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Music park filled with variety of acts

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In the hollows and dales south of Morgantown, the twang of bluegrass music reverberates through the forest.

Acoustic guitars strum out a crisp, steady, driving rhythm. Mandolins and banjos layer in waves of crystalline sound, while high tenor voices sing about faith, love and country living.

And around the shady stage, hundreds of people revel in the sound of pure Americana.

For more than 40 years, bluegrass legend Bill Monroe called a small slice of land in northern Brown County his home away from home. That land has been re-imagined as a tribute to Monroe and has become one of the more popular musical attractions in Indiana.

From the annual bluegrass festival that bears Monroe’s name to gospel, blues and harmonic festivals, music lovers of all kinds can find something they enjoy at Bill Monroe Music Park in Bean Blossom.

“Bill Monroe himself always did gospel music, and he was raised in that gospel music setting. At Bean Blossom, he still did the same thing,” said Larry Sparks, a longtime bluegrass and gospel musician. “It’s a tradition that’s carried on. I’m really glad to see it carry on.”

On the 55 acres that Monroe carved out of northern Brown County, a campground has been established with 500 tent sites, 237 hook-ups for water and electric and 13 cabins.

A 5-acre fishing lake sits in the middle of the heavily wooded property. Fishing and hiking keep people busy when the music isn’t playing.

“The outdoor setting, the beautiful backdrop, is great for an event,” said Bill Bailey, a minister and gospel music promoter. “It lends itself to that laid-back family atmosphere.”

But it’s the music that keeps people coming back. Festivals and concerts are lined up nearly every weekend in the summer, extending into the spring and fall.

A craft beer festival, Quafftoberfest, is slated to start this September. People come to the newly formed Morel Festival to celebrate the rare local delicacy and listen to eclectic rock, blues and bluegrass.

Bailey helped bring the Southern Gospel Jubilee to Bean Blossom five years ago. He worked with the music park’s owner, Dwight Dillman, to put together a family event.

People listen to some of the biggest stars in Southern-style gospel music, from Grammy Award-winner Jason Crabb to 40-year music veterans the Perrys together for one weekend.

“The Bill Monroe park has been known for bluegrass music for years. The owners of the park wanted to have a festival that was similar to the bluegrass but contained Southern gospel artists,” Bailey said.

None of this would be possible without Monroe’s interest in the area.

He is recognized as the father of bluegrass music and was the first mainstream artist to take the string-heavy sounds of Appalachia and bring it to the masses.

His tenor voice and unusual style of playing the mandolin established the blueprint for generations of musicians, according to Jim Peva, a former Indiana University professor and Bean Blossom historian.

Monroe first came to Brown County in 1951. At the time, he was already a star at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee, and he was slated to perform in the annual Brown County Jubilee.

He fell in love with the area, as it reminded him of the Kentucky hills where he grew up, Peva said. Monroe purchased the property where the jamboree was conducted in late 1951 and established it as a getaway and bluegrass music epicenter.

People came from all over the country to hear bluegrass’ top performers, as well as see Monroe play. Before forming the Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia drove across the country to Bean Blossom to try to join Monroe’s band.

The two-day Blue Grass Celebration festival was started in 1967 and has been going strong every summer since, Peva said.

Dillman, who purchased the campground and took over running the festival in 1998, attended his first bluegrass festival at Bean Blossom when he was 13. He played banjo in Monroe’s band in the 1970s and helped carry on Bean Blossom’s legacy as the heart of bluegrass after Monroe’s death in 1996.

The strength of the park is the diversity of acts that come to it.

Since the late 1990s, blues musicians have gathered on the park grounds for the Bean Blossom Blues Festival. For four days, people sit around tents and campfires exchanging notes on the harmonica, gather together for music tutorials and amass by the main stage for riffs and jams from national blues musicians.

Being in such a natural setting, with the woods all around them, lends to a different kind of festival atmosphere, founder John Hall said.

“There’s a real relaxed vibe and a sense of freedom. It’s almost like a hippie fest — an impromptu jam where you walk through and hear tons and tons of people playing,” he said.

Sparks has been coming to the Bill Monroe Music Park for generations. He began his bluegrass career in the 1960s as a guitarist with the Stanley Brothers, another iconic bluegrass group.

Over the years, he’s performed at the Grand Ole Opry, been recognized as the male vocalist of the year by the Bluegrass Music Association and was induced into the Bill Monroe Bluegrass Hall of Fame, located on the music park’s grounds.

He worked with Dillman to carry on the annual Bean Blossom Gospel Jubilee, which was founded in 1998.

“Bluegrass music has long had a tradition to have gospel music in it. It’s been that way since before I ever started in it. This will be all gospel,” Sparks said. “There’s a lot of fans out there that know about gospel music, but there’s a lot of people that don’t. We want to reach out to them.”

This year’s event will feature Sparks and his band, the Lonesome Ramblers, performing with 16 other national gospel acts. The festival has gained momentum in recent years, and Sparks wants to make sure it carries on.

Bluegrass and country music need a place like the Bill Monroe Music Park, Sparks said. Fans of the music can recall the atmosphere and setting where the genre was at its purest.

He’s willing to do what he can to ensure that the park is recognized by music lovers everywhere.

“Dwight Dillman’s heart is in this place, to keep this tradition going on,” Sparks said. “And why not? It’s very worthy to keep it going and keep it up.”

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