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Family-friendly music festival fields top talent in Myrtle Beach

Bobby Osborne said he has been coming to Myrtle Beach for Thanksgiving for about 30 years, all at his pickin'.

The mandolinist, whose career started in about 1950, singing "Ruby," will bring his band, The Rocky Top X-Press, to entertain at the S.C. State Bluegrass Festival, an extravaganza that opens Thursday for three full days of music.

"This is right at the end of our season," Osborne said Saturday afternoon by phone from Nashville, Tenn. "And this is one of the greatest holidays we have."

This marks his first year performing on Thanksgiving Day, but no matter what day Rocky Top plays at the festival in Myrtle Beach, Osborne relishes every visit.

"It's beautiful down there at this time of year," he said. "It's a good place to get away from the normal routine, a good place to go relax and forget everything for the weekend."

Osborne has borne witness to Myrtle Beach's growth from 20 to 25 years ago.

"I remember when there was not much to do there," he said. "Now, it's year round ... with Calabash and the restaurants."

Performing last Friday in Nashville at the Ryman Auditorium - the winter home of the Grand Ole Opry, where he was inducted in 1964 - Osborne said he's always reminded of bluegrass's launch pad.

"The Ryman is where bluegrass was born," he said, "in 1945, when Earl Scruggs showed up on stage."

Since then, bluegrass has built a following that transcends generations across the United States, even "with lawyers and politicians," Osborne said.

He brought up a surprise from performing in the White House in the early 1970s for President Nixon and members of Congress.

"I was amazed at how many of them played banjo at home," Osborne said, noting the genre's growth through exports. "Bluegrass is not something just in the USA; bluegrass is all over the world now, from corner to corner. It's not ever going to stop. It's foot-stomping music, you know?"

The portability of its instruments makes them easy for travel, he said, "and you don't need electricity to play."

Osborne said he's "contributed the biggest part of my life to bluegrass music." Almost 70 years old, he was excited about a new Rocky Top CD coming out Nov. 27 on Rural Rhythm Records, "Memories," celebrating his 60th year as a professional entertainer.

"We did some songs that made me what I am today," he said.

Rocky Top guitarist Bobby Osborne Jr. produced the album's 14 cuts, which reach back to his days with brother Sonny. It also introduces some new numbers such as "Bring Back Yesterday." Guest artists include Ronnie McCoury playing the mandolin with the elder Osborne, and a fellow native Kentuckian, Patty Loveless, singing the title track.

"She does a wonderful job singing with it," Osborne said.

Moving inside for winter

Norman Adams, who is based in Georgia and promotes and owns the S.C. State Bluegrass Festival with Tony Anderson, said they have been involved with this annual event for about 30 years.

He said the Myrtle Beach Convention Center allows for a wintertime bluegrass fest because usually such mass gatherings happen outside in warmer months nationwide.

"This was probably the first indoor bluegrass festival ever held," Adams said.

This winter outlet for bluegrass remains among the biggest of the company's seven annual shows on the Eastern seaboard.

"We just book the top main talent," Adams said.

He cited colossal figures such as 83-year-old Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys as headliners for the festival's opening night, and for the other two days, Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent, who have won Entertainer of the Year honors three times since 2008 at the International Bluegrass Music Association Awards.

"We just bring the best," said Adams.

He mentioned one vehicle from 2000 that keeps bluegrass moving in attracting younger fans in the 21st century. "The movie 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' has done more for bluegrass than anything else," he said.

That plot, set in Mississippi during the 1930s, unfolds with a cast including George Clooney, Charles Durning and John Goodman, and a soundtrack blending traditional and new bluegrass with artists such as Stanley and Alison Krauss, plus its signature song, "I'm a Man of Constant Sorrow" by the Soggy Bottom Boys and Dan Tyminski.

The Rivertown Bluegrass Society organizes a concert at 5 p.m. the third Saturday monthly, including this weekend, at the Horry-Georgetown Technical College Burroughs & Chapin Auditorium in Conway.

Its president, Mickey Sellers, called the S.C. Bluegrass Fest "a very important a part" of Myrtle Beach Thanksgiving tradition.

"It's something I look forward to every year," he said. "I have never missed one since I started going."

Sellers treats bluegrass as an art, with its accent on acoustic instruments.

"It's one of the hardest music forms there is to play and play right," he said.

"It's just hard to do; that's what makes it fun to try."

Festival for the family

The music's family orientation - in its performers and for audiences - also adds to the attraction in Sellers' eyes.

"It's where everybody can take your whole family," he said, having attended outdoor festivals out of state that draw crowds of 30,000 to 40,000. "There's not going to be bad words. It's a family atmosphere."

Sellers hopes efforts will start, especially through school music programs, to get more young people involved with bluegrass fundamentals, such as with exposure with lessons on the fiddle, or violin, as known in other styles outside country music.

"I think the kids would like it," he said.

Attending a bluegrass festival every summer in Galax, Va., in the southwest part of Old Dominion, near the N.C. line, already has proven that point for Sellers.

"Some of the best fiddlers you'll ever hear come from people ages 5 to 85," he said. "Some of the best musicians you'll ever listen to are young kids."

Again, Sellers highlighted the household tenor of bluegrass values.

"Where you see the kids, you see the family," he said.