I don’t remember for certain when I went to my first bluegrass festival. I think it may have been Smokey Greene’s festival in 1976. It rained and we got wet. I don’t remember for certain either who was there. I do remember meeting John Hull there. Sweet Cider was still more than a year away, but I was becoming more and more interested in bluegrass and all that it included, festivals being a big part of the music. Two years later, 1978, I went to the Berkshire Mountains Bluegrass Festival with my next door neighbor Russ Kaufmann and I was hooked.
Now I had already been to a pretty big music festival (Woodstock. No really. I was one of the people who really did get there. Honest!) so I think that was part of the attraction to bluegrass festivals for me. But I think for all of us it was the idea that we could go camping, drink beer, carry on and play and listen to music for three or four days straight. No matter that many times we were at the mercy of the weather, the entire experience had an almost magical mystical quality.
I’m pretty sure the first festival we went to as a group was the 1978 Corinth Bluegrass Festival. Tom and I had already been to a couple of festivals on our own, so it wasn’t too hard to talk Joe and Walt into going. The prospect of spending a whole weekend pickin’ was exciting, and we were also booked on Saturday to be in a parade and play in front of the Glove Theater in Gloversville.
If you were to ask me to describe in detail what went on at that festival, I’d be hard pressed to do it. I can tell you we drank a lot of beer, played music until the sun rose and got our first introduction to bands like Buck White and the Down Home Folks, The Hot Mud Family, The Bluegrass Cardinals and Jim and Jesse.
You can’t imagine how much fun it was at that festival for us. We probably laughed more than we had ever laughed in our lives. What fun!! No inhibitions! Just acting crazy together laughing at each others stupid jokes one minute and picking up our instruments and playing the next. We were meeting people too. Lots of folks would sit in with us on our jam sessions. Some became life-long friends and others we never saw again.
By the time we had to pack up and head for home on Sunday, we were confirmed bluegrass festival addicts and were making plans to return to Corinth in 1979. We decided we’d be better prepared and definitely make sure we brought more beer. It was a theme that would go on for years. Bigger and Better!!
True to our vow we returned to Corinth in 1979 better supplied and full of energy. Glenn was now part of the band and he was going to come to the festival on Saturday. Saturday was the day that always had the best energy. Friday was the day when everyone would arrive, set up camp and begin the party. The stage show would start around 6pm and by that time the folks that arrived early enough had a pretty good buzz on. People would be coming in all day and night, so there was quite a bit of activity.
The stage show would end around midnight, and then the party would continue at campsites around the grounds. You couldn’t go more than 20 or 30 feet without running into a jam session. Fiddles, banjos, dobros, guitars and acoustic bass and singing until dawn. If you liked music it was heaven. The hills were filled with the sounds of all the old bluegrass tunes.
And then there was us. Try as we may, we just could never get that old bluegrass sound. We tried but it just never came out sounding like it. So we played “Sweet Cider Music” and to our surprise folks would come and sit in with ‘us’!
Glenn came on Saturday and brought along his brother Dale and best friend Vinnie. Dale played banjo and Vinnie brought along his clarinet. I think that was the point where all hell broke loose. We started jamming and at some point Vinnie broke out the clarinet. What had started out as a bluegrass jam had morphed into some kind of bluegrass-polka band. The only thing missing was Jimmy Sturr and his accordion! People were giving us the strangest almost threatening looks as if we were desecrating sacred grounds. It was the first of many “don’t pay attention it’s only those cider guys acting up again” moments.
After disrupting the camping area we proceeded down to the stage area to listen to the music. Glenn spent some time talking to Buck White about his mandolin and mandolin playing in general. He described Buck’s mandolin as “a piece of shit!” “He’s got penny’s welded on as tuning pegs!!” Still Glenn did like Buck’s playing.
It wasn’t long after that we witnessed, quite possibly, the first instance of heckling at a bluegrass festival.
Joe Val was a very traditional bluegrass musician from New England. He was quite popular on the regional bluegrass circuit, and the folks at the Corinth festival were some of his biggest fans. Glenn’s brother could best be described as the polar opposite of Joe Val. Nontraditional, abrasive and loud are a couple more adjectives I’d use to describe Dale.
Midway through Joe Val’s set Dale exclaimed “This guy sucks!!!” Then he got up and headed towards the stage. Joe was playing a slow bluegrass ballad and the crowd was very quiet. As he reached an especially poignant part of the song Dale walked in front of the stage and yelled at the top of his lungs “YOU SUCK!!!” and proceeded to walk away. I was certain that at any minute there was going to be a lynching, or in the middle of the night a mob with torches and tar and feathers would be surrounding our little camp.
Our next festival was going to be the Berkshire Mountains Bluegrass Festival held in Hillside, NY held on the 3rd week in July. We decided we were going to enter the band contest, and Glenn was going to enter the fiddle contest. We were excited………..