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Ice pickin' and grinnin'

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Weather doesn't keep Bluegrass fans away from annual festival

By Stephen Lega

One minute, 15-year-old Shane Raymer of Caneyville was sitting in the audience enjoying the performers at the 2010 Kentucky Bluegrass Music Kickoff. The next, emcee Jeremy Bowman was calling Raymer to take the stage and play his banjo for the estimated 200 people who attended Friday evening's show.

And a minute after that, three-time national banjo champion Gary "Biscuit" Davis joined Raymer on stage.

"It was a little bit scary," Raymer said after coming off stage, despite the smile on his face.

The snow may have delayed the arrival of one of Friday's performers, but it couldn't stop fans of Bluegrass music from having a good time.

Raymer and his parents have become regular visitors to the KBMK, and a bit of bad weather wasn't about to keep them from making the 100-mile trip.

This was the fifth time that Lebanon has hosted the state's first Bluegrass showcase of the year, and it's something Brad Lanham hopes to see continue for years to come.

"I really think it's starting to become an established festival for the start of the year," Lanham said.

Lanham is the president of the Kentucky Fellowship of Musicians, which hosts and organizes the festival.

Attendance was down some from previous years - Lanham estimated that approximately 350 watched Saturday evening's show - but he thinks the weather and the general state of the economy were both factors in that.

Nevertheless, he said the people who came enjoyed what they saw and heard.

Mark and Olivia Kirkland of Huntsville, Ala., returned for the third time, and they brought their son, Cody, along for the ride for the first time this year.

"It's a good experience," Mark Kirkland said, shortly after he finished attending a guitar workshop. "We enjoy it."

Olivia Kirkland said they have become friends with some of the regular performers and other Bluegrass music fans who attend the festival.

"It's just like a family reunion when you come up here," she said.

Davis has been one of those regular performers since the beginning of the festival. In addition to performing both nights of the festival, he teaches workshops during the day on Saturday. Davis is the band leader for Dolly Parton's band and co-produced her album, "Halos and Horns."

Davis said the KBMK gives him a break from his daily performances at the Dixie Stampede in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., where he often plays several shows a day. He said he has enjoyed seeing how some of the students who attended his workshop during the first festival have progressed as musicians.

"Now, some of them are to the point that I can take lessons from them," he said.

He added that he'll keep coming back for the festival as long as Lebanon has it.

This year's headlining act was Bluegrass legend J.D. Crowe and his band The New South.

"I thought it was great fun," Crowe said.

He added that the festival was different from the many outdoor events where he has performed. He also appreciated the audience that came out in spite of the weather.

"It was a great reception," Crowe said. "It was a very appreciative crowd, and I'd like to come back."

Lebanon Tourism Director Chris Hamilton said the weather forecasts during the week leading up to the festival affected last-minute sales, but advanced sales were going well up until that point.

Regardless, he said the festival will continue to grow due to its reputation for being a "professional, blockbuster event" that attracts visitors to the community and offers an entertainment option for local citizens.

The Hagar's Mountain Boys made their third appearance on stage during this year's festival. They had a slightly different line-up, but they proved to be just as popular as ever based on the crowd reaction (a standing ovation) and the number of people buying CDs and getting autographs after their performance.

The group's newest member, Mike Johnson, is also its elder statesman. Johnson, of Roxboro, N.C. is the father of lead vocalist and bass player, Blake Johnson.

Mike Johnson joined the band when it needed to replace its guitar player last year. While the rest of the band has been here before, it was Mike Johnson's first visit.

He said he has enjoyed the event as well as the scenery in central Kentucky.

"It's been real nice. The people are real hospitable," Mike Johnson said.

Although he comes from a musical family and was part of another band for 15 years before joining his son in the Hagar's Mountain Boys, Mike Johnson still took some time to get some tips from Davis during one of his workshops.

"You don't ever know too much," Mike Johnson said.

Raymer was in the same workshop session, and he gave the impression that he intends to keep coming back.

"I learn something new every time I come," he said.