Originally created 01/04/03

Bluegrass festival draws new crowd in wake of film



JEKYLL ISLAND, Ga. - Although they were a long way from the style's Appalachian roots, bluegrass music fans have been gathering on Jekyll Island for one of their many reunions.

Drawn by Thursday's opening of the 27th annual New Year's Bluegrass Festival, hundreds of fans parked their motor homes and filed into the Jekyll Island Convention Center to hear six groups perform the music that originated in mountain hollows.

Tim Ashley once stood on the stage himself, playing upright bass for Charlie Waller and the Country Gentlemen, one of the best-known groups in bluegrass. Now 54, Mr. Ashley and his wife, Vicki, are devoted fans.

He came to the festival to hear the Country Gentlemen and Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, his favorite group.

"I played professionally a whole lot of years," Mr. Ashley said. Sitting in the driver's seat of his motor home, Mr. Ashley picked up his banjo and played along with a bluegrass track. Unlike musicians in other forms of music, bluegrass musicians often gather in parking lots and play old standards.

Because it is winter, the parking lot pickers gather in a room at the convention center.

Mr. Ashley has seen some changes in the past year that he and promoter Norman Adams say came with O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the highly successful movie that featured George Clooney lip-synching to a bluegrass soundtrack with some of the biggest names in the business.

"It's actually put bluegrass on the map," Mr. Ashley said.

And now others are catching on to what Mr. Ashley has always known and loved.

"My daddy got me started when I was 5 or 6 years old," he said.

Mr. Adams, who puts on six festivals every year in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia with partner Tony Anderson, said he saw the change almost immediately in the growing crowds.

"We were getting more young people," he said.

Steve Gulley, the lead tenor and flattop guitar picker for Mountain Heart, said the film was great for the industry.

"It's opened up a lot of markets for the music," he said.

Mr. Gulley said he was already seeing younger faces among festival fans before O Brother, but the movie brought in even more of them and relayed the message that bluegrass has a definite identity.

"It's accepted more as a genre, as a music form of its own rather than country music's red-headed stepchild," he said.