For the last few months, I have had the privilege of collecting quotes and tributes from the bluegrass world about the impact of a half-century of Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine on the music scene. What’s been very cool about the endeavor is the vast majority of quotes have been personal in nature. It hasn’t been a matter of collecting PR-written blurbs that are generalized and congratulatory in nature. Instead, the responses have been free-flowing and unique, with themes that range from reading the publication’s festival ads and dreaming of being on one of those stages one day to coming across a treasure trove of old copies of BU found in an attic and diving into history.
The interview process for the quotes you are about to read was fun and easy, mainly because all I had to do was ask simple questions to get folks started. When did BU first enter your life? What are your favorite sections of the magazine? When did you first read your name in the publication? There are quotes from bluegrassers who read the very first issues of BU at the second Fincastle festival in the mid-1960s, while other younger artists found the magazine years afterwards. Some artists got word that I was writing this article and they answered my call for quotes, phoning me up at just the right time. Others gladly offered some extra time at the end of an already scheduled interview to expound on this historic publication. And then, there was the wonderful late night call from Hall Of Famer Tony Rice who wanted to be a part of this celebration. Without further prose from me, here are some of the best bluegrass artists in the world talking about the fifty-year run of BU.
Singer/songwriter Donna Ulisse: “When I married my husband Rick Stanley in 1983 and became a part of my father-in-law’s life, I became aware of how important Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine was to the genre of bluegrass. Richard E. Stanley had every one of the issues, starting from the days when it began as stapled papers. His cherished collection is still in the home of my mother-in-law, Yvonne Stanley. My father-in-law lovingly called me ‘Donnie,’ and his heart’s desire was always to have me sing bluegrass and earn a presence in his all-time favorite magazine.
“I learned through his care that this publication was the bible of bluegrass. My great blessing was that I brought Bluegrass Unlimited to his hospital room and got to show him the first article I was ever featured in before he passed away. He was so very proud. That memory still makes my eyes dart.
“I started leafing through my father-in-law’s collection of Bluegrass Unlimited anytime I was at one of their homes. I feel like I was being educated on the history of bluegrass through their AM radio and this magazine. I love the ‘General Store’ section the most, as I love to see what everyone is up to. I usually peruse over that section and then flip to the back of the magazine to check out the charts. After I get that fix, I go back and read through the pages properly.
“I find it hard to pinpoint any one particular article that has impacted me greatly. My thoughts on what I think is impactful is the care shown through the journalists in Bluegrass Unlimited who write about our patriarchs of this genre, especially the articles about their passing. I always feel a great connection to the words and a sense of immense pride that I am now part of this wonderful music. Congratulations on fifty spectacular years!
Pete Wernick: “I still remember the announcement at the second Roanoke bluegrass festival that a magazine for bluegrass music had begun publication. I went home with BU’s second issue and I have subscribed ever since. I wonder how many other continuous fifty-year subscribers are out there. BU has made a huge difference in bluegrass music. Few would remember how fragmented the scene was until festivals and BU changed everything. In launching and making a career of the Hot Rize band, there simply would’ve been no way without BU.”
Jason Burleson of Blue Highway: “I’ve been a subscriber since the 1980s. To me, Bluegrass Unlimited has always been the place to keep up with what’s happening in bluegrass music.”
Joe Mullins: “One of my first memories of our music’s most famous print publication was an early 1972 edition with details of Red Smiley’s passing. I was just a kid, but I started looking at the magazine each month. I heard all the current and classic bluegrass on my dad’s radio program [the legendary Paul “Moon” Mullins]. But to see the pictures and reviews of albums, to read about bands visiting Europe and Japan and to learn more about artists, instruments, and more each month in BU was so inspiring. A quality, monthly magazine gave us credibility and connected our music with people and places around the world. I am grateful now for the friendship and years of encouragement from the BU team—Pete Kuykendall, Walt Saunders, Dick Spottswood and my dear friends Frank and Marty Godbey; these and others have really made a difference. Having intelligent, gifted journalists document our music is a priceless contribution. Thank you all!”
Sierra Hull: “When I was a little girl, I had a friend named Lowell Logan, and he used to bring me a copy of Bluegrass Unlimited every single month. I couldn’t wait for him to pull into the driveway at my parent’s house with that magazine! I used to scan the pages for my heroes’ names and dream of the festivals I someday hoped to play. I’ll always be fond of Bluegrass Unlimited.”
