By Derek Halsey
Bobby Osborne is standing in the grass a couple of feet from a large wooden porch that runs the length of the house behind him. He’s wearing a baseball cap and is dressed in his every day garb, having yet changed into his trademark wide-brimmed hat and stage clothes for his upcoming performance.
The house, which is used as an artist hospitality headquarters, sits about a hundred yards behind the stage at the Appalachian Uprising festival. The bluegrass legend looks up at the view in front of him, a serpentine field with steep month of June wooded hills rising up on each side, and he simply says, “Man, this is a beautiful valley.”
One might not immediately associate a festival named the Appalachian Uprising with its location in Ohio. But the fact is, southeastern Ohio is very much a part of the Appalachian Mountain chain. There is a mark about halfway in the middle of southern Ohio where all of the hills west of the line were created by glaciers during the last Ice Age, and all of the hills east of the line sprang up during the formation of some of the oldest mountains in the world.
The Appalachian Uprising festival takes place at Eden Valley Farm, owned by the festival operators Steve and Gina Cielec. The festival grounds are located about 15 miles northeast of Huntington, W.Va. Once you cross the Ohio River at Huntington, you follow the river east and then head north from the small town of Proctorville, Ohio. You eventually wind your way to an even smaller Appalachian hamlet called Scottown, which consists of a couple of buildings and a small post office. The last mile or so to the festival takes place on a dusty gravel road.
The Appalachian Uprising, which always takes place on the first week in June, will mark its tenth anniversary in 2011. It’s viewed as the little festival that could; a threeday event that features the best of traditional, newgrass and contemporary bluegrass acts as well as local and regional bands on the rise. Headlining the festival every year since its inception is the Sam Bush Band.
Steve Cielec grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. He found his way to the southern Ohio/Greater Huntington area when he opened a series of McDonald’s restaurants there. Cielec did not grow up listening to bluegrass while living in the northern half of the Buckeye State, but he was a lover of music in general.
“I was more into rock-and-roll,” says Cielec. “Lynyrd Skynyrd. The Michael Stanley Band was awesome up in Cleveland. Then, O Brother, Where Art Thou? came out and I think that opened up a whole new audience. That’s what introduced me to bluegrass music. I was never exposed to bluegrass, and that’s what the movie did. It exposed a whole new group of people to those instruments.”
After moving to southern Ohio, it was a lot of years before Cielec found an opportunity to buy Eden Valley Farm.
“I was friends with the guy that owned it,” says Cielec. “I knew him for close to twenty years. I knew him when he first bought the farm, actually, and he allowed me to come and hang out and do a little hunting. I always asked him if he would ever sell it, would he give me the first shot, and we were able to work something out.”
Sam Bush has found himself attached to quite a few outdoor festivals over the years. He performed at the firstever Telluride festival in Colorado and has performed at every one since. The same goes for his appearances at Doc and Merle Watson’s Merlefest. To Cielec’s amazement, Bush signed on to perform at the firstever Appalachian Uprising.
“The first year, we rented a stage and rented generators for the power because we didn’t have electricity out there,” says Cielec. “The second year we built a stage. I guess we had to decide that first year if we were going to do it again. I’d say a couple hundred people showed up. We were fortunate that Sam Bush took a chance on us because he could play anywhere. He made a statement when he was onstage the first year, saying what a beautiful place it was, and that it was his first time out there and he hoped it wasn’t going to be his last. I still haven’t forgotten those words. That thrilled us because we hoped that he would like playing out there so much that he’d want to come back. We’re honored that he plays our festival.” For Bush, it comes down to an appreciation of the festival experience and a love for performing outdoors.
“A great time to play is when it’s just about dark,” says Bush. “Then, the attention all turns towards the stage. But, you know, that being said, playing in the day is fun, too. But then, people are having fun. They’re playing frisbee, hacky sack, throwing ball, whatever. At night time, however, the attention naturally turns towards the stage. That’s where the light is. I just love the whole atmosphere. And, different festivals feel different ways. With the Appalachian Uprising, I really admire them because I think it is probably a challenging place to put on a festival and they really pull it off.”
