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Fiddlin' around

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Music festival draws hundreds to Marion County

By Stephen Lega

Saturday morning, Amber Keene took her first fiddle lesson. That evening, she performed "Mary Had a Little Lamb" on stage in front of hundreds of people accompanied by a three-time national banjo champion.

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This was also the first year that Keene, 9, of Bloomfield has attended the Kentucky Bluegrass Music Festival.

"The bands were pretty cool," she said. "I've never been here before and I want to come back next year."

The 2011 Kentucky Bluegrass Music Kickoff was the biggest it's been in the six-year history of Lebanon's festival. Visitors traveled from all over Kentucky and from nine other states, including North Dakota and Texas, to attend the festival at Marion County High School. 

For the first time, the festival sold out of its dinner show tickets, according to Brad Lanham, the president of the Kentucky Fellowship of Musicians, which organizes the event. Many more people watched the show as well.

And that has created a new challenge for the members of the fellowship.

"We kind of looked at each other and said, 'What are we going to do next year?' You've had The Grascals on stage here in Lebanon," Lanham said. "I'm not sure what we do after that."

Gary "Biscuit" Davis, the three-time national banjo champion, has been involved with Lebanon's bluegrass festival since he and Lanham met in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., several years ago.

"[Biscuit] has such a great rapport with people and he makes so many friends," Lanham said.

Davis said Lanham has become like family as their friendship has developed.

"I just like coming up here. It's relaxing," Davis said.

In addition to performing during the festival, Davis has hosted workshops each year. He enjoys meeting new musicians, but he also likes to visit with his students from previous years when he can. 

"I had several come for two or three years in a row, and a lot of them couldn't be here today because they are out playing gigs," Davis said.

He added that they started with lessons in Lebanon. 

"You're cranking out stars right here in the bluegrass capital in Kentucky," Davis said.

He also continues to be impressed with the musicians who perform during the festival.

"You keep wanting to say it's getting better and better, and I think it is," Davis said.

This year's event also gave him a chance to reunite with Danny Roberts, one of his childhood friends. Roberts, a Kentucky native who is now the mandolin player for The Grascals, and Davis useD to perform together in the contest circuit when they were younger.

After Saturday's performance, Roberts and his bandmates were surrounded by fans.

"It's been great," Roberts said in between autographs. "Hopefully, we'll be back again."

While music remains the center of the kickoff, some new attractions were added to this year's festival. Line dancing lessons, heritage demonstrations (such as rag rug making, snowball quilting and basket making) and a quilt show were incorporated into the events during the day Saturday.

As the festival has continued to grow, Lanham said the Lebanon Tourist and Convention Commission and its executive director, Chris Hamilton, are a big part of that.

"If it hadn't been for them, this couldn't fly," Lanham said.

This year's festival also marked a milestone for a couple visitors. Tommy and Bethany Garza of Moorehead celebrated their second anniversary this past weekend.

Tommy Garza said his mother-in-law had arranged their tickets and booked them a room for the weekend.

"It's been a heck of a time, honestly," he said.

The festival also featured the WoodSongs Ag Credit Music Stage. Michael Johnathan, the host of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour, even took some time to participate in an on-stage interview with Lanham and members of The Grascals.

Johnathan records his weekly program every Monday at the Kentucky Theater in Lexington, and the show has a radio and television audience of more than two million people, including the Armed Forces Radio Network.

But as excited as the crowd was to hear The Grascals, they were just as enthusiastic in their support for the Hagar's Mountain Boys, who were making their fourth appearance at the kickoff.

"That is the one question I get after every year. 'Are the Hagar's Mountain Boys coming back?" Lanham said. 

According to Cliff Smith, the band's banjo player, there's a good chance they will.

"We look forward to coming up here every time, just like going home to family," he said.

Lanham said fellowship members will be meeting soon to wrap up this year's event, but he added that they will also start planning for the 2012 event.

 "It's just kind of grown and grown every year," Lanham said.