IBMA Hall of Famer Del McCoury: “I recently found some issues of Bluegrass Unlimited I have saved that date back to the early ’70s. Jean started a subscription for us around that time, and we haven’t missed an issue since. I still look forward to receiving my copy and reading the articles and checking out the ads and chart each month to see what’s going on. I’m grateful that we’ve had a magazine dedicated to bluegrass for fifty years and want to thank them for promoting the music and congratulate them on an amazing run at the same time.”
Rob McCoury: “As far back as I can remember as a little kid, Bluegrass Unlimited was always on the coffee table. Mom saved every issue. As far as I know, I have probably seen every issue. I remember when it was a little small magazine, physically. I remember being educated on all of my bluegrass heroes by reading the articles in Bluegrass Unlimited. I still subscribe to that magazine today. Congratulations on fifty years!”
Ronnie McCoury: “I would dare to say that my parents have every issue of Bluegrass Unlimited from the very beginning, and I have breezed through every one of them somewhere along the line. I always looked forward to seeing my dad in the magazine. In 1981, I remember him on the cover and it was a great cover picture. I remember Eugenia Snyder coming to the house to interview Dad, and it was a big deal for us. Then, as the years went by, I was able to be in Bluegrass Unlimited with my dad and brother and the band as it grew. I always look forward to seeing what’s happening with other groups and their new records and new releases. And I enjoy looking at the album chart, as well as anything about new products. Bluegrass Unlimited has really been a big part of my life, and I have been a subscriber for over 25 years.”
IBMA Hall of Famer Tony Rice: “As a matter of fact, I do remember the first time I saw Bluegrass Unlimited magazine. We used to stay out at my grandmother’s house out in the country in North Carolina. At the time, Frank Poindexter, my uncle who was only two years older than me, and I don’t remember specifically how he got in touch with anyone that would get him a Bluegrass Unlimited, but he had a copy. I saw it and I thought, ‘Wow, this is a gold mine. This is beyond anything that anybody has ever done to promote the entire field of bluegrass.’ Of course, that was back in the days when the magazine was just plain white cover and was real small.
“All I can tell you is that we couldn’t wait until the next issue would come, so we could catch up on things. It’s been that way ever since with me. I would even go so far as to say that there is a chance that bluegrass music would not have seen the popularity that it experiences today had it not been for Bluegrass Unlimited magazine. If you think about it, back then when it first came out, it was the only way that people could stay informed about who was playing where, with who, and what was going on. Without it, how would people know that?
“The purpose of the publication itself has well served its purpose, and it continues to do so. You can imagine two young guys in our teens with me and Uncle Frank Poindexter back in 1969-1970 reading it. That was a long time ago. Without the magazine, concerning the whole entire bluegrass world of musicians and the fans that follow bluegrass music in general, I just don’t think it’s possible that it could be near what it is today without Bluegrass Unlimited magazine all of these years.
“And, I’m still glad to see it in the form of a magazine. I’m not really a computer wizard, myself, when it comes to high-tech devices. But, I don’t have to get on a computer to look up all of that stuff about bluegrass music when there’s a magazine that comes to my mailbox once a month. Pete and Kitsy and everybody there, including the old-timers like Dick Spottswood, they certainly have done their part with the record reviews and articles and everything. It’s just a great thing that the magazine has existed and been that good all of these years—and it still is. There have been a lot of changes in the music and the musicians through all of those years, and Bluegrass Unlimited has done a good job of keeping up with every one of them.”
Kentucky Music Hall of Famer Sam Bush: “Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine’s fiftieth anniversary—wow! I went to the first two Fincastle bluegrass festivals in 1965 and ’66. My parents let me go when I was 13. Being at that first Fincastle festival, I had never held a Gibson F-5 mandolin before a jam session there, when a guy all of a sudden handed me down what I would later realize would be one of the best mandolins I have ever played. It was a Lloyd Loar F-5, and this guy that was only about seven years older than me leaned down and said, ‘Hey man, play a good one.’ It turned out to be David Grisman.
“At the Fincastle festival in 1966, they were circulating a newsletter type of thing that was going to be a bluegrass magazine called Bluegrass Unlimited. The way I remember it, I don’t recall if it was the very first issue of Bluegrass Unlimited that was handed out at Fincastle festival, or when I would have seen that first issue. But, it seems to me, that was when it happened.
