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From Hippie Hill to Woo-Ville

(tales from Festival of the Bluegrass)

and tales begin to spin

It was a warm June day in 1982 and I was about to attend my first bluegrass festival, in this case, the 9th annual Festival of the Bluegrass held at Masterson Station Park, in Lexington, Kentucky. The year or two prior to that, found Don and Sheila, Lee, and Tim, attending their first Festival of the Bluegrass. And even before that, our friend and spiritual guru, Bill, had discovered this magical gathering. It was Bill that pulled Don, Sheila, and Lee into this happening, and it was Tim, with his trusty park bench in tow, that lured me into the fold. That year found this troop of merry campers sharing Tim's park bench that had been strategically place at the front of the stage. This was the beginning of some lasting friendships that have grown stronger and stronger with each passing year.

That year found myself and my wife camped on a hillside, which I was later to learn, was referred to as Hippie Hill, and with very good reason, for there was the pungent aroma of bluegrass of another kind, floating down from that hillside. After all, most of us were still in the summer of our youth. Further down the hillside, at its foothills, Don and Sheila had claimed a plot of earth to homestead for the weekend. And even further down the hill, you found a small creek, which flowed behind the stage area. One could follow that creek due west until you found yourself on the opposite side of the creek from a camp that we fondly referred to as Bill-Ville.

Now if one wanted to drop in on this jovial band of campers, you could do so, literally, for at the opposite side of the creek was a large rope, on which, if daring enough, could be used to swing right into this creek side camp. Unfortunately, not every attempt to make this swinging entrance was met with success. Many a visitor would end up having to drag their mud-ridden bodies out of the creek and finish up the other side on foot. For those not so daring, you could carefully ford the creek without incident, usually.

Bill-Ville was a sight to behold, for once inside this camp; one would find couches, chairs, and even a tree house platform, complete with lounge chair, suspended in the tree above, looking out upon the stage. Over the course of the weekend, most visitors would find themselves in conversation with Bill-Ville's chief resident, which of course was Bill himself. A small man with a big heart and strong will, and always with a tale to spin. We soon came to look upon Bill as sort of a shaman; after all, he did have those peppers that were so hot that you felt like you were in a spiritual groove. There were from time to time, folks who would find themselves in Bill's company, discussing how they had gotten into the festival without paying. Well that didn't set well with our shaman Bill and they were met with heated debate on the evils of cheating your way through life. Bill could have you feeling like you ought to say 10 Hail Mary's, and beg the All Mighty for forgiveness.

Those were our formative years. The years that our friendships blossomed and our love for bluegrass music grew stronger. And then came 1989 and the festival was moving back to where it was born, The Kentucky Horse Park. It was like a new frontier for this band of bluegrass travelers. We didn't know what to expect of our new home, but regardless, we were on the move.

That first year at the Horse Park found Tim and myself in the role of scouts. It was up to us to find the ideal campsite for this band of gypsies. As we pulled into the campground, we were on the lookout for a shade tree, when we spotted what seemed to be the largest shade tree in the entire campground, so we just sorta gravitated in that direction. As luck would have it, this tree was at the entrance of a thicket of tall pines. Upon further investigation, we discovered a campsite that was made to order, plenty of clearing under the pines, and an abundance of shade and shelter, and as luck would have it, the stage area was only a hundred yards or so, away. This was it! This was our new festival home. So being the competent scouts that we were, we sent word back to rest of the caravan, that we had found a place to circle the wagons and bed down for the weekend. Directions were delivered, when entering the campground, look left and spot the biggest shade tree and make a B-line towards it.

As it turns out, the folks who stumbled down off Hippie Hill, into the camp of Bill-Ville were about to make an alliance and converge on this site. Thus a merger was created.

It was also at this time that this band of gypsies drink of choice, being the good Kentuckians that we were, was straight Kentucky Bourbon, and in this case, Eagle Rare 101. Their motto states: "one in every thirty-seven barrels laid down is judged fine enough to become Eagle Rare." They also boast that "in your hands you hold the finest Kentucky Bourbon made, period". Let me tell ya, when a shot of that hit your pallet, it made ya wanna holler, Wooooo!!!! Thus Woo-Ville was born.

In those early days of Woo-Ville, our camp would consume, over the course of the weekend, as many as 15 bottles of this nectar of the gods. And with each bottle, we would place the empty on a knob jutting out from a tall pine that we affectionately dubbed the Dead Eagle Tree. Though I must confess that with each passing year, and our advancing ages, that number has dwindled to much less.

