Carlton Haney's Roanoke Labor Day Blue Grass Festival, Widely Recognized as The World's First Multi-day, Multi-band Bluegrass Festival, Fincastle, Virginia, 1965
Me and my camera with Doc Watson at Cantrell's Horse Farm, Fincastle, Virginia, Labor Day, 1965 photo: Peter Shenkin
Me with long-time friends and pickin' pals, Peter Craig and Larry Marshall at Fincastle photo: Mary Green
It was a long, straight shot down I-81 to the Route 220/Fincastle exit. My music buddy Peter Shenkin and I had no idea what to expect. All we had to go on was our love of bluegrass and a vague set of directions. We took the Fincastle exit and began looking for Carlton Haney’s First Annual Roanoke Bluegrass Festival. We found the turn-off and followed the dusty tire tracks across a pasture toward the tree line in the distance. Even before we reached the makeshift parking lot, we heard the thump of a stand-up bass wafting across the field on the hot late-summer breeze. Moments later we were navigating between small groups of musicians picking away. Back at school there were barely enough players to scrape together one band, but there we were, surrounded by bluegrass!
Most of my memories from Carlton’s first festival have faded into general impressions, but a few memories still stand out. I’d been listening to Bill Monroe recordings for a few years by then, but had never seen him live. I was impressed by his regal stature, tall and straight, supremely confident, impeccably dressed, with his white Stetson to finish "the look." When he spoke, his voice was as musical as when he sang, rhythmic, lyrical, right to the point. It made an interesting contrast to Carlton’s slow North Carolina drawl, especially during Carlton’s Sunday afternoon production of "The Bluegrass Sto-ry."
Jimmy Martin presented another type of interaction with Carlton. Jimmy was full of energy and attitude! I thought his wisecracking with Carlton bordered on disrespect, but I’ve since learned that that’s just Jimmy’s way. "Carlton told me to be serious," he said. "Well if I’m serious, he’s Roebuck!" he quipped.
The Stanley Brothers were very cool. They wore dark suits and ties, dark sunglasses, and loafers with white socks. Carter’s singing was almost conversational in its intimacy, while Ralph’s was more like the lonesome wind in the trees. George Shuffler was with them on his big Gibson Southern Jumbo guitar. George kept blinking his eyes rapidly, saying, "The sun, it effects my eyes…." During the Stanleys’ Saturday night show, hundreds of moths were swarming around the bare light bulbs and small floodlights that lit the stage. At one point, Carter opened his mouth to sing and inhaled one of the moths! He gagged and coughed it out, exclaiming, "Them chocolate bugs is alright, but them vanillers, I cain’t hardly stand them!"
Benny Martin was an absolutely commanding presence, physically and musically. He had a dashing swagger, and was all over every tune he played. He remarked that, "Once you can play bluegrass fiddle, you can play any kind of music – jazz, classical, anything." Bill Monroe, on stage with him at the time, seconded that opinion.
The highpoint of the weekend for me was the Sunday afternoon "Bluegrass Story." Carlton asked for complete silence from the audience. "We don’t want to hear a sound," he said, "just the wind in the trees." Then Bill played his famous mandolin introduction to Muleskinner Blues, and they were off! Bill was on stage for the whole show, with only a few minutes respite while the Stanley Brothers did two songs with their own band. Otherwise, it was a parade of former Blue Grass Boys taking their place at the mic with Bill. Ralph Rinzler was orchestrating things behind the scene, while Carlton was emceeing. Toward the end of the afternoon, Carlton introduced Bill’s then current band, Peter Rowan, Lamar Grier, Gene Lowinger, and Bill’s son James William. Because I was seated at the edge of the stage taping the show for Ralph Rinzler, I could hear all the off-mic conversation. Carlton introduced Bill’s son James, saying, "Here’s a young man who in future years is really going to have to bear down." I heard Bill say, under his breath, "He’s going to have to bear down right now!"
The Bluegrass Story was the festival finale. After the reprise of Muleskinner, and the encore of John Henry, Carlton thanked everyone for coming, and for being such a good crowd. "There wasn’t no fights, no trouble, or nothin’," he noted. All the way home, the sounds of the weekend were ringing in my ears. I even thought I could hear banjo picking in the radio static. (This shouldn’t surprise anyone!)
So, how did a college kid from up North even find his way to Cantrell’s Horse Farm? Actually, I wasn’t always from "up North." Born and raised in the Mid-West, I listened to the Opry Farm Show as a boy in Omaha. Later, living in a Chicago suburb, I listened to hillbilly radio station WLS and watched cowboy singer Bob Atcher’s TV shows. After I entered the University of Rochester, I inherited a folk music radio show from a graduating senior. That led to a position on a committee responsible for producing cultural events on campus. In that role, I was able to bring Doc Watson, among others, to our school. Ralph Rinzler was Doc’s manager at that time, and we became friends. Ralph kept me informed about his activities with Doc, and eventually as Bill Monroe’s manager.
In the spring of 1965, Ralph told me about a Labor Day weekend bluegrass festival that he was helping to organize near Roanoke, Virginia. He asked me if I’d be interested in helping out with the audio taping of the stage shows while he took care of staging. Well, boy howdy, yes! The rest is history....
Poster from the first multi-day Bluegrass festival at Cantrell's Horse Farm in Fincastle, VA, north of Roanoke, 1965

© Phil Zimmerman. Reproduction or duplication by written permission only.