“For me, when I first started reading Bluegrass Unlimited, there would be a ‘Now Appearing’ section in the back, and I used to just marvel at reading that section and seeing how many nights a week the Country Gentlemen were playing at The Shamrock. There I am in high school in Kentucky reading about this mythical place called The Shamrock and just dreaming of being there. I had seen the Country Gentlemen at the Fincastle festival in 1966, and they just blew the roof off the place.
“Years later, in 1972 probably, when the Country Gentlemen first went to Japan, we in the young New Grass Revival got the job of filling in for them at The Shamrock. They were gone for two weeks, so we played there four or five nights a week then. Back then, festivals weren’t really that prominent yet in the late 1960s. Yes, you would see ads for festivals in BU, but it was really more about where everybody was playing in the clubs. As far as jobs as a bluegrass band, you were very fortunate if you could find one of those jobs where you played four or five nights a week. Then, in the summer, we got to go out and go to these festivals. And by the way, J.D. Crowe and Red Allen at the Red Slipper Lounge at the Holiday Inn in Lexington, Ky., would be in the ‘Now Appearing’ section. Alan Munde and Courtney Johnson and I would drive up there to hear and see J.D. and Red and Doyle Lawson and Bobby Slone—what was the Kentucky Mountain Boys. I was not old enough to get into the Red Slipper Lounge, so I would stand outside of the swinging bar doors and listen all night.
“When I was first mentioned in Bluegrass Unlimited magazine, I was still a senior in high school. In Bowling Green, Ky., on the campus of Western Kentucky University, they would have a folk music show that came through town once a year, and we became acquainted with Alice Foster and Hazel Dickens, who were on the show. Then, Alice Foster wrote a short story about me in Bluegrass Unlimited that probably came out in the spring of 1970.
“We were always received great in BU. That was the wild thing about it. I think because Bluegrass Unlimited was based near Washington, D.C., and not in Nashville or Kentucky, they were always committed to featuring the progressive acts, along with writing about the established stars of bluegrass. You had the Country Gentlemen and Emerson & Waldron right there in D.C. and, to me, those guys were the two greatest acts going, along with The Dillards, Jim & Jesse, and the Osborne Brothers.
“In the summer of 1971 when the Bluegrass Alliance came to D.C., I was having mandolin trouble, and writer and BU contributor John Kaparakis took me over to the Arlington Music store. John Duffey, who was retired from music at the time, in-between playing with the Country Gentlemen and Seldom Scene, he worked on my mandolin. The Bluegrass Alliance was playing at The Shamrock that night, and John Duffey came out and sat in with us. That was one of the greatest highlights of my life when he was onstage with us. After he saw me play, Duffey said, ‘I know why you’re breaking all of those strings. You play too hard. It’s a mandolin. It will only take so much.’
“When we first started coming up to D.C., Pete Kuykendall invited us over to his house, and he would play us all kinds of songs that we might not have heard before. He was trying to turn us on to other kinds of songs to play that hadn’t been bluegrass songs before, or turning us on to older songs that we might not have known about that he thought were important. So, Pete was always encouraging to us.
“Pete and Bluegrass Unlimited were always behind the progressive groups. I always felt that the BU album reviews were fair, but they always came from the attitude of, ‘Is it bluegrass or not?’ There was always that kind of debate even in the early days, and that debate still goes on. John Duffey and Tut Taylor used to have a running feud in print, and it was hilarious. I can’t remember what they disagreed about, if it was about Dobro playing or mandolin playing or about what is bluegrass. I used to love to read John Duffey’s old articles. The good news is, fifty years later, we’re still trying to figure out what is or isn’t bluegrass.”
Legendary fingerpick guitarist and luthier Wayne Henderson: “I remember Bluegrass Unlimited when it was just sheets of paper. I’ve been in this business of building guitars for 52 years, and I remember seeing the magazine about as far as back as I can remember. I started taking it probably as soon as I found out about it—at least 45 years ago. There were probably times when you let it run out, and then you get it back. I always used to look at the instruments for sale, as they always had a classified section in them. But the main thing is, I know so many people in this business of bluegrass music that when there is an article about somebody in there, it’s usually somebody that I sort of know, and that’s why it’s always so interesting.
