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Monroe Doctrine: Mighty Fine Bluegrass Pickin'

Bill Monroe sang fondly of Kentucky, the state of his birth, and made its blue moon famous. So it was quite a tribute to Indiana that the so-called “Father of Bluegrass Music,” after playing a gig here, bought 55 acres in the Hoosier state so he could build a country-music park. In the wooded hills and hollers of Brown County, among the plain country folk of Bean Blossom, Monroe found his musical home.

“It kind of reminded him of where he was from,” says Jim Peva, a Monroe historian. “He liked the lay of the land in Brown County.”

Starting in the early 1950s, Monroe, a member of the Grand Ole Opry, got some of the biggest names in country music to play at his newly acquired Brown County Jamboree Barn, and in 1967 he hosted the first annual Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival. For Monroe, a lifelong road warrior, the grounds became a place where audiences and other musicians—many of the best in the business—could come to him. Audiences camped out, cooked out, and shyly brought along their own instruments.

“Everybody wanted to play at Bean Blossom,” says current park owner Dwight Dillman, who played banjo in Monroe’s band in the mid-1970s.

Monroe died in 1996, but the legacy he carved into the Brown County hills did not. When it seemed all but certain that his festival grounds would become a residential subdivision in the late 1990s, Dillman bought the property and, through promotion and renovation, made it what it is today: Bill Monroe Memorial Music Park & Campground, an all-in-one arts venue, swap meet, and family-reunion site.

Though each summer’s Bill Monroe Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival is the big draw, the cozier events that dot the calendar throughout the year are less crowded and more intimate. The musicians who take the wooden bandstand love playing to the appreciative crowds that plant lawn chairs and coolers in the shaded concert area: Anyone who likes the trickle of the mandolin (Monroe’s signature instrument), the twang of the “banjer,” and the thrum of the “bass fiddle” is good people.

But many of the musicians don’t really let it all hang out until they ditch the suits (bluegrass players are among the most neatly dressed in show business) and hit the evening campfire jams in the RV park, which, owing in part to the local spirit of Hoosier hospitality, are usually open to all—even if you’re just there to listen.

The Go Guide: Bill Monroe Memorial Music Park & Campground (includes Bluegrass Hall of Fame & Country Star Museum), 5163 State Road 135 N, Bean Blossom, 800-414-4677. Camping info: 800-414-4677 or 812-988-6422, beanblossom.com.

How To: Join A Bluegrass Jam. So maybe you’re not the next Bill Monroe. That shouldn’t stop you from learning to play bluegrass. Local musician Greg Ziesemer tells how: First, get to know the music. Buy CDs. go to bluegrass festivals, read magazines, learn about the legends. Next, pick an instrument. The mandolin and banjo are easiest; you can find them at Mountain Made Music in Nashville. Finally (here’s the catch), try to mimic what you’ve been listening to. Start with the classics and work your way up to the more-complex modern bluegrass songs. —Lindsay Robison

Since first joining Indianapolis Monthly in 2000, West has written about a wide range of subjects including crime, history, arts and entertainment, pop culture, politics, and food. His feature stories have twice been noted in the Best American Sports Writing anthology and have received top honors from the Indiana chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. “The Collapse,” West’s account of the 2011 Indiana State Fair tragedy, was a 2013 National City and Regional Magazine Awards finalist in the category of Best Reporting. He lives on the near-east side.
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