COEBURN, Va. -- It was an image that nicely summarized the whole event: There onstage stood Rhonda Vincent, dressed in a gold lamé vest and black miniskirt, cuddling a 3-month old baby and talking about Martha White Flour. How much more bluegrass could it get?
The occasion was Ralph Stanley's 35th annual Memorial Weekend Bluegrass Festival, held Thursday (May 26) through Saturday (May 28) at the Hills of Home Park on Smith Ridge near Coeburn, Va. Since last year, the site has undergone extensive renovations, including a doubling of the parking area and substantial enlargement of the covered shed that faces the stage. The park is more than 12 miles from the nearest town over narrow and twisting mountain roads.
Favored by good weather and such big-name talent as Vincent, Larry Sparks and country singer Josh Turner, this year's festival was one of the best-attended ever. In spite of its growth, the festival managed to maintain its family-friendly atmosphere. Adult tickets were $30 a day or $75 for the entire event. Food prices were minuscule compared to those at similar festivals (and ticket buyers were free to bring their own food). Security was polite and unobtrusive.
Although there was no official tribute to the late Jimmy Martin, a regular at the festival until last year when his illness forced him to cancel, several of the individual performers praised his artistry and dedicated songs to his memory. Martin died of cancer May 14.
Performing in addition to Vincent, Sparks and Turner over the three-day period were Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys, the Cherryholmes, the Lewis Family, Dave Evans & River Bend, the Bluegrass Brothers, the Bluegrass Strangers, the James King Band, Norman and Nancy Blake, Jim Lauderdale, the Kentucky Mountain Boys, the Marshall Family, Melvin Goins & Windy Mountain, Larry Sparks & the Lonesome Ramblers, the Dale Kennedy Band and Joe Isaacs & Mountain Bluegrass.
Isaacs filled in for Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, who had to bow out after Rawlings injured his arm. Several of the acts played two shows, and Stanley played a total of six shows over the three days. Judging from the audience reaction, Stanley continues to be the festival's chief attraction. Instead of performing new and unfamiliar material from his current albums, he tends to favor such old-time tunes as "Rocky Island," "Pretty Polly," "Rank Stranger," "Oh, Death" and "Room at the Top of the Stairs."
Looking every inch the bluegrass superstar she's become, Vincent drew ecstatic applause when she walked on stage for her opening day performance. Thoroughly at ease with the crowd, she was warm, witty and musically impeccable. Her set included such favorites as "Kentucky Borderline," "Driving Nails in My Coffin" and "When the Angels Sing." She also gave each member of her talented band -- banjoist Kenny Ingram, fiddler Hunter Berry, guitarist and vocalist Josh Williams and bassist Mickey Harris -- a chance to shine. Vincent's college-bound daughter, Sally, joined her to sing "One Step Ahead of the Blues."
The baby-holding incident occurred when Vincent reminded the audience that Martha White is sponsoring her tour. Within moments, she was tossing Martha White T-shirts into the crowd. Since some of the T-shirts were tiny, a young mother shouted out to Vincent that she had a 3-month-old who would like to have a shirt. Vincent promised to hold one for her until after the show; but the mother came to the front of the stage and held up her baby for Vincent to see. Impulsively, the singer reached down and took it. Then she carried the blanket-clad infant back to the microphone and continued her spiel.
As previously reported by CMT.com, Vincent informed the crowd she will be hosting a bluegrass cruise next February and headlining a Christmas tour later this year with the Cherryholmes family. An early champion of the Cherryholmes, Vincent invited two of the children -- Molly Kate and B.J -- to play fiddle for her while she sang the majestic "Last Best Place," a song she said she had performed at funeral services for Grand Ole Opry star Skeeter Davis. She dedicated this performance to Martin.
Momentarily abandoning her mandolin, Vincent took up the fiddle to join Berry and the Cherryholmes children for a tag-team treatment of "Orange Blossom Special." When the crowd demanded an encore, she brought Stanley to the stage to help her sing the old standard, "I'll Take the Blame."