Many new faces have joined the fold since our arrival at Woo-Ville, and with that, many new stories of friendship. There was Annette, who showed up that first year in the pines, with her two lovely daughters and a gaggle of girls in tow. It seems it was Mary Elizabeth's, her youngest, birthday, and she had brought along some friends to help her celebrate. Someone said they looked like a troop of girl scouts, and to this day they are fondly referred to as the girl scouts, though the girls are quick to point out that neither of them were ever scouts. No matter, it's still great to have them with us every year.

And then there's Gil, whom we've donned our resident fire chief because of his quick response in dousing a propane tank fire at a nearby campsite as we all stood and cheered his heroics. Gil did come with some fine credentials, for he spent many years as a member of the Lexington Fire Department.

But the strangest tale of brotherhood has to be the year that Al and Melinda came into the fold. It seems that this couple was living the real gypsy life during the 1995 festival. They were tent camping in the pines while working for Rand McNally, in Versailles, and didn't have a clue that a bluegrass festival was about to converge on them. As it happened, this gypsy couple had a problem with their tent and had to return it to Wal-Mart in Georgetown, so there were no tell-tale signs of life in the pines, when I arrived to set up camp. To my delight, the campsite next to mine had a picnic table that I was about to lay claim to for the weekend. When Al and Melinda returned to find that their picnic had walked away to the next campsite, they were not happy campers. If those looks that I was receiving from Melinda had been lethal, Woo-Ville would have had one less resident.

and now for the rest of the story...

It seems that Don had received word that the pines was filling up pretty quick and that he needed to come on out and setup camp as soon as possible. So in the late evening hours on Tuesday, Don showed up only to find that our usual campsite was already taken, not knowing that I was already there and had already claimed homesteading rights to our Woo-Ville home. So in the late night confusion, Don navigated to the campsite of Al and Melinda, and asked if it would be okay to pitch a tent on the outskirts of their camp. In their late night conversation, Don told this couple of the impending bluegrass festival that was about to take place, and as the talk continued, this couple told Don of the lowdown, rotten scoundrel that had stolen their picnic table earlier in the day. Imagine Don's surprise when the light of day revealed who the picnic-stealing culprit happened to be. As it turns out, Al and Melinda were invited into our camp and friendships were forged and laughs were had by all. The 1997 festival saw Al and Melinda attending their third Festival of the Bluegrass, with promises to return each year, even though they now live 8 hours away.

The second weekend in June has also become a family gathering, for most of us have lured our families into this happening. Some were with us from Masterson Station days, and some have come into the fold since, but once you have 'em hooked, they just keep coming back. We have also had the pleasure of watching our children grow, many into adulthood, what at times seem to be right before our eyes. Hopefully they will be able to take something from these life lessons with them into their futures.

The years of Festival of the Bluegrass have been particularly kind to us, yet not totally without incident. There was the first year back to the Horse Park, when Tim and myself showed up on Tuesday to setup camp, and were immediately greeted by a visit from Jean, informing us that we were a day too early and could not set up camp. Not wanting to make the 60-mile trip back home, only to return the next day, the discussion got a little steamy to say the least. Jean, being such a strong-willed lady, wasn't about to bend on this one. It was at that time that the mild-mannered Bob Cornett stepped in and asked Tim and myself to take a ride around the park with him. Anxious to find some sort of solution to our woes, we gladly accepted Bob's invitation. Actually Bob was giving Jean a little time to de-stress and gather her thoughts after our altercation, before approaching her with trying to find a solution to this situation. As it turned out, Bob was quite the mediator, and solutions were found. We all gained a lot of respect for Bob and Jean Cornett on that hot, June day.

As you might guess, this is a diverse band of bluegrass travelers, for we come from all walks of life. We have among us those who are teachers, and those that are construction and factory workers. Also there are those who work in retail and those who work in the money market. We even have in our midst those who work for the government, though they keep a low profile as to not provoke the fine opinionated folks of Woo-Ville.

The nucleus of our group was brought together by one common denominator, that being The Seldom Scene. Their music appealed to our youthful souls at a time in which the music we had grown up with had for the most part became stale and repetitive. Through the years we have been exposed to the pioneers of bluegrass music, in Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, Jim and Jesse, Chubby Wise, etc., and also to the ones that will carry the bluegrass torch into the 21st century, in J.D. Crowe, Ricky Skaggs, Tony Rice, Peter Rowan and Alison Krauss, just to name a few. All this has been made possible by the hard work and dedication of Bob and Jean Cornett and their wonderful clan. And to that, the folks of Woo-Ville would like to say, Thanks!

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