Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival

Festivals, Iconic Communities, On the Road, Traditions
on June 4, 2000
Mary E. Yeomans

Vocal harmonies echo through the woods, an impromptu picking session erupts in the campgrounds, and around the stage joyful spectators tap their feet as the music enters their hearts.

These are the sights and sounds of a bluegrass festival, and what better place to indulge yourself in the spirit of this music than Bean Blossom, Ind.

Located 50 miles south of Indianapolis on State Road 135, Bean Blossom has about 150 residents, a Mennonite church, and a grocery store. It’s also home to the Bill Monroe Memorial Music Park and the oldest continuously held bluegrass festival in the nation.

Each summer thousands of fans and musicians from across the country, and around the world, converge on the Brown County community to listen to and participate in the music which, in its purist form, remains as American as apple pie.

Hundreds of similar festivals are held in the United States each year, but the granddaddy is at Bean Blossom. Started more than three decades ago by Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass music, the festival has witnessed performances by scores of musical legends, including Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, Minnie Pearl, and Doc Watson.

A native of Rosine, Ky., Monroe was responsible for creating and popularizing bluegrass music—epitomized by soaring fiddles, chopping mandolins, and dueling banjos—back in the 1930s. Monroe died in 1996 after performing for more than half a century, but his music lives on through his loyal fans, and the dedication of people like Dwight Dillman.

Dillman played banjo with Monroe’s famed Blue Grass Boys in the 1970s, and purchased the 55-acre park from the Monroe family in 1998 to keep the tradition alive. “We just wanted to try and keep it going the way it was when Bill had it,” he says. “This place is real special to a lot of people who have been coming here over the years.”

Dillman’s family and park employees have worked hard to improve park facilities and expand Bean Blossom’s musical offerings to five festivals a year. The most popular is the Bill Monroe Memorial Bluegrass Festival, which recently was honored with a permanent exhibit in the Library of Congress to commemorate its historic and cultural significance.

In addition to three bluegrass festivals annually, the park also hosts a gospel jubilee in August and a classic country festival in September. Visitors also can tour the Bill Monroe Museum and Bluegrass Hall of Fame to learn more about the history of the music.

One of the favorite traditions at Bean Blossom is the sunset jam. On Friday evening, scores of amateur musicians join professional pickers for an open-air session of classic tunes that can last well after dark. Among the legends scheduled to perform at this year’s festival are Jimmy Martin, Ralph Stanley, and Jim and Jesse McReynolds.

“Bluegrass fans have a greater rapport with their musical idols than in any other form of music,” says Jim Peva, a retired teacher and Indiana State Police officer from Plainfield, Ind.

Peva first heard Monroe play in 1961, and he hasn’t missed Bean Blossom’s June festival in 34 years.

“When I saw him (Monroe) take the stage that first time and they came out with that fiddle—I think they played “Watermelon Hanging on the Vine”—the hair stood up on the back of my neck,” Peva recalls. “I knew there was something special about that music.”

The bluegrass bug also bit Peva’s wife, Ailene, who’s been attending the festival since the early ‘70s. “She came down one Sunday and caught us (Peva and a few friends) having a lot of fun,” her husband adds. “And she hasn’t missed one since.”