Bighill, Ky., Plays Host to 6,000 Music Lovers

Times Staff Writer

The Goins Brothers Family Band finished its set with "Head of the Holler in Kentucky" and "Windy Mountain," then headed offstage to rousing cheers, whistles and applause.

Birchie Howard, 72, rushed up to lead singer and guitarist Melvin Goins, grabbed Melvin's left arm and declared:

"Hold your horses. I'm from your neck of the woods. Why, we borrowed flour and fixin's and broke bread together. Had grits that slap your eyeballs out. I want a picture of you boys to hang in my living room."

Goins, whose group includes four brothers and two shirttail cousins, said to follow him to his trailer, that he'd be glad to oblige.

It was as good an example as any of the spontaneity and conviviality that pervades the three-day, noon-to-11 p.m., bluegrass and country music festival held every August in this rolling Kentucky hill country.

From Ashland, Ky., the Goins brothers were one of 19 professional family musical groups performing at this year's 10th annual McLain Family Band Festival here in Bighill, population 150, up the road from Clover Bottom and Sandgap and not far from Idamay and Drip Rock--Eastern Kentucky hamlets on the edge of Daniel Boone National Forest.

More than 6,000 avid bluegrass fans came this year from as far away as Maine and California, England, France, Czechoslovakia and Japan to hear family bands from around the nation for an entry fee of $10 for each 11-hour session.

Cars, pickups, trailers, tents and campers dotted the blue-green hills of Raymond McLain's 73-acre farm at Bighill, a farm he bought 10 years ago especially to hold his annual family band get-togethers. Many of the bluegrass fans camped out on the farm during the three-day musical marathon.

Family Groups

"I had been thinking for years it would be nice to have a bluegrass festival each year featuring family groups exclusively," explained McLain, 57, who plays guitar in a band with seven of his family members.

"Then I found this farm with this marvelous hill forming a natural amphitheater. At the bottom of the hill is a grove of locust, wild plum and oak trees, a great backdrop for the stage. The rest is history."

McLain was sitting in a lawn chair beside the stage, relishing each group's performance. Bluegrass fans relaxed on chairs all over the hillside, many taking cover from the hot sun under multicolored canvas-topped shelters. It was 98 and muggy, so most were ensconced under a huge tent at the top of the hill where it was slightly cooler.

Peanut Faircloth, 60, 4-foot, 8-inch lead singer and harmonica player with Faircloth Bluebird Special, was singing and playing "Thank the Lord for Dunlap, Tennessee" with his 6-foot, 2-inch son, Raiford, 34, on guitar and daughter, Sadie, 30, singing and playing the accordion.

The Faircloths are from Chattanooga, Tenn. Peanut told the crowd that he and his family performed every year at the Family Band Festival, "because the McLains are the only ones that have anything like this."

"Historically, so many country music performers were family groups," McLain said, "and there are still a lot of family groups out there. Since our group is one of them, I'm mighty interested in how other families work. It's fun to see how much they look alike or don't look alike, how they get along with one another."

Families perform and families come to listen. "It's such a clean and wholesome atmosphere," volunteered Jane Lesh, 50, who drove down from Muncie, Ind., with her husband, Tom, 58, a professor at Ball State University. "We love bluegrass. People come here strictly for the music. No alcohol or drugs are allowed."

Raymond McLain talked about the versatility of musicians in family bands, how in most cases each member of a family band plays more than one instrument and sings. "It's easy-to-take music. There aren't many kinds of music where one person does two things at once, four people do eight things and make it sound like 12," McLain allowed.

The McLain Family Band is 20 years old. In the beginning there were four McLains in it. Now there are eight: grandmother Bicky, somewhere in her 70s, sings ballads; father Raymond plays guitar. Of the children, Raymond, 33, plays fiddle and banjo; Nancy Ann, 22, bass and mandolin; Michael, 20, banjo and guitar; Ruth McLain Riopel, 29, bass; Alice McLain White, 30, mandolin and bass and her husband, Al, 34, mandolin and guitar.

World Travels

The McLain Family Band travels eight months of the year full time, four months part time, and has performed in all 50 states and 62 countries, including Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, Taiwan, Japan, Nepal, North Yemen, Afghanistan and Iran. Raymond senior's wife, Betty, 53, manages the group and does the bookings.

