon
Thursday, March 27, 2014 Archie Fischer & Garnet Rogers
Friday, March 28, 2014 Scott Ainslie
Saturday, March 29, 2014 Foghorn String Band w/Piney Woods Boys
Friday, April 04, 2014 Sultans of String
Thursday, April 10, 2014 Drew Nelson
Friday, April 11, 2014 Seldom Scene
Sunday, April 13, 2014 Brother Sun
Wednesday, April 16, 2014 Paddy Kennan
Thursday, May 01, 2014 Cathie Ryan
Friday, May 02, 2014 April Verch
Friday, May 09, 2014 Rolling Roots Review
Sunday, May 11, 2014 Tret Fure
Sunday, June 08, 2014 Jeanette & Johnnie Williams with Louisa Branscomb
Saturday, June 28, 2014 Songs from the Circle 3
Thursday, July 31, 2014 Local songwriters featuring Katherine Whalen
Friday, September 05, 2014 Jonathan Edwards
Friday, September 12, 2014 Steve Forbert
Thursday, September 18, 2014 Sarah McQuaid
Saturday, November 15, 2014 Tom Paxton

Carrboro gets it is own bluegrass brews today

Many bars and clubs present bluegrass music, a couple, such as the Station Inn, all the time. Conversely, many bars, such as Natasha’s in Lexington, KY, exist in the Bluegrass. Now we have a craft brewery that not only includes bluegrass music in its soundtrack and decor, but in its brews.Steel String Brewery IMG_20130427_170037_515

Carrboro, NC’s first modern local craft brewery, Steel String Brewery, will have a soft opening at Noon today (April 27) and Sunday (April 28). The vision of a trio of dedicated young men, Steel String’s opening is a testament to their perseverance. They seemed poised to open fully a year ago when I first returned to Carrboro, but financing proved more problematic than they had imagined.

Now the Steel String rings in the former location of old Carrboro staple The Trading Post between Glass Halfull and Wendy’s. The brew pub opens full time on May 10. The names of featured beers show their musical interests:


Big Mon IPA is named in honor of Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass, and packs an appropriately hefty 6.7% alcohol content.

The Dark IPA, Manzanita (7.4%), is similarly obvious inmanzanita-label1 recognizing extraordinary guitarist Tony Rice, who lives about a half hour west. They write: “Just as Tony Rice pushed the boundaries of a what a guitar could do for bluegrass music in his landmark album Manzanita, our Black IPA pushes the boundary of the IPA, augmenting the hop-heavy style with notes of chocolate, roast, and fresh-brewed coffee.

Both those IPAs should be ready for sale by mid-May. We sampled both Exile on Weaver Street, a seasonal, and Maggie’s Farmhouse Ale (5.6%), which shouts out to Dylan, today. Each offered complex, challenging, ultimately refreshing tastes. The Steel String brews can be taken home in 32-ounce grouters in addition on premises consumption.

Rubber Room Session Ale (4.7%) pays homage to popular local studio owned by Jerry Brown of the Shady Grove Band and, by transference, Porter Wagoner.


Warren Hellman Memorial

By Art Menius, February 19, 2012

Looks like the Warren Hellman Fest has reached its end – Emmy Lou Harris, Kevin Welch and Keiran Kane, Buddy Miller, John Doe, Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, Robert Earl Keen, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Old Crow Medicine Show and stage for the finale. Earlier Steve Earle, John Doe, Boz Scaggs, and Dry Branch Fire Squad performed.

From the free webcast of the free outdoor festival, I have no way of estimating the size of the audience. People went back as far as he camera could capture. Two stages kept the show moving swiftly to its conclusion with the Go to Hell Man Clan singing “I’ll Fly Away” and “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” The weather broke sunny, fortunately, for the event at the beach, rather than the rechristened Hellman Hollow where Hardly Strictly will continue each October.

