Bluegrass festivals, like most things in life, need a sense of purpose.
Dean Osborne realized that years ago when he began a dual artistic life as promoter of regional string-music events while furthering his career as banjo picker and bandleader.
"It seems like the one thing bluegrass festivals needed to be successful was a reason to be," he said.
That's why Osborne has remained the principle guiding and organizational force behind the J.D. Crowe Bluegrass Festival. Now in its ninth year, the festival has maintained its intimate community feel because it honors Jessamine County's foremost ambassador to the bluegrass world. It says so, right in the event's name.
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"When you have a festival that honors J.D. Crowe, who is Central Kentucky's living, breathing hometown legend, when you also have a chance to honor the bluegrass lifestyle in Central Kentucky with the help of a lot of dedicated people and sponsors ... well, it would be pretty hard to go wrong with a combination like that."
The Crowe community
Anyone who has met or known Crowe over his working lifetime — a lifetime that has taken the Grammy-winning banjo stylist from roadwork with bluegrass icon Jimmy Martin to Lexington clubs with fellow bluegrass journeyman Doyle Lawson to the numerous incarnations of his own band, New South — will tell you he isn't one to readily buy into celebrity status.
So how does Lexington-born Crowe feel about a festival that bears his name?
"Well, it makes me feel very good," Crowe said last week from his home in Nicholasville. "I'm just tickled to death about it. I'm glad we've been able to have it for as long as we have, because with these things you never know. There are always people and factors to deal with. The economy is a big factor, too. So far, though, it works. Last year, I think our attendance was up about 17 percent."
To borrow a battered slogan, growth, when it comes to bluegrass festivals, is good. But the Crowe gathering is still a modest affair. Though it uses Ichthus Farm as its performance home, the festival maintains the feel of a community event. All are welcome, of course. But the event, in Crowe's mind, is as much about celebrating Jessamine County as it is his own music.
"That's always what we have tried to capture," Crowe said. "A lot of festivals, as you know, strictly go with the music. And that's fine. We work a lot of events like that, and people always have a good time. But this one is more community- and family-oriented than some of the other festivals."
Said Osborne: "A lot of festivals are set up strictly for the fans or for the campers or become very specific to the people they want to draw. Our festival in Wilmore has really morphed into a broad-spectrum family event.
"I think the people of Jessamine County love having an event like this. They love J.D. They love where they live. And they love the idea we're having a show where anybody can come and feel at home. There are festivals that are party festivals. That's fine. But this is not one of them."
The next generation
Osborne's investment in the Crowe festival goes beyond that of a normal business enterprise. For three years, he also has spearheaded the Kentucky School of Bluegrass and Traditional Music at Hazard Community and Technical College in Hyden. The school offers classes in bluegrass performance, recording, songwriting and more in a fully accredited two-year program.
The mission is simple: to insure that the traditions of bluegrass music are passed down to a new generation. Part of his students' education involves working with elders who have made the music their life's work. Osborne and his cousin, Bobby Osborne (half of the famed bluegrass duo The Osborne Brothers and a Crowe pal for more than 55 years), are instructors.
Students from the school, as well as young musicians studying with such esteemed regional string music teachers as Tim Lake, Daniel and Amy Carwile and Art Mize, will perform at the Crowe festival this weekend. The headlining acts include The Lonesome River Band, The Grascals, Eddie Pennington, The Moron Brothers, bands led by both Osbornes and, of course, Crowe's newest New South lineup.
"I really enjoy watching the students' faces when they get up on a stage bigger than anything they've ever seen," Dean Osborne said.
For Crowe, the enthusiasm and energy he senses upon meeting with Osborne's students is unavoidably infectious.
"It has to be, if you have any feelings at all for this music," Crowe said. "It's just good to see the younger players exposed to the music. A lot of them have never experienced the more professional bluegrass. But once they hear it, they're just in awe of it."
The road winds down
As the popularity of the Crowe festival grows along with its involvement with aspiring student players, Crowe's own performance calendar is starting to wind down. He still plays regularly, especially during the summer, but he has cut his annual touring schedule down to just more than 50 concerts a year. He said he might whittle it back even further.
"I still enjoy playing as much as I ever have," Crowe said. "It's just the traveling that keeps getting harder."
"You know, I've seen J.D. stop and show banjo licks to kids while he was on his way to the stage," Osborne said. "He has carried himself like that his whole career. If a man like that keeps his home here in Central Kentucky, then that's where his festival needs to be, too."