Bluegrass sprouts in Humboldt

HUMBOLDT — Betty Hughes and her husband, Tom, are bringing a bluegrass jamboree to Humboldt for a week beginning Friday.
Betty said she expects about 30 RVs full of fiddlers, mandolinists, guitar players, singers and bluegrass enthusiasts to converge on Humboldt’s Camp Hunter Park.
“It’ll be country, gospel, bluegrass,” she said. “A few play old rock ‘n’ roll.”
As for Betty, she’s bringing her washboard bass, a classic old-time instrument she has played for more than 20 years. She’s bringing her latest instrument, too — a guitar.
“I’ve been playing guitar the last 15 years,” she said. “I’m still not good at it,” she joked.
Her husband “don’t play anything — he plays the radio,” Betty laughed.
But, she said, “he does a lot of the organizing.”
The couple, from Joplin, Mo., have been organizing bluegrass jamborees since 1994.
“It’s not a festival,” she clarified, with organized bands or showcases or stage. This is more a giant jam. “People will be playing in two or three places at once. You can bring a lawn chair and sit and listen, or join in,” she said.
The Hughes selected Humboldt’s Camp Hunter Park for economic reasons, Betty said.
“Right now, they’re the cheapest place we can find,” she said. “They’re letting us have it for $5 (per camper) a day. Even with the economy, that won’t break people.”
Plus, she said, “It’s a good, shady park.”
The Hughes used to host the festival in Coffeyville, until park fees there became too steep.
Hughes said at $15 or $20 a night for campground fees, musicians can’t afford the trip. At $5 a night, though, she said, “People can afford to come out and do something.”
The couple came upon organizing through necessity.
“We used to go to bluegrass festivals all the time,” she said. “My dad and my uncle took us over to Burton, Kan., one time. We went two or three years” after that, she said.
The couple would travel with friends, but “one year our friends called and told us they weren’t going to do it anymore.” Seeking fellow musicians and new travel partners, the two set out for greener pastures.
“We went to the Kansas Old-time Fiddlers, Pickers and Singers convention and at the time they had a really good manager. He set us up” organizing the jamboree, she said.
“The first year we had 100-and-some RVs at Coffeyville. The next year, it got bigger — We filled that park.”
Over the years, locations to hold such a jam have been tougher to find. “You can’t believe how hard it is to find a place to have a festival,” Hughes said.
“We’ve done it for 20-some years now. We were just going to quit, but Humboldt called and asked if we’d consider them again. We’re going to see what happens.”
The couple need a park with good electrical hookups for the RVs that most travelers come in, Hughes said.
“The city (of Humboldt) is going out of their way to help. They’ve redone the electricity in the park — not just for us, of course, but they let us know about it.”
Hughes expects the biggest crowds on May 21-23. “They’ll start coming and playing music all week long,” she said.
Amazingly, Hughes said, “We don’t ever advertise.” The crowds come through word-of-mouth. She said the crowd will range in age “form 10 or 11 on up to about 85 or 90 years old.”
Her conservative estimate for this year’s attendance stems from the economic downturn.
Hughes said everyone, even new performers, are welcomed when they come.
“People are just about setting down. They’ll let you play and give you some pointers if you ask them.”
As for the Hughes, they plan to set down, too. They found Kansas so welcoming Hughes said, “We’re moving to Mulberry, north of Pittsburg, this summer.”