“There were always so many articles about festivals. I live in Virginia, yet I couldn’t get out much because I didn’t have much ways of traveling. But I heard about them, though. You could actually go and see Lester Flatt in person, instead of seeing them on TV or hearing them on Nashville radio. I’d see the festival ads in the magazine, and I wanted to go to some of them, but we were farmers and you didn’t get off the farm unless it had to be something that was absolutely necessary. You had to take the cows to market, or something like that was about the only reason to fire up that old Chevrolet pickup truck to go anywhere. You wouldn’t have driven it to Northern Virginia to a bluegrass festival.
“The only time that my dad or any of us would agree to milk the cows at the wrong time, as in too early in the afternoon, was when the Galax Fiddlers Convention was happening. Now, we did go to that festival every time, and we would milk the cows at 3 in the afternoon so we could go to the Fiddlers Convention. But that was the only festival we went to that I can remember. Even Roanoke was a two-hour drive, and that’d be like going to New York or something.
“I’ve got stacks of BUs over at my mom’s old place. There were so many of them, I finally packed them away somewhere. I don’t know where they are, but I have a bunch of old ones somewhere. Bluegrass Unlimited magazine lays here in the shop all the time. We’re famous for having general loafers around the shop, and the magazine is the main thing that they’ll sit around here and look at. It’s just a wealth of information about the stuff that we’re all into, as far as the people that hang around the shop here. If you got in here to the guitar shop, you have to be into bluegrass music one way or another. It’s pretty much the bible of our kind of music. I’ve been featured in the magazine before and that’s a big excitement. The first time I was in the magazine was probably in the 1970s, and it was about my guitar building.”
Eleven-time IBMA Mandolin Player of the Year Adam Steffey: “Bluegrass Unlimited magazine has been the gold standard for getting information about this kind of music. When I first got into bluegrass music, I heard about it. There wasn’t anybody in my family that was into bluegrass music. So, I was sort of unaware of a lot of things that were going on. I got a lot of my information and learned a lot about new groups that were coming along through the stories and articles and things that were contained in BU over the years, especially in my early playing days in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Doyle Lawson was just putting his band together, and I learned about where he came from and how he got going. You would read all of the reviews of new albums, and the magazine was really invaluable.
“I couldn’t possibly place a value on it because the information that I’ve been able to learn out of there made it like a little history lesson every time I read it. And, it kept me up-to-date with what was going on as well. I remember all of the great articles on different artists like Larry Sparks and Doyle Lawson and more—all of the artists that I wondered about, what their history was and how they broke through. The biographical articles were what I was as interested in as anything else.
“I remember seeing all of the advertisements. I used to sit and read the advertisements about the festivals. That was something I would look at and think, ‘Man, I wish I could go to that festival.’ I’d read all about these festivals and think, ‘Man, if I could ever get in a band and play those festivals, it’d be great.’ Then, eventually I was fortunate enough to be able to go and play a lot of those festivals and then I’d remember back when I’d think, ‘It would be awful neat to be able to travel and see all of those places and go and play those festivals.’ BU put that in my mind, seeing those festival ads in there. If I didn’t have that magazine, I wouldn’t have had those thoughts.”
Songwriter/fiddler Becky Buller: “Oh my God yes! My family began to subscribe to Bluegrass Unlimited magazine in the early 1980s. I was in college down at Eastern Tennessee State University, and I was heartbroken when my dad called up and said, “I’m getting rid of all of these Bluegrass Unlimited magazines in the basement.’ I said, ‘No! Don’t do that!’ But they were moldy and we had to throw them away. But I personally began to subscribe to it when I started college in 1997. I still have lots of issues.
“These folks [featured in BU] are my heroes. There was life before the Internet, even though it seems like the Internet has always been there at this point. But when I was in college, the Internet still wasn’t what it is now. You couldn’t get great information and Bluegrass Unlimited was one of the ways I got my bluegrass news. There is so much content on the Internet now that it’s hard to be heard through all of the noise, so an article in Bluegrass Unlimited is still very important, and I’m just so glad that they are still there and they’re still printing the magazine. That stuff lasts longer than the Internet stories. You have people like me who have years and years of back issues, and I go back and look at them and check out Larry Stephenson’s hair back in the early 1990s, and Ronnie Bowman’s mullet. It’s great!
“There was a great letter to the editor from Ranger Doug about ‘The great untucking.’ As in, ‘When did the great untucking happen with the stage clothes?’ He was comparing current trends to Bill Monroe and how they dressed nice and neat.”