Two people very close to Stanley debuted new albums at the festival -- Jack Cooke, his bass player for 35 years, and Jeanie Stanley, his late brother Carter's youngest daughter. Cooke's collection, which will be distributed by Koch, is called Sittin' on Top of the World. Stanley's album, on CMH Records, is titled Baby Girl: A Tribute to My Father, Carter Stanley. Both sang selections from their albums during Stanley's shows.
Turner, whose ominous "Long Black Train" has become a favorite with bluegrass bands, sang 10 songs on his Saturday night set, backed only by an acoustic guitarist, a Dobro player and his wife, Jennifer, on harmony vocals. He opened with "Paul and Silas," a traditional bluegrass hymn, and encored with "Folsom Prison Blues." Between these two staples, he trotted out several of his own compositions, including "Backwoods Boy," "Me and God," "Little Church in the Holler," "Long Black Train" and "Your Man," the last of which he said will be on his second album, expected to be out this fall.
One of Turner's more interesting songs was "White Noise," which he co-wrote with John Anderson. Its refrain includes the potentially provocative lines, "White noise coming from the white boys" and "Take me where those honkies are a tonkin'." Turner didn't say if he has recorded the song or plans to.
James King, who played two shows on Friday, dedicated his first to Carter Stanley, the lead singer of the Stanley Brothers from 1946 until his death in 1966. "If I had a third of the soul that Carter Stanley did," King observed, "I'd be good." Whatever King's fraction of soul, he sounded just fine on "Rank Strangers," "Thirty Years of Farming" and his current single, "Echo Mountain," a song that can wring tears from a stone.
Norman and Nancy Blake drew small but passionate crowds for their shows. The two singer-instrumentalists specialized in old and lesser-known songs, each of which Norman put into proper historical perspective. He told how June Carter had inspired him to write the wistful "Last Train From Poor Valley" while he was in a recording session for Johnny Cash. The Blakes' second show was an extended -- and fascinating -- history lesson, illustrated by songs from the Blue Sky Boys, the Binkley Brothers (aka the Dixie Clodhoppers), Bascom Lamar Lunceford and the Valdez Quartet.
As usual, Lauderdale brought one of the best bands -- and most musically open minds -- to the festival. He made his entrance with his own euphoric "I Feel Like Singing Today" and took an encore with the rousing "Bear Tracks," a song that instantly filled the concrete dance circle off to the side of the stage. He later stepped in with Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys to do his part on the raffish "She's Lookin' at Me." It was Lauderdale who nudged Cooke into recording his first solo album and then agreed to produce it.
While little heralded in professional bluegrass circles, the Bluegrass Strangers absolutely tore up the crowd every time they played. Their shows covered such traditional fare as "20/20 Vision," "Don't Give Your Heart to a Rambler," "Rock Salt and Nails," "Molly and Tenbrooks" and "Ida Red." Jim Lykins, the extraordinarily gifted lead singer, dedicated the final song of the band's last set, "Prayer Bells of Heaven," to "My dear friend, Jimmy Martin."
An avid car collector, Stanley had a few prizes from his collection on display and on sale at the festival, among them a 1984 black Porsche for $19,995, a 1985 maroon Zimmer for $41,500 and a 1964 white four-door Cadillac for $16,500.
Many of the festival's brightest moments were not on the schedule. These included Stanley's moving recitation of his "Hills of Home" tribute to his brother Carter, the Rev. Frank Newsome's triumphant a cappella rendering of "Gone Away With a Friend" and Jeanie Stanley's parking lot performance of her dad's haunting lament, "Who Will Sing for Me."
Sparks, who was in splendid voice despite the bone-chilling weather, closed the festival late Saturday night. Never one to overlook the chance for a musical pun, he began by serenading the dwindling crowd with "Leavin' Me" (which has the line "It's cold and getting colder") and "Winter in Miami."
Next year will mark Stanley's 60th year in show business. He promised the crowd that he'll mark the occasion by having some of the biggest acts ever at the 2006 festival.