The show will go on. . .Historic Sandy Ridge bluegrass concert is Saturday
It was looking like the end of the road for a Sandy Ridge tradition that started when the legendary bluegrass duo Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs came to town for a concert over 60 years ago.
That was until Jay Adams of Pine Hall got involved.
“There wasn’t gonna be one this year,” Adams says of the concert that has been held since 1948. “I felt like with all that history associated with that concert, it was worth a try to try and revive it.”
The roots of this longstanding tradition reach all the way back to some of the pioneers of bluegrass music. In 1948, Cleo Lemons of Sandy Ridge heard on the radio that Flatt and Scruggs were parting company with Bill Monroe, one of the founding fathers of bluegrass. It was then that Lemons took a gamble that paid off.
He wrote a letter to Flatt and Scruggs, asking if they would consider coming to Sandy Ridge to do a bluegrass concert at the local school, sponsored by the American Legion. They replied that they would, and they came every year after that until they split up.
Lemons recalls that the first time he saw Flatt and Scruggs, they drove up with Mac Wiseman, Jim Shumate and Howard Watts—other bluegrass headliners—in a 1937 two-door Ford with a bass on top and instruments and sound equipment in the back. The Sandy Ridge concert was one of the first things that Flatt and Scruggs did as a group. Adams notes that in one of their many interviews, the duo said they had played the Sandy Ridge show more than any other, except for the Grand Ole Opry.
Flatt and Scruggs even brought some of their Opry friends with them to Sandy Ridge, including the Osborne Brothers and Jim and Jesse. Adams attended many of those concerts. He admits he stayed home from one when another Opry act was slated to perform—Jam Up and Honey, a comedy act.
There was one year that it looked as if the show might not go on. In 1969, the yearly event was scheduled for Friday, Mar. 7. Posters made on an old wood-type press had already been sent out for the Flatt and Scruggs concert. But on the Saturday before the show, the duo broke up after their Grand Ole Opry performance. Flatt, however, saved the day by bringing the Osborne Brothers to Sandy Ridge to do the show.
An interesting thing related to this near-cancellation happened years later. When someone interested in reproducing the types of posters made on the old wood-type press ran some paper stock through the old machine, the poster that came out was the one announcing the 1969 Flatt and Scruggs show that never took place in Sandy Ridge. Use of the machine had been discontinued after running those posters.
Adams says that particular poster is in the Country Music Hall of Fame now.
Flatt remained loyal to the Sandy Ridge show until his health began to decline before his death in 1979.
Still, the tradition continued. The Osborne Brothers came annually after that. Then the Lewis Family out of Lincolnton, GA, began to help. Later, Jim and Jesse assisted the Lewis Family.
According to Adams, after those groups were no more, the Sandy Ridge concert was still held annually but no longer with Grand Ole Opry acts. Regional people and groups stepped in to fill the gap.
For the last few years, the show has been sponsored by the Sandy Ridge Ruritans. Lemons is still a Ruritan but is about 90 years old now. Adams explains that putting on the annual festival had gotten “to be too much for [Lemons]” and they were going to “let the thing run its course.”
But Adams, who plays banjo and sings in an area bluegrass band, Rich In Tradition, couldn’t stand to see the end of something that had such deep and historic roots.
“It’s almost like a generation has passed now,” Adams says. “[The Sandy Ridge show] started in 1948. A lot of people these days—they’re just not familiar with the history of it. It’s not been publicized, and it’s been looked over a lot of times.”
Adams began talking up the show and looking for sponsors in Dec. 2010. He talked to the owner of his bluegrass group’s
recording company, Mountain Roads in Bristol, TN, who became interested in the idea of continuing this historic event. Before long, Adams had 25 other sponsors as well. A list of these can be seen at www.richintraditionbluegrass.com.
“It’s got enough history involved in it; there’s gonna be some interest in maintaining it,” he believes.
Doug Hutchens, a bluegrass expert who now teaches at Piney Grove Middle School, will be the concert’s Master of Ceremonies. He, like Adams, stresses the history of the show.
“It’s one of the last of the schoolhouse shows that was so important to the evolving country music business,” he explains. “All of the Grand Ole Opry Acts worked existing buildings that were close to the people during the ‘30's, ‘40's and ‘50's. You have to remember this was the day where a family was lucky to have one vehicle, and with the roads of the day, to travel 10 miles from home and at night was like driving to the other end of the earth.”
Hutchens, who used to travel and play with Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys, relates how shows were done in town theaters and county courthouses but that the favorite locales were school auditoriums due to their larger capacities. The performers would try to get to the school before the kids left for the day and perhaps even do a short show for them as an advertisement for the night show.
Adams, who has been playing bluegrass for about 30 years, feels that with the first generation bluegrass folks coming to an end, there’s an interest right now in the history of the music. He credits the International Bluegrass Music Association and how they “do their thing just like the CMA and all that” with helping to spread an interest in this genre of music.
So Adams insists that it’s crucial to preserve the Sandy Ridge event. “There’s nowhere you’re gonna find a concert that’s been running continuously as long as that one has. . .and to have hosted the acts that have been up there. . .It needs to be a little effort put in to trying to revitalize it,” he declares.
The event has been held at what is now the Sandy Ridge Elementary School almost every year. Lemons remembers that when the original school auditorium was torn down in the ‘70’s, the show moved to North Stokes High School for a year or two before returning to the school in Sandy Ridge.
Through the years, the show has been held as a fundraiser for various organizations, from the American Legion to the local fire department to the Ruritans. This year, the concert will benefit the school itself.
Adams explains that the sponsors will cover the basic expense to put on the show so that proceeds from ticket sales can go directly to the school. “That’s gonna get people interested in it that might not have been,” he predicts. “It’s never been done this way.”
Tickets are $12 in advance, $15 at the door. Children age six to 12 are $6, with children under six, free.
Headliners for this year’s show are Rich In Tradition and Junior Sisk and Rambler’s Choice, who have the number one bluegrass album in the nation right now. Music begins at 7 p.m. and will last probably until about 10 p.m., Adams estimates.
Each group is slated to do one 45-minute set before a brief intermission. At the end of that break, Lemons, who is the guest of honor along with his wife, will go on stage with Hutchens. Hutchens, who used to have his own syndicated bluegrass radio show, will interview Lemons who will tell stories surrounding the earlier concerts.
Adams is confident that this year’s show will be one of many more to come. “Hopefully the right ones will see it and see that it’s worthwhile to keep it going and give it the recognition it deserves,” he says.
For more information or advance tickets, call Jay Adams at (336) 932-5664.