Ranger Doug of Riders In The Sky and the Time Jumpers: “What I like best is the ‘Notes & Queries’ section where Walt Saunders goes back and finds all of these obscure facts about stuff that happened in the 1940s and 1950s. He digs very deep. Of course, I like the letters. I like it when people get riled up and see every month who’s upset about what. ‘What is and isn’t bluegrass’ has been going on for fifty years.
“I began to read the magazine with issue number one. I just loved bluegrass music in my college days, and I played a lot of bluegrass and enjoyed it. While I didn’t have the gift for it vocally, I love the style. In those days, I liked keeping up with where the festivals were going to be because I went to the second one in Virginia at Fincastle. That really kind of changed me. I just loved it, hearing Bill Monroe live and Carlton Haney and ‘The Bluegrass Story.’ To see these guys that I only heard on record, like Mac Wiseman and Don Reno and people like that, it just blew me away.”
Dave Adkins: “I can remember when Bluegrass Unlimited was the deal, man. If you made it anywhere in Bluegrass Unlimited, whether it be on the charts or an article, that was how people knew about bluegrass. It was a big deal. We just got the job at Dollywood in 1990 and my mom kept getting me a subscription to Bluegrass Unlimited for a long time. Back in the day, the first thing we always did when it came to Bluegrass Unlimited was to go to the charts to make sure we hadn’t snuck on there and didn’t know it. Then, we would read it from front to back to see if anybody had mentioned us and if we were getting out there in some way, even though we knew that we didn’t have a chance of doing that back then. But, there was an excitement every week, as in, ‘What if somebody said something about us? What if we are actually in there?’
“The first time I was ever mentioned in the magazine was in 2011 and I was just signed on with Rural Rhythm Records and they mentioned it in the ‘Keeping Up With The Bands’ section. ‘Dave Adkins and Republik Steele signs with Rural Rhythm.’ And man, you would have thought that we’d sold out Carnegie Hall. Then, there was the time that I first made it onto the Bluegrass Unlimited charts. I like having those memories. I like looking back and seeing that ‘Pike County Jail’ was number two on the Bluegrass Unlimited chart.
“I’ve kept a subscription going for eight or nine years. My mother-in-law knows that I love reading the magazine, especially about a lot of the older acts, and so a subscription to BU has been one of my Christmas gifts and has been for years and years and years. My mother-in-law has every Bluegrass Unlimited from at least the last 35 years. It means a lot to me. You hear of news that you normally wouldn’t hear, and there are still a lot of people that want to hold a magazine in their hand and not flick a button. One of the favorite things for me to do is to go and look at the old Bluegrass Unlimited magazines and look at the shows back then. People take it for granted that J.D. Crowe & the New South with Tony Rice played back in the day.”
Don Rigsby: “I wasn’t even ten years old when I began to read Bluegrass Unlimited. I have a brother that’s nine years older than me and he’s a banjo player and he’s really good. He was engulfed in the music, like me, from the time he was a young boy. He played in his first band when he was 14. My brother didn’t teach me to play, but he had access to all of the tools. He loved the modern bluegrass, where I always swung toward the Stanley Brothers and that kind of music because my dad loved it. My brother was into J.D. Crowe, Seldom Scene, and John Hartford. So, he always had good music around to listen to, and he always had Bluegrass Unlimited around for me to encounter when he wasn’t looking at it. I could pick it up and look through there at all of the festival guides and listings and all of that.
“My dad was an avid fan and he kept a subscription to Bluegrass Unlimited magazine until he died in 2013. My dad was always a social butterfly, and he would use the festival ads in the magazine to plot out the summer, because we went to festival after festival when I was a kid. Dad used the magazine as kind of an atlas, as far as where we would go. He would always befriend all of the people who were the movers and shakers at any given event, and we would go back to these festivals and make it a tradition, like the Festival of the Bluegrass [Kentucky]. It all originated from the ads in Bluegrass Unlimited.
“I also really liked the ‘General Store’ section because it gave you an idea of who was doing what, and it wasn’t tailored to just be about the biggest names in the business. Anybody that had news to report could get in there. It was kind of like a party line, for lack of a better term. Back in the day, I remember with excitement when my little group, the Truegrass Band, had a blurb in there. When they took time to include it in the ‘General Store,’ we thought, ‘Well man, we made it.’ Living where we did, we didn’t have the Internet, and BU was bluegrass media, so we enjoyed the album reviews as well, and I would use that section to decide what would be my month’s purchases for music.
