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Welcoming the New Year with banjo and fiddle 

Jekyll Island’s Bluegrass Festival turns 33

IT'S NOT TOO AWFULLY MUCH OF AN EXAGGERATION TO SAY that bluegrass music is in Norman Adams’s blood.

The former insurance agent (“For 40 years, I sold it all,” he says. “Property, casualty, life, the whole ball of wax”) recalls a youth spent listening to acoustic mountain music in his family home.

“My dad listened to the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday nights with a battery operated radio,” says Adams. So, in 1973, when he and a business partner saw their massive real estate investment in Dahlonega, Ga. (170 acres) plummet in value, it was to bluegrass that Adams turned for what he thought might be salvation.

“At the time, the only bluegrass festival in the state was over in Livonia,” he explains. We’re sittin’ here with a big land payment to make and no way to do it. We came up with the bright idea to have a bluegrass festival on our property and make our payment that way. WRONG. (laughs) That was not the case!”

Despite holding their inaugural event in tandem with the popular Gold Rush Days celebration that at the time reportedly drew as many as 100,000 tourists to that tiny, sleepy town 70 miles from Atlanta in the foothills of the Northeast Georgia mountains, Adams says the festival was a financial disaster.

“We figured we were bound to get ten percent of those folks to come to our bluegrass show, but it wound up raining for all three days.”

Undaunted, or perhaps embittered by this unexpected failure, Adams did essentially the exact opposite of what most folks in his position would: he hunkered down and devoted himself to becoming an ace promoter of large-scale bluegrass concerts.

“This was long before anyone was paying much attention to bluegrass like they have since 2000 when the O Brother movie came out,” explains Adams. “But I always believed in it and never did give up. I guess it’s gotten to be an ego thing. (laughs) I felt like I’d never failed at anything I tried, so I just kept hangin’ in there with this, too.”

Fast-forward 35 years. Adams and his current partner, Tony Anderson, now book, promote and run nine such three and four-day events around the country. They present some of the biggest stars in the genre, and enjoy a hard-earned reputation for putting on shows the old-fashioned way: by keeping things simple and concentrating on the basics: good sound, a friendly attitude and a family atmosphere.

One of their most well-known events is the Annual New Year’s Bluegrass Festival, (there’s a no-nonsense name for ya, huh?) held at the 2,100-seat Jekyll Island Convention Center. This indoor concert and celebration of down-home Americana has become a mecca of sorts for hardcore bluegrass fans and curious newcomers to the form alike.

Now approaching it’s 33rd installment, the festival shows no signs of slowing down. Always held on the first weekend of the New Year, this 2008/2009 showcase doesn’t fall on New Year’s Eve itself (next year’s will, however), but still boasts a mightily impressive roster of esteemed talent.

Famous names such as Rhonda Vincent & The Rage, Dr. Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver and Cherryholmes all make appearances this weekend, along with over a dozen other notable bluegrass and gospel groups such as The Gibson Brothers, The Grascals, Larry Sparks & The Lonesome Ramblers, The Inspirations, Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out and more.

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Here's a fan-shot clip of the great Doyle Lawson & Quicksliver live in concert:

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Here's a fan-shot clip of Rhonda Vincent & The Rage live in concert last year:

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Here's a lengthy (and very funny) fan-shot clip of the Grammy-winning legend of bluegrass, Dr. Ralph Stanley, live in concert a couple years back:

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“My partner had been goin’ down to Jekyll Island for a few years after Christmas,” Adams says. “Doin’ a festival down there was his idea. He likes the town and the Convention Center has good acoustics. We took a beatin’ on it for the first few years, ‘cause it takes a while to get somethin’ like this started. Now it’s doin’ real well.”

“It’s usually pretty full every day — but maybe a bit fuller on Fridays and Saturdays.”

One unique aspect of this yearly event is the ability of attendees to essentially use the Convention Center’s parking lot as a free campground of sorts, provided they arrive in some sort of RV.

“The state of Georgia, which runs the Center, makes an exception for us,” notes Adams. He says the public is generally not allowed to leave their vehicles on the premises overnight, but this arrangement was struck the first year of this festival and thanks to the good behavior of the crowds his weekend event draws, they’ve been able to maintain it ever since.

“We have to pay for the use of the parking lot,” he continues, “but we don’t want to pass that along to our customers. I didn’t want to be chargin’ people for a ticket and then chargin’ them to park, too. This works out for everybody because bluegrass people are some of the nicest people in the whole world. They don’t make a mess or anything like that.”

They also don’t get too rowdy or cause any problems. Which is a good thing, because Adams emphatically states that at his company’s productions, “We don’t put up with no stuff!”

“We don’t allow any alcoholic beverages — even at our outside shows. And there’s no smoking in the concert area. I’ve raised my kids and grandkids up in all this, and we’ve never had any problems. Except for the second year at Jekyll, when some guys showed up who got real loud and rowdy. It was on the actual night of New Year’s Eve and they’d been drinkin’ somewhere else before they came in,” he says.

“We had to get security to take ‘em out, but they came back the next day and apologized in person. It turns out they were all off-duty policemen! (laughs) They’d just got carried away and were ashamed.”

Adams says the family-oriented vibe of his festivals dovetails nicely with the growing number of young kids that have been drawn to the genre since the mainstream success of the aforementioned Coen Brothers film O Brother Where Art Thou, which spawned a chart-topping bluegrass soundtrack CD.

“We see a lot more young people than we used to, and more who are gettin’ involved in playin’ bluegrass, too.”

Actually playing the music he loves is something Adams won’t be attempting anytime soon. “Lord, no,” he exclaims when asked if he himself is a musician.

“I can’t play nothin’ ‘cept the radio. That’s why I put on the shows! (laughs)”

Still, he says, after all these years, he never tires of watching and listening to these concerts, and he encourages folks who’ve been curious about the genre but never witnessed it for themselves to give even just one afternoon or evening of this event a try.

“I’d say they need to come out and hear it in person. Until they’ve heard bluegrass live in concert, they ain’t heard it. It’s a whole different thing than it is on records.” cs

Read the complete interview here.

33rd Annual New Year’s Bluegrass Fest

When: Thurs. - Sat.

Where: Jekyll Island Convention Center

Cost: $15 - $75 (6 & under, free w/parent)

Info & Schedule: aandabluegrass.com

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