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8:19 PM Sat, Sept. 22nd

Bluegrass fest strikes chord with the whole family

Mickey Stinnett, left, Jody Adams, Greg Reed and Dick Carlson of Palmer Divide perform at the 26th annual Prescott Bluegrass Festival at the courthouse plaza Saturday.

Mickey Stinnett, left, Jody Adams, Greg Reed and Dick Carlson of Palmer Divide perform at the 26th annual Prescott Bluegrass Festival at the courthouse plaza Saturday.

PRESCOTT - Combine the soothing sounds of a mandolin, fiddle and banjo with a guitar and upright bass, and there you have the main ingredients for bluegrass - a harmonious brand of uniquely American music.

This weekend, between 5,000 to 7,000 people gathered at the courthouse square in downtown Prescott for the 26th annual Prescott Bluegrass Festival, a free, two-day event celebrating the traditional genre's strictly acoustic rhythms.

Six well-known bluegrass bands from across the country consecutively took the stage off Gurley Street in short, separate gigs. They played from 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Saturday, spreading plenty of cheer to an enthusiastic crowd nestled in their seats on the plaza.

The festival resumes today with four of those half-dozen bands strumming, including The Kirby Knob Boys at 11 a.m., Elliott's Ramblers and Palmer Divide will follow at noon and 1 p.m., respectively, before Randy Waller and the Country Gentlemen serve up the finale from 2 to 3 p.m.

"It's good wholesome family music," said John Nielsen, chairman of the Prescott Bluegrass Festival Committee. "A lot of the bands that we've had in the past have had their own children with them, all the way from 7 and 8 years old playing and singing."

Bob Lockett, a veteran bluegrass enthusiast who attended the first festival in Prescott 26 years ago, said the appeal of the music is that just about anybody can play it.

Lockett, who used to play the standup bass until a sore shoulder and a burned out arm sidelined him, said bluegrass originated in Europe with Celtic melodies.

"If you can carry a tune and hear a tune, you can play it," Lockett said.

Nielsen said committee members start planning for the following year's festival about a month after the current one ends with a wrap-up meeting.

They then map out monthly planning meetings and mail letters to potential sponsors seeking financial support.

The courthouse square has played host to the free festival for the past 10 years, Lockett said.

Originally, the Prescott Chamber of Commerce put on the festival for about 15 years, prior to its current stint downtown, at Watson Lake and charged admission.

When the chamber stopped sponsoring the festival several years ago, a few Prescott residents, including Jan Brown, kept it going by corralling the support of local sponsors and relocating it to the square.

"Bringing the event downtown and making it free increased the local crowds from about 15 to 20 percent to over 50 percent," Lockett said.

This weekend, Brown, a festival committee member for 16 years, was in charge of setting up the event. He says the Prescott festival's focus on the family has ensured its survival.

"You'll see kids, grandparents, young couples and older couples," Brown said. "Everybody comes because it's a clean, family-type entertainment."

Bluegrass was established in 1939, but avid listeners of the genre credit pioneer Bill Monroe of Kentucky - the so-called "founding father" - with formulating its unique style.

The music originated in Kentucky, where it maintains a rather large following. However, bluegrass did not become popular with mainstream America until 1946.

Earl Scruggs, a member of Monroe's famed Blue Grass Boys band from 1945-48, helped create the modern model for the music by playing the banjo with a three-finger roll.

Brown said bluegrass has experienced some lulls, but it has resurged in popularity since 2000, partly because of the broad reach of satellite radio.

"Musicians in bluegrass are now hitting the mainstream of music and getting awards," he said. "Once they get to the top, it really gives bluegrass exposure and people really like it."

Contact the reporter at dcook@prescottaz.com