“Leading up to all of that, my dad had an uncle in Ohio named Okie Ferguson who lived in Athens, and he was my dad’s favorite uncles. He was an avid follower of bluegrass and had an RV, and he would go to the festivals. When my Uncle Okie passed away, I inherited his Bluegrass Unlimited collection, and it dated back to the start of the magazine. So, while I read everything I could find from the late 1970s up through until dad passed, I got to go even deeper with it. To me, Bluegrass Unlimited is like a textbook because, back then, there weren’t any college courses about it, like there are now. I used Bluegrass Unlimited in college as a reference guide, and I would cite all of the authors of the articles I found in there. It’s a fantastic source of information. It’s amazing.”
IBMA Hall of Famer Doyle Lawson: “I went to work with J.D. Crowe in 1966, and there was a guy that lived across the street from J.D., that I think was the brother-in-law of Dianne Sims. Dianne was one of the early people that got together with others in the Washington, D.C., area and decided to do a publication to promote bluegrass. [Dianne was an early Managing Editor.] I remember the first little edition of BU that I saw, it was maybe three or four pages, if that, but it was the only thing that we had that was dedicated to promote the music. We were glad to get it.
“Now, obviously, they didn’t have as much to write about then as they do now, but they did it. In addition to the A-team of bluegrass stars like Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, Reno & Smiley, and Jim & Jesse, there was a lot of bluegrass around the D.C. area and in Baltimore, and those bands got some recognition as well. A couple of years later, Larry Rice came to work with Crowe, and I worked with Jimmy Martin, and then I came back with J.D. and played the guitar. That’s when we made the cover of BU with a little story about us.
“The festival ads were a big thing back in those days. We would always make sure our appearances and dates were in there and that was a way you kept up with everybody. I don’t think we could have asked for a better time for BU to come along than when it did because we were right in the early stages of the bluegrass festivals. The gap between bluegrass and country music was beginning to widen even more and thanks to people like Dick Spottswood and Diane Sims and later Pete Kuykendall, and the list goes on and on, they had a love and an interest to promote the music and make more people aware of it. So, for the longest time, the magazine was our main way to get the word out and talk positive about our music.
“The magazine has served its purpose pretty doggone good, I would say. Bluegrass Unlimited has been a good vehicle for our music, and it’s hard to believe that it’s been fifty years, but it has been that long. You get pre-occupied doing things and staying busy and time gets away from you. But the magazine has been a real asset to the promotion and continuance of our music with the articles they write. Since the very beginning, when I could, I subscribed to Bluegrass Unlimited and I still do.”
Jim VanCleve: When I was in school, I didn’t realize there was a magazine that catered to music that I liked. Then, after I began to get around to some of the festivals, everybody had Bluegrass Unlimited magazine. So, we finally got a subscription to it every month when I was 11 or 12, and I would look in it to see what was new and what was out there. I was ate up with the music anyway, so it was something that I looked forward to reading. Back then, I noticed there was a “30 Years Ago This Month” column and I was like, ‘Man, this magazine has been around.’
“It was a cool magazine. I remember watching the charts and reading the reviews so I could see what was coming out, and I still look at them and check them out. I started in Doyle Lawson’s band when I was 17 or 18 years old, and my dad called me when I was on the road and said, ‘Hey, I saw your picture in Bluegrass Unlimited.’ I was like, ‘What?’ We were playing some festival, and they put the band’s picture in there and I was in the new band picture at the time.
“It definitely went up a couple of levels when we started Mountain Heart and we were doing a photo shoot for the cover. That was a cool moment because you work really hard and it’s like when you see your band’s name on a marquee or something. It was one of those kinds of moments. I was like, ‘Hey, we’ve actually done something here.’ It was a milestone.”
Jon Stickley: “When I first went to the IBMA Convention, I picked up a bunch of copies of Bluegrass Unlimited. One of my favorite things is, every now and then, you’ll meet somebody who’s got a big collection of BU that goes back a long time. Looking at issues from the 1960s and 1970s and even the 1980s is kind of mind-blowing. They would talk about all of the classic heroes of mine being out on the festival scene and releasing records all in their heyday and it’s a pretty fun trip back in time. I recently read one about Charlie Waller, and it talked about all of the different Martin guitars that he had, and it talked a lot about his playing style. It even detailed what kind of picks he liked to use and how he never liked to change his strings except if one of the strings broke. Picking up details like that about people who really had a huge impact on me, it’s amazing to read that stuff.
