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Richard Crowson: Bluegrass Birthdays

“Late in the evening, about sundown
High on the hill, up above the town
Uncle Pen played the fiddle; Lord, how it’d ring
You could hear it talk, you could hear it sing.”

That’s the chorus to the late Bill Monroe’s song called, “Uncle Pen.” I’m singing it because this week marks what would have been Mr. Monroe’s 100th birthday. If you heard the story about his life and legacy on All Things Considered this past Tuesday, you know all about how he and banjo player Earl Scruggs pretty much invented the style of music called bluegrass.

But this week, we get a double dose of bluegrass birthdays, because it also marks the 40th birthday of the Walnut Valley Festival down in Winfield. In fact, folks who live in Winfield just refer to the festival as, “Bluegrass.” They’ll say things like, “Are you going to Bluegrass this year?” Or maybe, “I was over at Bluegrass and I heard the greatest version of ‘Pig in a Pen’ by a little 13-year-old singer from Bucksnort, Tennessee, that I’ve ever heard in my life!”

To be sure, the Walnut Valley Festival is not longer a bluegrass festival, per se. They feature all sorts of acoustic music these days. But it started out as bluegrass, and it’s safe to say if Bill Monroe hadn’t fathered bluegrass music, then there would be no Walnut Valley Festival.

“Late in the evening at Winfield town
Down at the Cowley County Fairground
You can listen to the music that we all love so
And you might hear the ghost of Bill Monroe.”

Richard Crowson is not only a editorial commentator for KMUW. He's also a cartoonist, an artist and a banjo player.