Archive for Friday, February 8, 2002

Traditional acoustic musicians gather for Free State Festival

February 8, 2002


Maybe the music-going public has finally experienced enough of the techno beats, choreographed dance moves and buzzsaw guitars that characterize modern entertainment. Because one of the hippest sounds out right now stems from a humble style that is decades old.

"Thirty years after college-age audiences first caught on to folk and bluegrass music in the late '60s/early '70s, they're sort of discovering it again," said Leo Eilts, a co-producer of the Free State Music Festival, a two-day event this weekend at the Lawrence Holidome. "Lawrence is typical of that. That's why I think this is so opportune, because there really has never been an indoor bluegrass/acoustic-type festival held here before."

The current resurgence of this Americana sound is largely due to last year's Depression-era comedy "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" As much as filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen's modest hit exposed audiences to fine renditions of classic bluegrass tunes, the soundtrack was a bona fide blockbuster. The record went triple platinum and took home Album of the Year honors at the Country Music Awards.

"That soundtrack was tremendously successful despite getting virtually no airplay," Eilts said. "The commercial music industry has given short shrift to this whole phenomenon. But it's something that the practitioners of the art are pretty much used to. ... The support for music like ours has always been largely underground. You don't realize that this music is so popular until you walk into a place like Winfield and see 15,000 people there."

Eilts and his team weren't expecting to create an event that would compete with Winfield's renowned Walnut Valley Festival. But they needed an appropriate venue in the area that was large enough to hold some genuine headliners. And they required a main space that could house a guitar show, with smaller rooms for auxiliary activities like jam sessions. The somewhat unconventional choice was Lawrence's Holidome.

But as with any music-based festival, the true focus became the artists.

"We were looking for good, traditional, indoor acoustic acts to anchor this thing," said Eilts, who also plays string bass in the Kansas City band Spontaneous Combustion. "And it's a funny thing  since the advent of the 'O Brother' movie, the prices have jumped. Jim and Jesse McReynolds were the first people we contacted, because we already had that budget laid out. And thankfully, they wanted to play. Of the bluegrass pioneers that are out there, Jim and Jesse represent one of the original brother acts."

Genetic harmony

"Everybody has their own idea about music, but we've always tried to create our own thing," said singer-guitarist Jim McReynolds, who's been playing professionally with his younger sibling since the late 1940s. "Like Jesse's mandolin style is different from anything anybody has ever created on the mandolin. If you have your own identity in the business, that will set you apart from the other acts."

Speaking from his home just outside of Nashville, McReynolds reminisced on the humble origins of bluegrass  a style that his duo would eventually help define.

"We grew up in the mountains of Virginia, so we called it mountain music," he said. "A lot of people referred to it as hillbilly music in the early days."

Born into a musical family (their grandfather Charles was a fiddler who recorded for RCA Victor), the boys started playing professionally in their early 20s. Embarking on a circuit that included barn dances and other rural venues, they began appearing on an assortment of Southern radio stations as regulars.

Despite the ties to Virginia and Tennessee, the McReynolds actually became Kansans for part of their career.

"We spent about a year in Wichita in the early '50s," he recalled. "We worked at KFBI Â it's now KFDI (101.3 FM and 1070 AM). The program we were doing was called 'The KFBI Ranch Boys.' We were singing a lot of cowboy songs then. I always thought it helped us a lot with the harmony things that we've recorded since."

The veteran pair has accumulated a number of honors over the years, including being recognized by President Clinton in 1996 with a National Heritage Fellowship. But when pressed to name the highlight of their career, the 74-year-old alluded to much earlier episodes.

"Back in the '50s, the greatest thing that could happen to an artist was to land a recording contract with a major record company. In 1952 when we signed with Capitol, it represented quite a step we'd made in the business to try and get something established. Of course, not long after that, Jesse went to Korea," said McReynolds, who himself fought in World War II. "But what I look at as the grand highlight is when we joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1964."

"They're just one of the great bands," said Kory Willis, who handles mandolin and vocal chores for Lawrence's Midday Ramblers. "Some of the old guys you go see because it's nice to see one of the classics, but you don't expect them to be all that good  but they're just great. I saw them just last fall at a festival; I saw them three times. They're not just rehashing it."

Willis, who co-owns Love Garden Sounds, 936 1/2 Mass., lists the brothers as a major influence. And the McReynolds' independent attitude is one adopted by his Ramblers quartet.

"We try and do songs our own way," he explained. "We give some edge to it, put some guts to it. That's the way bluegrass originally was. When (bluegrass originator) Bill Monroe came to the Opry, it drove everybody crazy because it was such a new sound. I won't say it was like punk rock, because I hate when people say that. But in a way it was. It was a shocking sound that was really driving and fast."

Grass roots

"Bluegrass music is best defined by its instrumentation," Eilts said. "If you hear a banjo, fiddle, guitar, mandolin and possibly a dobro, chances are real good that it's got bluegrass in its origin. Beyond that, the vocals are still that high lonesome sound."

Most fans credit Kentucky mandolinist Bill Monroe with christening the style. The musician built his approach around tuning his instruments higher and singing up an octave because the sound systems of the day weren't efficient at reproducing lower tones.

"It was a style of music that was designed for the microphone," Eilts said. "Those high harmonies and those tenor-sounding instruments were specifically designed to be able to project out to a large audience."

However, trying to explain bluegrass to someone who is unfamiliar with the genre isn't necessarily practical using just words.

"I'd have to play it for them," offered Willis. "People have different perceptions of it  everything from 'Deliverance' to Alison Krauss."

Pickin' and grinnin'

Eilts and his partners at Total Entertainment and The Prater Family Music Show are hoping for 500 paid attendance at the Free State Music Festival  which is the production's break-even point. But the event can accommodate as many as 1,200. The promoters expect to draw approximately half the audience from beyond Lawrence, and so far, advance ticket sales are primarily coming from out-of-towners.

Single show tickets are $10, a single day pass is $15 and a weekend pass is $25. Children 12 and under are free. For more information, call (913) 381-3856 or visit the Web site at

"I'm thrilled that there's this renewed interest in bluegrass music," Eilts said. "And as a promoter, I hope it pays off in attendance at the gate."

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