GREER — A number of years ago, John and Sharon Morris of Sunbury were camping at Mohican Wilderness on a mid-September weekend. They saw a sign pointing to a bluegrass festival taking place on a rustic stage built in one section of the campground, and decided to see what the fuss was about. When Sharon heard the music, she was in for a shock.
“It was the same as the mountain music my grandma from Virginia used to sing,” Sharon said.
She had not heard such tart and robust music in all the years since her grandmother died, and that blast of Appalachian vitality hooked her and her husband for good. Now they serve on the board of directors of the Central Ohio Bluegrass Association, and handle hospitality for some events, help man a promotional booth at some, and even host their own festival in Sunbury.
“We’re just doing our little part to keep this music alive,” Sharon said.
Bluegrass is alive and well at the Mohican Wildnerness Campground on Wally Road this weekend. The festival, in its 18th year, will run through Saturday night, featuring local favorites and internationally known bands. Some audience members camp for the whole weekend; others drop in to hear particular favorites.
“This is a hidden gem that not many people around here know about,” said Jerry Scott, the Knox County auctioneer who has served as an emcee at the festival for all of its 18 years.
Scott said he plans to work it two more years, then retire from announcing it when he’s reached an even 20 years. He said the festival was the brainchild of Tom Turner and Tim Tyler, who, after a lot of talking, finally convinced the late Ken Wobbecke to host the event at his campground. After Turner’s tragically young passing, Wobbecke named the rough-hewn log stage the Tom Turner Memorial Stage. Wobbecke recently passed away at the age of 89, but his family has jumped in to run the campground and keep the festival tradition going.
That tradition has seen some glorious moments. In 1994, Bill Monroe performed at the festival. Monroe was the man who first took Appalachian folk music, sped it up and added a touch of African-American blues, creating the style of music he dubbed “Bluegrass” after his home state of Kentucky. His 1994 visit turned out to be the musician’s final appearance in Ohio.
Scott said he asked Monroe what he thought of the stage and its resonant valley setting.
“I don’t think I’ve ever played at a better, more natural place than this one,” Monroe replied.
Scott said that later that night, after performing two sets and not taking a break until every last fan had a chance to talk with him, Monroe left his tour bus and wandered down to the campsites, where he sat around a campfire until 3 a.m., teaching young musicians how to play his mandolin and fiddle tunes.
Seth and Maggie Noblet from Galena brought the whole family to spend the weekend enjoying the music and its outdoors setting. The Noblets’ 3-year-old son, Jeremiah, danced Thursday afternoon while the band Idletymes played on stage. His brother, 10-month-old Joseph, bounced nearby on a blanket, while mother-in-law Lorraine Vance and her 5-year-old daughter, Rachel, encouraged him.
“This is our first time here,” Noblet said, “but it’ll be good.”
He said they all like the music, although Jeremiah is especially excited by the music.
Today will see performances by The Hillbilly Gypsies, Tony Holt & the Wildwood Valley Boys, Mountain Therapy and the internationally acclaimed Northwest Territory. Knox County’s own Safire Sun will kick things off Saturday with a 12:30 p.m. performance. Northwest Territory will also return, along with Alecia Nugent, David Peterson & 1946, and Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper.
Short-term parking is available for non-camping visitors. Admission is charged at the campground’s gatehouse. The Mohican Wilderness Campground is located 22462 Wally Road, about two miles north of Greersville in northeast Knox County. For further information visit www.mohicanwilderness.com.