A Conversation With Carl Goldstein, Champion of Bluegrass Music
By Steven Brodsky
Among those who’ve done the most to preserve bluegrass music and further its appreciation is Carl Goldstein. Consistent with the informal yet respectful norm of the bluegrass community, I’m not using the title “The Honorable” before his name; he was a judge in Delaware for 40 years before retiring in 2013. With two others, Carl founded the Brandywine Friends of Old Time Music in 1971. He’s provided leadership for the Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival since its start in 1972. (The Festival was called the Delaware Bluegrass Festival until it moved to New Jersey in 1990.) Since 1977, Carl has hosted the Fire on the Mountain radio show on WVUD FM. In 2011, he was inducted into the WVUD Hall of Fame.
Carl, what are your official roles at the Brandywine Friends of Old Time Music and the Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival?
I’m Chair of the BFOTM and Director of the Festival.
How long have you served in these capacities?
Since the organization and Festival’s inception.
How did you get introduced to bluegrass music?
I became interested in folk music during the “folk music scare” of the ’60s although I had listened to country music and blues even before that time. I found the more earthy and honest music of early Appalachian music to be even more to my liking.
When you first got involved in bluegrass music, where did you travel to hear the music and to learn more about it?
I travelled with companions to southwest Virginia, western North Carolina and Tennessee to fiddlers’ conventions and the earliest bluegrass festivals.
What drew you to the music and how did it engage you?
The soulful, powerful and yet down to earth nature of the music drew me in. I started collecting the music and eventually learned to play guitar.
In your early years as a fan of bluegrass music, who were some of your favorite musicians?
The Stanley Brothers/Ralph Stanley, Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, Mississippi John Hurt, and the Country Gentlemen were among some early favorites.
What were some of your favorite songs?
Too many to single out I’m afraid.
What memories do you have of Sunset Park (the iconic country music venue that was located in Chester County, Pennsylvania)?
I lived only a half hour or so from Sunset Park. I went there many Sundays during the summer months and was lucky enough to hear many of the greats of bluegrass and country music. In addition, each week musicians would jam out in the field.
What caused the Delaware Valley to become a hotbed of bluegrass music?
During the tough economic years of the ’30s many families from the mid south relocated to the area (NE Maryland, Southeastern PA and Delaware) in search of work bringing with them their culture and music. Among these families were the Paisleys, the Lundys, and the Campbells (Ola Belle Reed) and many others.
How were Ralph Stanley and Bill Monroe responsible for the first annual Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival?
Ralph Stanley, whom I had known from years of following his music, came to us on behalf of himself and Bill Monroe in 1971 asking whether our organization would host a festival – the first in the northeast. They were to supply the talent (although we did have some limited input) and we were to supply the venue and publicity. We were delighted to agree. The Festival was set for Labor Day weekend 1972. That first year it was in a KOA campground but moved to a newly constructed music park – Gloryland Park – the second year.
After the third year Bill and Ralph decided to start their own festivals that weekend in their respective home places. From that point on we produced the Festival ourselves and after their festivals ended in a few years we had each of them back nearly every other year.
Did you believe that the first Festival was going to become an annual event?
We had high hopes but that first year was a muddy mess. They (Bill and Ralph) and we persevered.
Please tell us about a few of your most valued memories associated with the Festival.
It was Lester Flatt who stepped up that 4th year at a fee we could afford so we were able to present a fine lineup our first year on our own.
Doc Watson and Bill Monroe did a rare and historic set together in 1990, our first year in New Jersey.
We had some legendary folks perform for us over the years. In addition to nearly all of the great bluegrass musicians, we have presented Merle Travis, Hank Thompson, and a number of special tribute sets and reunions that were very memorable like, for example, Ricky Skaggs and Ralph Stanley.
I should mention that the Brandywine Friends and hence the Bluegrass Festival is run by a Board of Directors of 16 members. They are all interesting, smart and funny human beings. I mention it here because part of the joy of the Festival is doing it with these exceptional folks.
Congratulations on the Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival winning the award for 2016 IBMA Event of the Year. What components make the Festival a favorite of musicians and attendees year after year?
I think that because we are nonprofit and all volunteer we have the luxury of presenting a top-notch lineup of talent – top to bottom each year. While our main focus is bluegrass, we have always presented some variety with comparable genres like old-time music, traditional country music, Cajun and French Canadian.
We also include features like a Children’s Stage and a Kids Academy where youngsters can gain instruction in every bluegrass instrument during the course of the weekend. We are also known as a great jam festival. Our campground is filled with folks playing day and night.
Please speak about the lineup for the 46th Annual Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival taking place on Labor Day weekend.
Once again we have a great lineup featuring some of the best acts in traditional music – Del McCoury, the Gibson Brothers, and a host of others. We have the perennial favorites: The Grascals, Blue Highway, and IBMA 2016 Male Vocalist of the Year Danny Paisley. All that in addition to relative newcomers like Becky Buller and Flatt Lonesome and powerful old-time music from the Foghorn Stringband and April Verch – not to mention Asleep at the Wheel who I will in a moment.
Are there performers that you are especially looking forward to seeing this year? If so, why?
It’s always a treat for us to surprise our audience with an act that may be unexpected but is fully within our view of traditional music. This year it is Asleep at the Wheel – the legendary Texas Western Swing band. That’s gonna be fun.
What do you most enjoy about hosting the Fire on the Mountain radio show?
I think it’s the audience. Each week I get calls from interesting and informed people. They have been very loyal over these 40 years and each year those folks lead all programs on the station for our fundraising efforts. They’re just great. Besides, if I weren’t playing that music on the air, I’d be home doing the same thing.
What does the future look like for bluegrass music and the Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival?
If you’d asked me that question 15 or so years ago I might not have been as optimistic as I am now. There are a great number of younger folks playing bluegrass and old-time music these days. That in turn bodes well for the festivals.
The 46th Annual Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival is scheduled for September 1-3, 2017. It will be held at the Salem County Fairgrounds, US Rt. 40, 7 miles east of the Delaware Memorial Bridge. The event is run by the Brandywine Friend of Old Time Music. Information is available at: www.delawarevalleybluegrass.org.
Information about the Brandywine Friends of Old Time Music is at: www.brandywinefriends.org.
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Steven Brodsky hosted a radio show for 3 and a half years. The show focused on coverage of entertainment, the arts, and all manner of culture. He is widely known for his many live on air interviews with guests such as: Rodney Crowell, Charlie Louvin, Richie Havens, Eric Whitacre (composer, conductor), Solomon Burke, Janis Ian, Percy Sledge, Billy Joe Shaver, Jack LaLanne, Bruce Morrow (Cousin Brucie), Jett Williams (daughter of Hank Williams), Pulitzer Prize-winning authors, curators, historians, scientists, and newsmakers. He welcomes email at Steven Brodsky.