Carlton Haney grew up in the North Carolina Piedmont – tobacco country – where his family listened to the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday nights. His own interest in bluegrass music reportedly emanated from a crush he had on Bill Monroe’s teenage daughter. Like the “father of bluegrass,” for whom he worked as an agent from 1953-1955, Haney referred to the genre as ”Blue Grass,” rather than the nearly universal “Bluegrass.” For the next ten years, he worked as an agent and manager for Don Reno, Red Smiley & the Tennessee Cut-Ups and also wrote or co-wrote several songs in their repertoire – including “Jimmy Caught the Dickens (Pushing Ernest in the Tub),” Kneel Down” and “Never Get to Hold You in My Arms Anymore.” He also worked with country legends Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn at various times during the 1950s and 1960s, introduced Merle Haggard on the live albums Okie From Muskogee and The Fightin’ Side of Me, and published the bluegrass magazine Muleskinner News from its launch in 1969 to 1975.
But Haney’s most notable contribution to bluegrass music came in 1965 when he organized and produced the first weekend-long bluegrass festival. Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, Jimmy Martin, the Stanley Brothers, Doc Watson and Mac Wiseman were among the artists who performed during the “Blue Grass Festival” at Cantrell’s Horse Farm in Fincastle, Virginia, 12 miles north of Roanoke, over Labor Day weekend 1965. Inspired by the Newport Folk Festival, it was the progenitor of the many bluegrass festivals today. Albert Ihde’s Bluegrass Country Soul, the first feature film about bluegrass music, was shot during that festival.
As he would at subsequent festivals in Camp Springs, NC and Berryville, VA, among others, Haney served as the narrator in the emotional, ritualistic retelling of “the bluegrass story,” that capped the festival — “dramatizing the genre’s history with appearances by performers who were part of its rich history,” according to the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) website.
Phil Zimmerman, a bluegrass musician, photographer and author, who helped Haney and Ralph Rinzler (Bill Monroe’s former manager) document the festival on audio tape, recounts that experience in his book, Bluegrass Time. “Most of my memories from Carlton’s first festival have faded into general impressions, but a few memories still stand out,” he wrote. “The highpoint of the weekend for me was the Sunday afternoon “Bluegrass Story.” In the book, Zimmerman relates:
Carlton asked for complete silence from the audience. “We don’t want to hear a sound,” he said, “just the wind in the trees.” Then Bill played his famous mandolin introduction to Muleskinner Blues, and they were off! Bill was on stage for the whole show, with only a few minutes respite while the Stanley Brothers did two songs with their own band. Otherwise, it was a parade of former Blue Grass Boys taking the place at the mic with Bill. Ralph Rinzler was orchestrating things behind the scene, while Carlton was emceeing…
The Bluegrass Story was the festival finale. After the reprise of Muleskinner, and the encore of John Henry, Carlton thanked everyone for coming, and for being such a good crowd. “There wasn’t no fights, no trouble, or nothin’,” he noted. All the way home, the sounds of the weekend were ringing in my ears. I even thought I could hear banjo picking in the radio static.
“Besides being a visionary promoter, Carlton was a master raconteur, philosopher, and folk mystic,” Zimmerman told AcousticMusicScene.com. “Since he and I reconnected ten or so years ago, I looked forward to his random hour-long late-night phone calls that included his “Unified-Field” observations on the connections between, for example, Pythagoras, Bill Monroe, the “music of the spheres,” and Thelonious Monk.” Similarly, Neil Rosenberg writes in Bluegrass: A History: “Haney was not only an intellectual; he was a homegrown mystic who expressed his belief in the strength of Bill Monroe’s music in terms of ‘vibrations.’ “
Haney received an IBMA Award of Merit for distinguished achievement in 1990 and, in 1998, was inducted into the Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor (now the IBMA’s Bluegrass Hall of Fame) that is housed in the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, Kentucky – an institution devoted to the recognition of noteworthy individuals for their outstanding contributions to bluegrass music. More information on Haney may be found on its website, www.bluegrass-museum.org.
Editor’s Note: Marcia Goodman’s photo of Carlton Haney was taken during the 40th Anniversary Reunion of the first bluegrass festival, held at an adjacent horse farm in Fincastle, VA, in 2005. He was reprising “The Blue Grass Story” at the time.