“When it comes to the album reviews, even a bad review can have a positive effect. Sometimes they’re the bluegrass police in a way. Their opinions are out there, and they get locked in. Even if they don’t like something, that can still promote that artist’s work to the people that do like that kind of music. At many of the bluegrass studios, you’ll find plenty of back copies of BU, and I think the current version of the magazine is as good as it ever was.”
Eight-time IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year Rhonda Vincent: “We have been in Bluegrass Unlimited a lot over the years, and they have been really good to us. For fifty years, BU has been the bluegrass bible, if you will. It’s where you would go to find out where somebody is performing or to find out pretty much anything about bluegrass music. They were it. We read everything in it, cover to cover. We read the festival ads to see if there were any new festivals we could call in and book. To me, more than anything, you learned about new groups. They were always great about including a photo, usually in the ‘General Store,’ where you would find a picture that was out of the norm or of a band that was new. ‘What’s the latest and greatest in bluegrass?’ That’s what Bluegrass Unlimited always brings to the table.”
Rebekah Long: “In my opinion, Bluegrass Unlimited is the bluegrass magazine and has been since it started. It’s the bluegrass version of People magazine! The first time I ever laid eyes on a BU was in Miggie Lewis’s house [The Lewis Family]. I remember looking at every single page and studying the artists and ads, reading the interviews of the featured artist and reading the reviews. Many years later, it was an honor to design the ads for Tom T. & Dixie Hall every month for a few years. I think my favorite issue would be the month they featured Dixie. I remember how happy and thrilled she was. It meant a lot to her.”
DJ and festival emcee Sherry Boyd: “I was featured in an issue way back in the 1980s when the group California was on the cover, a band that included Byron Berline and Dan Crary. Bluegrass Unlimited forged a social path that kept our music community connected and informed. BU has always given credibility to the person, the band, or whoever is spoken about in the magazine. I learned quite a bit by reading it and especially loved the articles about Tony Rice and Doc Watson. I couldn’t be everywhere all of the time, but I could rely on BU to connect me. I relied on BU for the bluegrass news, show dates, and history.”
Jeff Hanna of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band: “I started reading Bluegrass Unlimited in the 1970s. With the advent of our Will The Circle Be Unbroken record in 1972, we were exposed to what I say was ‘formal’ bluegrass music. The thing was, when our band started, we came from a diverse group of folkies. Mississippi John Hurt and the Reverend Gary Davis were the guys that I was digging. Jimmy Fadden, our harmonica player and drummer, he was into Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Little Walter, and Muddy Waters and things like that. John McEuen and Les Thompson were into Flatt & Scruggs, and they were really into The Dillards.
“The Dillards were like their Beatles. They idolized those guys. John and Les, all they wanted to be was Doug Dillard and Dean Webb when they grew up. We were in Southern California; we weren’t in Appalachia. So, we got into Flatt & Scruggs and Jimmy Martin and Bill Monroe a little further down the road. The Dillards were playing in clubs here in Southern California, so we got to go and see them. So getting a taste of bluegrass music from those guys was pretty cool. You could go out to Hollywood and see Bill Monroe and all of those guys, and you might see Flatt & Scruggs. But one of the bands that I was personally exposed to as a bluegrass band, and I still listen to their records to this day, was the Greenbrier Boys.
“John and Les and the bluegrass lovers in the band were already singing Jimmy Martin tunes and had gone deeper a little earlier than the rest of us in the band. By the time 1971 rolled around and we adopted the Scruggs family, we were fortunate enough to be able to make Will The Circle Be Unbroken with all of our heroes. One of the things that I loved about Vassar Clements and Earl Scruggs was how generous they were to the generation that came after them. As people, they were so cool and never had that, ‘Hey kid, get off my lawn’ attitude about things. They got energy from the younger guys coming up that admired them. They were happy to share their gift and their art with them. That had a lasting impression on me.
“After that, I picked up Bluegrass Unlimited to see what was going on. We got to play almost every major bluegrass festival—Bean Blossom, MerleFest, Hardly Strictly, Grey Fox, and many more. There was no Internet then. You guys at BU were the Internet. So, from a band that is also celebrating their fiftieth anniversary, we just want to send our congrats to you guys at Bluegrass Unlimited. Thanks for getting the word out there for fifty years and keeping it going.”
