by Jer Boon
The inaugural Cornish Bluegrass Festival took place in 2004, and was by a quirk of fate also the very first bluegrass festival that I attended. As an event that gave this then banjo novice such a warm introduction to the British bluegrass scene and began my enduring love for all such events, it still commands a certain amount of special affection from me.
The event was largely the brainchild of the Cornish Bluegrass Association’s chairman, the charismatic and hard-working Dean Woon. Says Dean, “I had been toying with the idea of organising a Cornish picking weekend since returning from the Silsden Bluegrass Festival in 2003. Whilst there, people were telling me they’d be prepared to travel to Cornwall if there was something going on, and when the people from ACLAIM said they’d get a coach load to come down, that was all the encouragement we needed.”
And so the CBA was born, with an aim to promote not just the festival, but events and sessions in Cornwall throughout the year. The first festival saw five bands play to over 200 bluegrass fans at Hendra Holiday Park in Newquay.
As a newcomer to the scene, I’d turned up at that event, knowing literally one person there. I was soon introduced to a couple of friends, then some friends of theirs, listened to some seasoned pickers jamming, and quickly felt at home. It’s perhaps the holiday park setting that makes this unique event quite what it is – despite the welcome, if the music ever does get too much, you can explore the other amenities on site, go for a swim in the fun pool or whatever, and just chill out.
The growth of the event has been marked over its three incarnations to date. In the second year, the concerts switched to fill the main cabaret room, one of the larger concert venues on the scene, and the year after that a marquee was added as a second concert venue.
“The Festival has definitely brought bluegrass to a wider audience,” says Dean. “In 2005 there was a caravan club in one of the other areas of Hendra that had been forced to re-schedule their event due to cancellations or something, but they enjoyed themselves so much that they have rearranged their calendar to coincide with the festival ever since.”
To some of the non-musical residents, the bluegrass would appear to be something of an oddity, but it’s always well-received, including the popular Appalachian clogging displays which take place in the main patio area.
I dared to take my banjo out twice that first year, once for a slow jam led by Stuart Williams from ACLAIM, and again for the Sunday morning organised picking session, which has become a regular feature of the event. It was daunting, but the encouragement for everyone to get involved at Hendra is palpable.
Dean knows all about encouraging newcomers. “We try to promote new or relatively new bands, and also try to involve bands based in the West Country, Europe and the USA. Last year we thought that we would give the Thunderbridge Bluegrass Boys a chance to show what they could do, and what a revelation they have turned out to be.” From interviewing the Thunderbridge boys for ukbluegrass last year, we could tell that they’d been rather concerned about “fitting in” at that event, but their headline performance on the Friday more than justified the CBA’s faith in booking them.
There’s also a “showcase” concert in the afternoon where new and upcoming acts are able to air their talents.
It’s an event that Dean Woon and the rest of the CBA committee and staff manage to make almost uniquely and endearingly Cornish, not least with this year’s headline act featuring a Cornish banjo player and mandolin maker from Nashville, one Sim Daley.
“We at the CBA are fully committed to providing the best weekend we possibly can, we get no financial reward, we even pay for our accommodation at the festival out of our own pockets,” says Dean. “The only reward we get is to see the people at the festival enjoying what we have worked so hard to provide, and the thanks and gratitude from everyone when the festival is over helps make it all worthwhile.” Hopefully the Cornish Bluegrass Festival will continue to thrive for years to come. Says Dean, “Hendra can cope with in excess of 5000 people in the peak season, so we will never need to go elsewhere…I hope!”