Mandolin whiz Sam Bush and country legend Marty Stuart headline this weekend's Eureka Springs Bluegrass Festival, an event that's steadily growing into one of the state's premier music festivals. Now in its fifth year, the festival has hosted the likes of Doc Watson, Ralph Stanley and Jesse McReynolds in the past. But more than the big names, the event flourishes because of the region's thriving bluegrass community, the pickers and the grinners who'll circle up anywhere there's a soft spot to sit and more than two are gathered.
Thousands are expected. The historic City Auditorium will serve as the main venue for the headliners, but the entire city is sure to catch the fever. There will be a steady pickin' session in Basin Spring Park, mandolins and banjos in the streets, instruments squeezed under chairs in restaurants and late-night hotel jams.
A watermelon social, with free melon and festival musicians mingling and picking, kicks off the event on Thursday at 6 p.m. There are guitar and fiddle workshops early on Friday, but the first major show happens at 2 p.m., when Sam Bush, perhaps the world's greatest mandolin player, performs. As a co-founder and the leader of the New Grass Revival, the former child prodigy is widely viewed as one of the fathers of newgrass, a progressive strand of bluegrass that borrows ideas from other genres, especially rock 'n' roll. Through the years, Bush has toured and recorded with Bela Fleck, Emmylou Harris, Lyle Lovett, David Grisham and Garth Brooks. Still vital and innovative today, Bush's latest album is last year's “Laps in Seven,” a release that finds him mixing traditional bluegrass with progressive jazz. Expect the same from his live shows at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. at the City Auditorium.
Thirty-year vets the Tennessee Gentlemen, from Memphis, open the 2 p.m. show, along with local act the Williams Family and promising Harrison group Buffalo City Ramblers. Little Rock's Old School Bluegrass Band kicks off the 7:30 p.m. show with the Ozark Alliance, a Salem, Mo., family act comprised of two teen-agers on fiddle and guitar, a 3-year-old mandolin and fiddle player and mom and dad on banjo and upright bass. Also, Ronnie Reno carries on the legacy set by his father, the legendary Don Reno, in the 7:30 p.m. opening slot.
Still Nudie-suited and finger-in-a-light-socked coiffed, Marty Stuart plays on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. With a career stretching back to early childhood (he was a prodigy who got his start playing with Lester Flatt) that's included runs playing in bands with Vassar Clements, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Waylon Jennings, Stuart doesn't give any indication that he's slowing down. Earlier this year he produced the acclaimed new album by Porter Waggoner and last year he recorded a live album at the Ryman Auditorium. Long one of country's leading new traditionalists, you can bet that Stuart can dish out some bluegrass. Festival favorite the Nelson Family, Ronnie Reno and the Buffalo City Ramblers open.
Earlier in the day, six acts will battle it out in the “Best Bluegrass Contest” at Basin Spring Park at 10 a.m. Ronnie Reno and the Reno Tradition headlines the 2 p.m. set, with repeat performances by the Tennessee Gentleman, Old School and a special appearance by bass wizard Irl Hess.
Joe McClung, a local raconteur, real-estate dynamo and owner of the Rodeway Inn (ground-zero for the late night jams), is the founder of the festival and its chief promoter. A native of Walnut, Kansas, McClung grew up performing gospel, folk and bluegrass with his 10 siblings, appearing on radio and TV as soon as he was school age. Make sure you catch him and his family as they perform at the Sunday pre-show, which segues into the gospel show at 2 p.m. Mare Winningham, an acclaimed singer and guitarist, headlines. The Williams Family, Nelson Family and Ozark Alliance all perform.
Even those with just a passing introduce in bluegrass, will do well to remember that it's predicted to be a good 7 to 10 degrees cooler this weekend in Eureka Springs than in Central Arkansas.