Before New York had Woodstock, Indiana had Bean Blossom.
It’s just a notch in the road to motorists heading south from Indy on State Road 135 en route to the art colony at Nashville or Brown County State Park.
But to folks who know bluegrass, it’s Mecca — home to the nation’s oldest, continuously running bluegrass festival launched in 1967 by the legendary singer and mandolin-picker Bill Monroe. (Woodstock, a one-time three-day rock ‘n roll concert, came two years later.)
“Most Hoosiers have never heard of Bean Blossom, but all the bluegrass people in the world know where it is, and a lot of them come to it,” says Jim Peva, historian for Bill Monroe Music Park & Campground and a longtime friend of Monroe.
Acclaimed as the “father of bluegrass” in his New York Times obituary, Monroe was born in 1911 in Kentucky and spent most of his career in Tennessee, where he performed regularly on Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. But his story as a performer really began in Indiana.
At age 18, Monroe moved to Whiting to join two of his older brothers working at the Sinclair Oil Refinery. They formed a band that played publicly for the first time on radio stations in Hammond and Gary and performed in traveling country music shows.
The brothers went their separate ways in 1938, liberating Monroe to become “his own man,” as biographer Richard D. Smith put it. He put together a new band with a new sound: Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys, from which the genre took its name. The group featured Monroe on the mandolin, singing blues-like solos in high keys, with fiddle, guitar, banjo and bass accompaniment.
Sidemen came and went — more than 200 of them over the years — but one in particular contributed to their distinctive tone: banjoist Earl Scruggs with his unusual three-finger picking method.
It’s not certain when Monroe paid his first visit to Bean Blossom, site of the Brown County Jamboree Barn that had been entertaining locals since 1943. Peva suspects it was 1951 when the Blue Grass Boys were booked to play there. Monroe took an immediate liking to the place and bought it.
Under Monroe’s watchful eye and brother Birch’s management, Bean Blossom became a bluegrass cultural center, drawing crowds and Opry stars to spring and fall jamborees.
In June 1967, “a new era began at the old park with a modestly advertised but momentous event: Bill Monroe’s first bluegrass festival.” The event combined top talent, instructional workshops, a Sunday morning gospel service and a whole lot of jamming in the campground. The inaugural festival lasted two days, was attended by “a few hundred people” and netted Monroe $1,700, according to Thomas A. Adler, author of a 2011 book on Bean Blossom’s role in American music history. It grew into a weeklong event attracting thousands — a prototype for bluegrass festivals elsewhere.
Monroe died in 1996, and the facility was sold to businessman Dwight Dillman, who renovated it and dedicated it to Monroe’s memory. Campsites are available May through October; the park hosts a half dozen or so events a year, including the June festival, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2016.
Adjacent to the campground, a museum displays memorabilia from Monroe’s life and from famous acquaintances including Jimmy Martin and Dolly Parton. The collection includes a piano played by Minnie Pearl and Del Wood in the old Brown County Jamboree Barn.
This is part a series of essays about Hoosier history that will lead up to the celebration of the state’s bicentennial in December. Andrea Neal is an adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.