Mike Compton and Joe Newberry

Mike Compton and Joe Newberry

Crownsville, MD February 11, 2012

Live performance review by Art Menius for http://artmenius.com


Mike Compton & Joe Newberry (c) Becky Johnson


Mike Compton and Joe Newberry mine one of the more neglected segments of country music history, that period during the 1930s and 1940s when brother duet music was transforming into bluegrass. Few are better equipped for the task with Newberry able to replicate the underappreciated power of Charlie Monroe’s rhythm guitar, while Compton has been acknowledged as a master of Monroe style mandolin playing for three decades. Add Joe’s exquisite open back banjo playing and their simpatico duet singing and you have a two person string band that can move effortlessly from Carter Family songs to “evil harmony laughing” to early bluegrass to Mike’s original tunes and Joe’s songs. Each set contained one of the latter’s compositions that the Gibson Brothers turned into bluegrass hits.

The many highlights of the well-paced show (the clock affirmed each lasted 45 minutes, but they seemed half that) include a reworking of Compton’s “Idle Time,” the title track of second Nashville Bluegrass Band LP a quarter century ago. Stripped down to its essence as a mandolin tune, it opened up a rhythmic thrust beyond the original. Mike, a long time stalwart of the John Hartford String Band, and Joe turned Hartford’s hippie anthem “Tall Buildings” into a convincing brother duet piece.

Compton and Newberry, best known as a member of Big Medicine, are not just veterans, but have found a partner whose music comes from the same place. Just as if on a back porch, they play to and for each other. The audience gets to share the joy the pair finds in doing it.


Building Audiences

Update from the National Arts Marketing Project 1/20/2012 – click here for another vital audience development resource A free e-book download. Plenty of other material here. Sign up for their enewsletter.

Link and Thoughts posted by Art Menius 1/19/2012

The Wallace Foundation has made available four free downloads of case studies in audience development. You can get them here as PDFs:

Building Arts Audiences: Wallace Foundation Studies of Four Arts Groups – The Wallace Foundation.

The Wallace Foundation has been investing heavily in the theory and practice of audience development in the arts. The roots, folk, and bluegrass presenting community has made far too little effort to learn from arts, rather than commercial, audience development methods. Commercial methods, in my opinion, focus too much on marketing individual performances or events. Arts presenters provide stronger, more durable methods for building audiences for your presenting programs. Is not the Holy Grail for audiences to trust the producer’s choices rather than attending only shows by names they recognize?

Wallace commissioned these studies in response to public participation in the arts dropping to their lowest levels since the first such survey 30 years ago. Wallace believes that we are undergoing a generational transition in arts consumption. These free downloads address how to reach younger audiences during this fundamental shift.

The 4 organizations in these studies (the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, the San Francisco Girls Chorus, and Boston Lyric Opera.) deal with audiences and art forms quite divergent from bluegrass or folk.

Nonetheless, these ideas are inspirational and can get roots presenters thinking in new ways. The study of the San Francisco Girls Chorus, for example, directly addresses drawing new audiences for music about which the general public has a stereotype. Sound familiar?

Beyond that, Wallace researchers have identified five overarching principles common to all four successful programs:

1. Market research can sharpen engagement-strategy development
and execution.

2. Audiences are open to engaging the arts in new and different
ways. We have to provide and promote new entry ways to events rather than waiting for new audiences to find bluegrass, folk, blues, and old-time.

3. Participation-building is ongoing, not a one-time initiative. This is particularly true for the roots music fields. We are far too prone to rest rather than pushing 24/7 to build larger audiences.

4. Audience-building efforts should be fully integrated into every
element of an organization, not a separate initiative or program.

5. Mission is critical.

These four downloads prove just the latest of many free publications about audience development Wallace Foundation offers. The primary gateway to this wealth of information than bluegrass, folk, and traditional presenters can use is here.

Many more resources about audience development, from the arts world largely, can be found on the Internet.

The League of American Orchestras provides information here.

Audience development consultants ADS blog here.

This column from last spring concerns applying AD concepts in new ways.

From Scotland, a broad overview slideshow on cultural audience development, especially cultural tourism.

That is just a start. Much information about audience development exists that we can use far better to build our audiences going forward.