BEAN BLOSSOM — One man steps up with a guitar and a circle starts to form. The humming melody begins as a dozen stringed instruments are tuned.
On the green grass beneath the sign that declares “Bill Monroe Memorial Music Park and Campground,” the bluegrass family that Monroe founded is having a gathering.
The circle is like a family around the dinner table.
Josh “The Reverend” Peyton opens a discussion, holds the family’s attention, then hangs back to listen to what a mandolin has to say.
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Side conversations crop up: two banjos nod in agreement over some thought they shared; a guitar and a mandolin have a short back-and-forth.
A man standing to the side watches and listens. He sneaks a harmonica from his pocket, smiles and joins in.
The circle starts small, grows quickly and shrinks slowly to the last few who hang on for one more song.
These are friends who have often joined together to play. But even if they had never met before, there are no strangers in a bluegrass jam circle. They are all Monroe’s family here.
The musicians were at the park June 7, along with local dignitaries and many of Monroe’s oldest friends, to unveil an Indiana historical marker at the edge of State Road 135 North, just north of the park’s entrance.The marker commemorates not only Monroe’s contribution to music but also the musical history that permeates Bean Blossom, a destination known around the world, said Ruth Reichmann, president of local historic preservation society Peaceful Valley Heritage.
Peaceful Valley members spearheaded the effort to get a marker at Monroe’s music park, only the second marker in the county after T.C. Steele State Historic Site.
Along with volunteers from the music park, Peaceful Valley volunteers gathered historic information about the park, Monroe and bluegrass music, and raised money to pay for the marker, said Ken Birkemeier, a volunteer.
“It was a labor of love,” Reichmann said.
Monroe wasn’t just a pioneer, he was the pioneer, said Sam Jackson, a bluegrass musician and friend of Monroe’s.
Monroe created the sound of bluegrass through trial and error, Jackson said. He didn’t have the incredible library of recordings and patterns available to modern musicians to fall back on for guidance.
Yet, he did have a rich musical heritage to carry on, Jackson said.
“When our ancestors came to this country, they didn’t have recordings,” he said. “They came here with their memories, and those memories were in the form of song.”
Monroe’s bluegrass came from his core, Jackson said.
“It’s music from the soul, and it’s medicine for the soul,” he said.
Several speakers at the dedication credited current owner Dwight Dillman with the continuing existence of Monroe’s park after Monroe died 20 years ago. Dillman bought the park from Monroe’s son, James, in 1998.
“We brought it a long ways, from how it was, back when I got it,” Dillman admitted.
That included adding laundry and bathroom facilities, building the Bill Monroe Bluegrass Hall of Fame Museum and fixing up roads and facilities.
When the campground is full, the people are gathered and the music is flowing, Dillman gets satisfaction from his efforts.
“It feels good to see people enjoy it and having a good time,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about — it’s like one big family, bluegrass people; they’re just friends from all over the world.”
This week marks the 50th annual Bill Monroe Memorial Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival, and as he has been since 1961, Jim Peva will be there.
The annual festival has drawn audiences and bands from all over the world from the earliest days, Peva said. In 1971, bands from New Zealand and Japan played on the main stage.
The sense of a family connection crosses those borders, local bluegrass musician Dan Harden said.
During a recent festival, a Finnish band showed up without instruments. Strangers loaned them the instruments they needed to play.
The international visitors carry the influence of Bill Monroe home with them, Peva said. The third-oldest bluegrass festival in the world — Bill Monroe’s is the oldest — was started by fans who took the music to Japan, Peva said.
“Bluegrass music has a universal appeal,” Peva said. “You find jam sessions where there’s people of all backgrounds: there’ll be professional people, there’ll be carpenters, there’ll be day laborers, there’ll be people that can’t even speak to each other because they can’t speak the same language.”
“But, they’re all playing the same music,” he said.
What: 50th annual Bill Monroe’s Memorial Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival
When: Through Saturday, June 18, 10:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. or midnight
Where: Bill Monroe music park, 5163 State Road 135 North, Bean Blossom
Cost: $20 to $30 per single day, $165 for all eight days, $5 off per day for teens ages 13-16, kids 12 and younger admitted free
Daily performance lineup and other information: beanblossom.us