Another music legend that helped Cielec with the evolution of the festival is International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) hall of famer Melvin Goins. Goins lives in nearby Catlettsburg, Ky., and was also one of the first performers to perform at the Uprising. “We met at a McDonald’s after he played at the festival and he told me that he knew that our festival was new and that he would help me anyway he could,” says Cielec. “So I called him and we met and we discussed a lot of the things that helped us move it forward. I think the world of Melvin. We talked to him not about one specific thing, but about a culmination of things. One thing that I think he helped us with was about booking younger bands. He would tell us that we had to get the young people to come because that’s our future. We get older people, too, of course. It’s a mix. But we do get a lot of younger fans. That’s our crowd. I think the reason is that we feature newgrass music. It’s eclectic. We do have traditional acts. That was always my goal, to try and have some type of music for everybody.”
So, the approach of the festival is to feature all sides of the bluegrass coin. During the day it’s the up and coming bands that get a shot. Then, in the afternoon and early evenings, the best traditional bluegrass bands in the country get to perform. And, in a considerate and tactical move, the bands of a newgrass, jazzgrass or new acoustic persuasion get to play the late night shift each evening so the young folks can have some fun while the lovers of more traditional bluegrass get to go back to their camps and commence to jam.
For example, last year’s lineup featured IBMA hall of famers Goins, Osborne, Crowe as well as other traditional bluegrass favorites such as Lorraine Jordan and Carolina Road, Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers, Chris Jones and the Night Drivers, The Grascals, John McEuen and Marty Raybon. Then, on the late night shift, Thursday featured the Drew Emmitt Band, Friday offered up the sounds of Cadillac Sky and Saturday night showcased the John Cowan Band and the Sam Bush Band. Another big part of the Appalachian Uprising team is the Eden Valley Farm groundskeeper Mack Shope. A Purple Heart veteran of the Vietnam War, Shope is constantly on his ATV solving problems and seeing that the festival camper’s needs are met.
When one walks to the barn at the festival, where the camp store and showers are located, it is hard to miss the giant and welldone taxidermied head of the festival’s mascot, Bubba the bull. Bubba’s commemorative plaque tells his story and is found underneath.
“Bubba had been out there at the farm for almost 28 years,” says Cielec. “He was real friendly. He was a Scottish Highlander. He was so unique. You just don’t see that type of cow very often. He was a legend in Lawrence County (Ohio). He was on TV and his picture was in the paper. People would stop there along Route 775 and take his picture. You’d be surprised the number of people that have stopped me saying, ‘Oh yeah. I remember Bubba when I was a kid. We stopped there and took his picture.’ He had that reddish, rustic hair and his horns were so big. His horns were 82 inches tip to tip. He lived a lot of those years by himself out there, just him and the deer and the coyote.”
One of the cool things about the Appalachian Uprising is the post concert ride out. The only road in and out of the festival parallels the valley, and the vans and busses of the groups who have just performed at the festival must drive by the audiences in front of the stage as they leave. That gives the chance for the fans to wave and clap one more time for the departing musicians, and for the artists to respond likewise.
The tenth anniversary Appalachian Uprising is shaping up to be memorable. So far, the acts booked will include traditional bands like IBMA hall of famer Jesse McReynolds and his Virginia Boys and the onfire sounds of Junior Sisk and Ramblers Choice. Also on the bill will be groups such as Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen, the Del McCoury Band and Frontier Ruckus. As usual, Saturday night will be anchored by the Sam Bush Band. The festival’s lineup will expand exponentially as the off season continues. One thing is for certain, when the warm weather breaks and the last days of spring play out in the first week of June, the festival goers at the Appalachian Uprising will find themselves surrounded by the beautiful, lush hills of Eden Valley Farm.
“We’re definitely in Appalachia over here on this side of the river,” says Cielec. “That’s one of the things that I always liked about that farm. When you hit that gravel road you’re almost in another world because you’re way back there in that holler. J.D. Crowe, this past year, was talking about how beautiful it was through there. It was his first time out there. One nice thing that people say to us after their first time is that they’ve heard a lot of good things about the Appalachian Uprising.”
Derek Halsey, a frequent contributor to BU, also writes for Gritz Magazine. He resides in Cincinnati, Ohio.