Festival #18: MARCH 1994
Jessica Flanery, 7, left, and her brother, B.J. Hitchcock, 7, center, and sister Staci Flanery, 8, dance to the music Saturday.
(Photo: Michael Wilson/The Ledger)
draws all ages
AUBURNDALE Over a sea of retirees in
lawn chairs, kids eating candy apples and families looking for cheap
and lively entertainment, Bluegrass Festival organizer Carl Allen looked
at the biggest crowd of bluegrass music fans he had ever seen.
As best as he could estimate, 10,000 people were in attendance Saturday at the 18th annual Florida State Championship Bluegrass Festival, which is being held for the first time outside of its downtown Auburndale birthplace.
During the course of the 21/2-day hoedown, which continues today at International Market World on U.S. 92 with playoffs between the best of Florida's hillbilly bands, Allen expected the free event will have drawn 100,000 people from across the state and country.
"Coming down here was the best move I made for the show," said Allen, who believes the high exposure the old-time music is getting at the flea market will help keep it alive. "Bluegrass is coming back. It's the only true country and hillbilly music left.
"I hope when I'm gone this show will continue on and on."
Banjo player Brad Hanssen of the 1993 championship band White Sands Panhandle Band from Pensacola wants to make sure the festival keeps going year to year. It's his chance to compete for the prestigious title and prize money in front of bigger crowds than he's accustomed to in north Florida. "One thing about it, there's sure a lot of bluegrass fans down here," Hanssen said. "You can't go up in our part of the country and find 100,000 people to sit out and listen to bluegrass music.
"That makes you a little more nervous and makes you play harder."
Hanssen's strategy is simple: "You just got to go up there and kick some butt. You go up and give it all you got. You have to have your secret weapon songs."
If Elvis Presley's "Blue Moon of Kentucky" from his Sun Records label is a secret weapon, then the secret's out of the bag. More than a few bands grabbed this classic 1954 hit and made it a part of their 20-minute routine. But the original songs from the 17 bands booked by Allen outnumbered the popular ones.
Regardless of who was up on stage playing, Audrey Burkhart, who had come down from North Dakota to see her first Bluegrass Festival, was having a knee-slapping, hand-clapping, sunscreen-splashing good time. She was also happy to have a few extra dollars in her pocket from the admission she thought she would have to pay.
"It's wonderful," said Burkhart, who dressed for the occasion in blue jean overalls and a straw hat with a flower on top. "I was expecting to pay. When I got here, I said I'll enjoy it even more."
Other seasoned bluegrass fans were surprised they didn't have to spend any money to get into the festival. Some festivals cost as much as $20 and $30 for admission, they said.
"I can't believe that it's free," said retiree Fred Vinson of South Bend, Ind., who travels throughout the country to hear the music he grew up with in rural north Alabama. "It's the only one I've ever been to that was free. You'd think it would be some type of admission."
There was, however, a collection taken. The wiry Allen, who operates Allen's Historical Cafe in Auburndale, ambled up to the microphone Saturday and explained he was passing around jugs for people to give donations to help him defray costs if they wanted to help.
"You who are on a fixed income, you just rear back like you gave me a million," Allen said, adding that the reason he has never charged an admission to his bluegrass festivals is because he wants to help people who couldn't otherwise afford to see one of these shows.
Jeb Bush, the son of former President George Bush, who is running for governor also poked his head in to hear some of the tunes under the tent.
"If you want to talk politics on the side, that's fine; I'm here to enjoy the music. I am not going to compete with the music. I just want to say hello," Bush said up on stage, before getting a pat on the back from Allen and climbing down.
Later, Bush said he didn't consider himself a connoisseur of the musical genre - just a fan. But he lauded Allen's efforts to preserve what he called an important part of America's cultural history.
The festival will continue today from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. with playoffs scheduled for the bands who were selected finalists, and the popular duel between banjo players and fiddle players.