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Back to the Old Days: The Wheeler County Bluegrass Festival provides a slice of small-town charm for the Fourth of July 

A few minutes past noon, the parade takes shape down by the courthouse.

click to enlarge culture_fossilmusic1.jpg

A few minutes past noon, the parade takes shape down by the courthouse. Vintage cars line up behind a group of 4-H kids, the county princess arrives on horseback in full cowgirl regalia, war veterans mount a flatbed trailer attached to a tractor and an artfully restored pioneer-era stagecoach is pulled into place.

Once organized, the parade starts its eight-block circuit of the heart of Fossil (population 469 and named for its paleontologic riches) in celebration of America's independence as well as marking the mid-way point in the annual Wheeler County Bluegrass Festival.

On the grounds of the 100-year-old Wheeler County Courthouse, which doubles as the festival's stage, people stroll out from the shade of massive cottonwoods to watch the parade depart. A few blocks ahead on the main street, people crowd under what shade they can find to watch the parade pass by the mercantile store.

click to enlarge culture_fossilparade.jpg

It's a Fourth of July celebration at its best - informal and heartfelt. There's nothing fancy here, just people celebrating as they have done and continue to do in countless small towns across America. What's different with the celebration in Fossil is the music. The bluegrass festival started without fanfare and has grown into an event that Oregon bluegrass lovers and musicians look forward to every year.

"In the summer of 2000, I decided to have an informal free concert to celebrate the life of my father who had passed away earlier in the year," says festival organizer Jay Bowerman.

The father he's talking about is none other than legendary University of Oregon and Olympic track coach, Bill Bowerman, who was a Fossil native.

"My father's great-grandfather, J.W. Chambers, discovered the site in the mid 1860s where Fossil now sits while riding with a group of Indians," says Bowerman. "In 1867, he brought his family here and eventually his son, Thomas, and his wife, Mary Jane, opened the post office and the mercantile store. The town grew up around these two buildings."

For the celebration of his father's life, Bowerman recruited the Eugene-based all-women acoustic band Misty River. Later on that summer, after Misty River band members related their Fossil experience to other bluegrass players, guitar player Dale Atkins contacted Bowerman and offered to come over and play if he ever decided to put on another weekend concert.

And so, what was to become the Wheeler County Bluegrass Festival grew to include not only Misty River, but also an Atkins-led band and a melodrama in 2001 and 2002.

"The melodrama troupe were doing their own thing apart from us," Bowerman relates, "But we joined forces and started working off a real stage set up on the County Courthouse grounds. Between 50 and 100 people showed up each of the next two years for the free music and melodrama."

All that was missing was the parade. Fossil had been home to a big Fourth of July parade that featured a brass band and floats for years, but interest had waned.

"The musicians thought it would be a great thing to revive the parade, and they pitched in and pretty soon the parade was a Fourth fixture," says Bowerman.

Like everything else to do with this Fourth of July weekend, the parade grew organically as did the art show that became another key festival element.

Still, the main attraction is the music. Between the Friday night and Sunday afternoon, up to a dozen groups play and on the final day there's early-morning gospel singing by any and all who want to participate. Breaks during the music offerings are provided by the melodrama troupe, whose rousing show features a mean-spirited, easy-to-hiss-at villain, an innocent heroine and a hunky hero.

For all the activity on the courthouse stage, the festival's true performance mania takes place at the nearby Wheeler County Fairgrounds after the formal concerts have ended. That's when the jamming begins among the hundreds of amateur musicians who camp on the fairgrounds property. You don't camp here for the peace and quiet, but to pick, fiddle, strum and sing well into the morning hours.

This year's tenth anniversary festival celebration will still have the all-night jams and will feature extraordinary flat picker Dan Crary (joined by Dale Atkins), Misty River and the Great Northern Planes band during the daytime performances.

"We've made a conscious effort to avoid trying to get the very big name acts," Bowerman points out, "Presenting them would ruin the dynamics of the Festival and raise too many expectations."

And so expectations for The Wheeler County Bluegrass Festival remain pinned to an unpretentious event that gives the gifted, but not universally well-known musician a chance to perform in front of live enthusiastic audiences and friends in a relaxed small town setting. Who knows? Maybe someday we'll add bluegrass picking to the list that includes, Mom, Apple Pie and Baseball.

Wheeler County Bluegrass Festival

Friday-Sunday, July 2-4

Visit for lineup and schedule.

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