SEMBA Bluegrass Festival begins Thursday

Chad Smith

The Southeast Minnesota Bluegrass Association (SEMBA) will host their annual August Bluegrass Festival from Thursday thru Sunday (Aug 15-18) at Cushon’s Peak Campground between Rushford and Houston. SEMBA’s Darrell Ottman says tickets will be available at the campground throughout the four-day event.

“Bluegrass is one of the few forms of music that is indigenous to America,” Ottman said. “It got started up in the Appalachian Mountains. A lot of people who lived there long ago came to America as indentured servants. When they paid off their debts, a bunch of people got together to live in the mountains and form their own culture, which included music.”

Bluegrass incorporates instruments, such as the banjo, that reflect a diverse background. While the banjo was used primarily by folks in the south, Europeans brought the mandolin and the fiddle. Scottish and Italian immigrants brought in the bass.

At least one of the major bluegrass instruments came from America. “It’s called the Dobro,” Ottman said. “It was invented by the Dopyera brothers. They took the ‘Do’ from the first part of their name and ‘bro’ came from the fact that they were brothers. It’s called a resonator guitar, which has a metal ring in it and makes a unique sound. It looks like a guitar with a hubcap on it. You turn the guitar onto its back and play it that way.”

For those who don’t know a lot about bluegrass music, Ottman describes it as “upbeat music with a message.” That message may include family, mountain homes, church, trains, and many other options too numerous to list.

The name “bluegrass” first popped up back in the 1940s. “Bill Monroe is widely considered the ‘father’ of modern bluegrass music,” he said. “Monroe was out on the road with his backup band called ‘The Bluegrass Boys.’ That’s where the name first came from.”

Ottman added, “The way I describe bluegrass music is ‘country music on overdrive.’”

Looking ahead to the Bluegrass Festival, Ottman said the schedule includes afternoon and evening shows the first three days. Sunday morning will be all gospel music, with a more traditional bluegrass show scheduled for Sunday afternoon.

“We’ll have 10 different bands on the performing schedule,” Ottman said. “They’ll be coming in from a lot of different states. Just a few of the names on the schedule include The Finley River Boys from Missouri, Kevin Prater from Kentucky, and the Tony Rook Band from right here in Minnesota.”

 SEMBA members will host a music workshop on Wednesday, August 14, at the campground. Professional musicians will instruct ticketholders in how to play the fiddle, mandolin, banjo, Dobro, and the bass. The only admission charge to the lessons for each student is they must have at least a one-day wristband to the event. “Usually, these kinds of events can cost up to $300,” Ottman said. “But we sponsor this to promote bluegrass music.”

Ottman said Cushon’s Peak Campground, which has “the Root River on one side and the Root River bike trail on the other,” is enjoyed by festival-goers from all over the country who can’t believe how beautiful the setting is.

“We have quite a few people come in from as far away as Texas,” he added with a laugh. “They call themselves ‘winter Texans’ because they get a little crabby when it’s hot down there, so they come north for the summer. We also have people come down from Canada, and have people from Arizona and Illinois. Everyone is welcome, regardless of where they might be from,” Ottman said.