Vince Herman of Leftover Salmon: “I first read BU probably in the 1980s when I was going to college in Morgantown, W.Va., and getting into the bluegrass and old-time scene there. Later on, I would always try and get the festival issue to take a look at what was happening everywhere. It was like a bluegrass Pollstar back in the day. BU was an early source on how to plan your summer. They would have great interviews, and bluegrass music is a niche. You’re certainly not going to hear about it on CNN or anything. It provides a chance to read about musicians that you love, and there’s always a lot of history in there. They are looking forward and back in that magazine.
“I dug the letters to the editor discussions. I particularly enjoyed the back and forth over tuners and whether [electronic] tuners were destroying bluegrass music or not. I enjoyed that, reading people say, ‘Yeah, these people using tuners, man, they’re ruining it.’ The argument was if you can’t tune your dern instrument without one, you shouldn’t be playing. It’s just like cell phones. You can’t stop using them once you start.”
Tammy Rogers of The SteelDrivers: “My parents got a subscription to Bluegrass Unlimited when I was a teenager, so I’ve been reading it from about the time I was 12 or 13 or so. My mom still has a subscription. We were living in Texas at the time, outside of Dallas. Growing up out there, there were some small festivals and a few large festivals, but the big ones were all back East. You would pick up Bluegrass Unlimited and see these festival lineups and, out in Texas, you might get to see Ralph Stanley once or twice a year. Bill Monroe and Doyle Lawson would come there, and I remember seeing the Johnson Mountain Boys the first year they came out West.
“But, that was the thing; you’d pick up Bluegrass Unlimited and see all of these festival ads with everybody booked on them. The Seldom Scene never traveled out West by that point. I also enjoyed going back to the very back of the magazine to the calendar and seeing these places like The Birchmere listed and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, you can go there and see so-and-so on a Wednesday night?’ I was also seeing all of these clubs listed, and I was so enamored that there were places like that where bluegrass bands were playing and touring and actually could do this thing. When I got to be in my twenties, and I played at The Birchmere— that was a huge deal for me. It still is. But seeing those names in print in BU back in the day, I remember thinking, ‘Wow, if I lived closer, I could go and see those performers every month or every week.’
“Living way out in Texas, there was no real way to know what was going on because there was no Internet. So, Bluegrass Unlimited magazine was it. I mean, there was a little local bluegrass club and they had a newsletter, but that was for that region and about the local bands. So yes, Bluegrass Unlimited was a big deal. My mom and dad kept a lot of the old editions. Looking back, they started subscribing back when the magazine was only 10 or 12 years old. When I go to my mom’s house in Nashville, I still pick it up and read it because she still gets it. I think Bluegrass Unlimited is a vital part of the bluegrass scene and they’re trying to keep the word out there.”
Tim O’Brien: “I started reading other people’s copies of Bluegrass Unlimited when I was probably 15 or 16. I was one of those bad boys. But I started subscribing when I was around 20 or 21 and on my own. BU was the way to find out about stuff. I found out that there was a thing called County Sales, and you could read reviews of the new bluegrass records and then you could also mail-order these albums that you couldn’t find anywhere else. It was a revelation. Bluegrass Unlimited was a way for the audience to find each other. Before there was a world wide web, there was Bluegrass Unlimited. I keep certain copies. There was one with Buzz Busby on the cover because I thought that was a great story and a great profile on Buzz.
“The amazing thing about BU is that it hasn’t really changed. The little regional bands and the people that are somewhat unknown are still highly lauded in the magazine, and I think that is really important. Bluegrass is sort of a funny community in that it’s sort of built to be kind of obscure. We think we’re kind of cooler than the other genres of music. ‘Can you really pick? Do you understand what bluegrass is?’ You’re suspicious of new fans. John Hartford said the same thing about the IBMA Convention. He said, ‘The IBMA wants to make bluegrass a big city and it’s a small town right now, and I’m not sure what I think about that.’ And, bluegrass refuses to be homogenized. I think there’s something about the bluegrass community that says, ‘We’re a different kind of people and if you don’t know any better, you probably won’t understand. If you do, come on in. If you know who Jimmy Martin and Ralph Stanley are, come on in.’
“Jerry Douglas told me, ‘When my Bluegrass Unlimited comes to my mailbox, I don’t do anything until I’ve gone through that magazine. I have to read that thing. I got to see what’s in there, see what the new records are and read the letters to the editor.’ That is pretty cool.”