BEAN BLOSSOM — Like he has for 54 years, Jim Peva set up camp at Bill Monroe Music Park.
Chairs formed a semicircle in front of his camper’s door. Smoke rose from a fire that had been going all night. From an awning over his site, a photo of Monroe swung in the air.
“I’ve been to all the June festivals,” Peva said. “I’m 87 years old now.”
Peva has been coming to Bean Blossom since the early 1960s. Before Bill Monroe’s Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival began 49 years ago, bluegrass musicians gathered in a barn and played, and Peva was there for that, too.
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“They used to travel in station wagons to get to shows,” Peva said. Five men — the standard number in a band — and their instruments crammed into large cars and traveled from show to show.
Peva said a lot of musicians couldn’t maintain that lifestyle.
“Not a lot of money in bluegrass,” Peva said. “People play it because they love it.”
He said that’s how bluegrass spreads a lot of the time: love from family to family, camper to camper.
Jerry Haywood, a longtime festival-goer, said that was true for his grandson.
“My grandson said he hated this type of music,” Haywood said. “But after coming here, now he loves it.”
Haywood been coming to the festival with various members of his family for 47 years.
“All the bluegrass people knew where Bean Blossom is,” Peva said.
Alive and thriving
Since Monroe is credited with popularizing the genre named after his band The Blue Grass Boys, his festival has been the mecca for enthusiasts of live music and group jamming for decades.
Peva said there are campers who won’t ever venture out of the shady campgrounds to see a show. They come to the festival to gather with other campers and play.
Peva drove his golf cart into a deluge of RVs, looking for one such jam session.
Five men sat in a circle with the requisite bluegrass instruments: upright bass, fiddle, mandolin, banjo, guitar. Peva passed out handshakes easily, and the men began to play for him.
Their instruments weren’t all in tune. Occasionally someone might sing a lyric too fast.
But it didn’t matter.
They came to play, and they were happy to be playing with each other. If a mess-up did happen, they laughed, shrugged it off and kept going.
Peva’s knees bent as he swayed to the music, and his head nodded immediately as it began.
This was Monroe’s music. This was his music.
After he shook hands with the players for their performance, he got back in the golf cart and drove to an even more secluded part of camp. On the way, he passed RVs from Ohio, Ontario, Quebec and Kentucky.
As the golf cart rolled along, passers-by waved or smiled.
“There are people who come from all over the world to this festival,” he said.
Peva parked at a small stage.
A few crowd members were cradling guitars. Onstage, someone was demonstrating bluegrass technique. A few hours later, a man named Jon Weisberger would speak to an audience of 10 about playing bass.
Like many other festival-goers, he, too, would channel Monroe: “What instrument did Bill Monroe think was most important in a bluegrass band?” Weisberger said.
It was, of course, bass, Weisberger went on.
“Monroe said the bass acts like a metronome — you got a bass player who can keep time, and you’re set,” he said.
Peva began to drive home.
On a bench at his own campsite, he thought about the most memorable things he’d experienced in his years at the festival. He remembered a time when Monroe wasn’t speaking to the members of his original band.
“I called it the Bluegrass Cold War,” Peva said. “It lasted 21 years.”
Peva said no one knows why this happened. He certainly didn’t, and he’d been around Monroe for the greater part of the festival’s 49 years running.
The way Peva remembers it, players Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt showed up at the festival one year, seemingly for no reason. That’s when the “war” ended.
“Bill Monroe saw Lester and just strode over and put out his hand and said, ‘Welcome to Bean Blossom, Lester,’” Peva said. “Then they all started singing like they used to 30 years ago. People came running to see that.”
Peva looked off in the distance. “That was memorable for me. There’s probably a thousand other things, but I can’t think of them right now.”
Haywood, too, has fond memories of Monroe. He pointed to the main stage from his seat on the log.
“See all those camp chairs? That area used to be tree stumps with planks that we’d sit on,” he said.
He didn’t know if it was related to a low budget or not. He just knows that’s how it used to be.
“One time Bill was playing a gospel song, and some hippies jumped over the fence and started dancing right in front of the stage,” Haywood said.
He paused and smiled.
“Well, Bill stopped the music. It just went silent. He told them they couldn’t dance there,” Haywood said. “He said, ‘This is a religious song; you don’t dance to music like this.’”
The hippies stopped.
“Bill said they were welcome to dance here, but not to this song.”
Legend still lives
Many festival-goers have been attending long enough that they, too, have memories of Monroe, who died in 1996.
Peva said that’s because bluegrass creates a different kind of celebrity.
“The musicians mingle with the fans,” he said. Monroe, he said, would walk among the crowd and shake people’s hands.
As the crowds morph into newer and newer generations of music, love for the music begins to outweigh the nostalgia for Monroe himself.
Dara Wray has been coming to the festival since she was 17. In those 15 years, her band, Blue Mafia, has been playing at the festival for two years.
“It’s awesome to be where you’ve been in the crowd,” she said. “For me, it’s less about Bill Monroe and more about just playing the music.”
Whatever the reason that people end up in Bean Blossom, with instruments and voices twanging throughout Bill Monroe’s park, the bluegrass unites them, makes them all family and deconstructs any barriers that might surround them in any other place.
“It’s a joy like a family reunion,” Peva said.