July 26, 1979
Having already won First Place at the Mayfield Bluegrass band contest and fresh from the Corinth Bluegrass Festival, we decided our next stop would be the 4th Annual Berkshire Mountains Bluegrass Festival down in Hillsdale, NY. The Berkshire Festival was gaining popularity as one of the top bluegrass festivals in the country and the top acts were showing up every year, so it was natural for us to want to be there. We were also anxious to enter the band and fiddle contests.
The band and fiddle contests attracted first rate amateur and semi-professional participants, and we felt we were ready to try our hand at them. The winners of both contests would be awarded a monetary prize, and a chance to perform the following day (Friday) as part of the entertainment.The contests themselves took place during the day on Thursday. This was a great opportunity for us to play in front of a really large crowd, through a top notch sound system, on what was becoming a renowned stage. We were psyched.
We left Schenectady early Thursday morning. Tom, Joe and Walt were planning on staying the entire weekend, and Glenn and I would be heading home after the show, so I rode with him. I wasn’t going to be able to stay for the whole weekend as I had other commitments and Glenn was going to go back on Saturday. We needed to get to festival site before noon so we could sign up and find out when we’d be going on…..
The Berkshire festival was held on the Rothvoss farm close to the hamlet of Ancramdale in
Columbia county. The festival site with the stage, concessions and camping areas was located on top of an enormous hill. Most of the year it was farm pasture and a hay field, but for a few weeks in July it became a small town filled with bluegrass fans.
As you drove up a mile or two from the site, you could see brightly colored tents dotting the landscape.The beginnings of a small city. When you arrived at the entrance you would exchange your tickets for a wristband, color coded to denote who were day visitors and who would be camping. Next you’d be directed to a dirt road leading to the top of the hill. Who knew what adventures were waiting.
When we got to the top of the hill we parked near the stage and went to sign in for the two contests. For the band contest one of us was going to have to pick a number out of a hat to decide the order the bands were going to appear. There was no way that we wanted to go on first. It was always awkward to be the first contestant in a band contest. The sound folks hadn’t really dialed in yet, and the first band was more or less a guinea pig. We did not in any way want to go on first. With 12 or 13 bands signed up to play, we felt we had a pretty good chance of doing well if we played no earlier than fifth, but there was no way we wanted to go on first.
Glenn was chosen to draw for position since he was going to be picking for his spot in the fiddle contest too. As he went off to pick from the hat we told him to make sure he didn’t pick number one. He assured us he wouldn’t. Fifteen minutes Glenn came back grinning. “Hey guys I got number three for the fiddle contest” and then he started laughing “and number one in the band contest.” We were doomed.
The band contest began at noon and due to Glenn’s great luck we kicked things off. Now I can’t tell you what songs we played or how well we played them, but I’m sure we gave it our best shot. We did not sound like any of the other bands, they all had that high lonesome pure bluegrass sound, and I’m sure that had something to do with our not making the finals. Still it was a fun experience.
The fiddle contest was a different story. There were only five entries. Walt and I were going to accompany Glenn on the three songs he had picked. Once again I don’t remember the songs, although I’m pretty sure that Glenn being Glenn, played two songs he had written. These were not your typical fiddle songs. Another case of going against the grain.
Now apparently we did a pretty good job with the fiddles tunes, because Glenn was chosen as one of the finalists. There was one problem though. We had played all the songs we rehearsed, so we had to hastily practice one song for the finals. Our confidence was rather low for that last shot at “stardom”, but we did our best and hiked up the hill to sit and watch the other two contestants. After hearing the next contestant we felt we had a chance to win but there was a buzz going on about the next fiddler to play. He had been given a bye in the preliminary’s so we didn’t know if he was any good or not, but word had it he had been traveling to bluegrass festivals around the country entering and winning fiddle contests along the way.
When this person began to play, it was apparent that he was a ringer. He played some of the most amazing fiddle we’d ever heard. Note after note soared through the mountain air that evening bringing the crowd to their feet in thunderous applause. Third place was announced and it was neither Glenn nor the amazing fiddler. We waited with great anticipation as the winner was announced. “And the winner is….Mark O’connor.” And that’s who Glenn placed second to at the 4th Annual Berkshire Mountains Bluegrass Festival.
After we had listened to the show that evening, Glenn and I headed back home. Joe, Walt and Tom spent the weekend at the festival and had a great time. We decided after that weekend that we’d be going back for the 5th annual festival the following year, and we’d make it an even bigger event. We started making plans the following week.