Bicky, the matriarch of the band, is a widow. Her late husband had been president of three universities including the American University in Cairo, Egypt. She has taught courses in early American ballads in this country, England and Egypt.

"I sing the traditional ballads with the group. Sing the same songs my mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and several greats before her sang," explained Bicky McLain. At this year's festival she sang "Two Sisters," a song dating back to Mary Queen of Scots, and "Babes in the Woods," a song at least three centuries old. "Many of the early Appalachian folk songs we sing were originally Scottish, Irish, English folk songs brought to this country by settlers in the 16th and 17th centuries," she noted.

Country singer Patsy Montana came to Bighill from Long Beach, Calif., with her husband, Paul Rose. It was their second McLain Family Band Festival. "I heard about the get-together of family bands last year and told my husband, let's go visit your kin in Knoxville and run up and take in that McLain thing," Montana said.

When she was first introduced to the McLains, Raymond senior said: "We've been trying to find you. Where you been?" She sang with the McLains last August at the festival and she sang with them again this year, both times the song that made her famous, "I Want To Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart."

"I wrote the words and music for that 52 years ago and sang it for the first time in 1936 over WLS, the Prairie Farmers station in Chicago," Montana recalled. "It became the first million-selling record ever for a girl singer." She laughed as she remembered performers at WLS in the 1930s saying the WLS call letters stood for "World's Lousiest Singers" and "World's Lowest Salaries."

Lee Lorentz, 49, and his five-member Lorentz Family Bluegrass Band drove down in the family van from their home in Eagle, Wis. They had everybody join in singing an old traditional yodel song: "First take a deep breath, exhale one-two-three. You can learn the yodel just like me. . . ."

Favorite Times

"The McLain Family Band Festival is one of our favorite times of the year," said Barb Lorentz, 45, who plays bass. "It goes on all day, then we jam to the wee hours of the morning. It's family."

Alain De Sainte Foy, 37, from the tiny French village of Grans, crossed the Atlantic with his banjo after hearing "there was great bluegrass at the McLain farm in Bighill."

"I have a bluegrass group in France called the Blue Aui Tach. There are five of us. We sing in English traditional songs from this part of America. Not too many people have ever heard bluegrass in France," he noted.

George Alexander, 61, a music teacher from Ewell, England, heard about the festival and flew here for it.

And, Appleseed, a bluegrass group from Japan, was here to perform. Kaz Inaba, 27, played banjo; Mieko Otome, 25, Yoshiro Takahashi, 38, and Masuo Sasabe, 38, all played guitar. All sing as well. They sang "Blue Moon of Kentucky" and "Kentucky Waltz" in flawless English. If you closed your eyes you would think Mieko Otome, the female singer, was someone who'd lived her entire life in the Kentucky hills.

"My father, brother and I have a family bluegrass group in Osaka," Kaz Inaba said. "Father plays the banjo, my brother plays the mandolin. We don't sing bluegrass in Japanese. We sing it in English. Nobody knows the words we're singing over there. That's the problem. Japanese don't know bluegrass."

A Family Affair

Bill Foster, 48, wore four honor keys on his denim vest. He is an English professor at the University of Northern Alabama in Florence, Ala. When he isn't teaching he is on the road with the five-member Foster Family String Band. He, his wife, son, daughter and son-in-law are in the band. They have cut seven albums.

As the pungent and pleasant odor of barbecuing ribs, pork and steak permeated the air, Foster talked about the camaraderie among performers and spectators. "It's a very special time for all of us. Many of us have become friends and see each other only at the Family Band Festival. We have developed friendships that will last a lifetime," Foster said.

James B. Moore, 47, who owns his own energy business in Lexington, Ky., was here with his wife, Sarah, 38, and son, Joshua, 2. The Moores come every year. This year, as always, they brought along 150 pounds of sirloin steak and 200 pounds of pork chops to barbecue for the friends they see only once a year at the bluegrass and country festival. "We love the music. We love these people. The Lord says give and it will be given back to you in great measure. This meat is our small token of appreciation of what the McLain Family Band Festival means to us," Moore said.

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