Henderson bluegrass, magic fade away

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 16, 2014

It was a beautiful spring afternoon with warm sunshine and a clear blue sky. Driving the back roads from Opp to Henderson, I noticed the many shades of green along the roads and in the fields.

My husband and I decided to make this drive to share in the ending of a story that had its first chapter written almost 50 years ago because of one man’s love for bluegrass music. The story continued with chapters and years added as others who shared that love joined him.

We went to our first Henderson Bluegrass Festival (aka Rex’s Bluegrass Festival) a couple of years ago at the invitation of our friend, Margo, an extraordinary artist who takes her paints with her and captures the spirit of the music on canvas. The energy was wonderful and it had the feel of a big reunion with lots of picking and singing going on in this extended bluegrass family.

That first day we sat under the big oak trees behind the old schoolhouse and listened to banjos, guitars, mandolins and voices floating through the air. We met many folks, most memorably Rex Locklar, the man who created this ongoing bluegrass story.

Last year, we returned, and though it still felt like a reunion, folks seemed to spend time sharing stories as much, or more, than they did playing music. The old schoolhouse, which was beyond repair, was about to collapse. There was a different energy that day. Things seemed slower and it felt like, perhaps, an ending was coming soon.

Still, there was Rex. Riding in his golf cart overseeing all the goings-on, he had the same friendly smile, even if he seemed to slump a little more and looked a bit tired.

In February, time finally caught up with Rex and he slipped quietly from this world. Many of the friends who came to Henderson every year came to tell Rex goodbye as they laid him to rest. People who knew him described him as colorful, kind and dedicated to bluegrass.

Everyone wondered what would happen to the festival without Rex. The answer came when they announced the final festival was set for April 10, 11 and 12.

So here we were standing under those same oaks. There was little music in the air. Mostly there was the sound of quiet conversations among friends who sat in their familiar circle holding silent instruments. Every so often, a voice announced another item of memorabilia up for sale at an auction going on beside the school building. The funds will help pay for a memorial for Rex.

We talked with Margo for a few minutes, looking at a partially finished painting of the musicians who were the subjects of many of her works over the years. Then we walked among the line of campers that filled what was once the schoolyard.

At the far end of the line, we heard the sound of bluegrass music and stopped to listen as a group of folks picked and sang.

“I’m afraid this music might be dying out,” my husband said. “I don’t know if many young people are learning to play these old songs.”

“That’s sad,” I said, “really sad.”

We moved to the front of the school where there was a makeshift memorial set up for a service held earlier that day to honor Rex, something he did every year to honor friends who passed away between festivals. We paused to look at the pictures and read the words on the headstone.

Then with a last wave to some folks who were just arriving, we drove away.

As we left, I looked back at the remains of the school and the lines of campers. What a wonderful thing Rex started when his love for bluegrass brought people together. And even though the last pickin‘ has now come and gone, the stories and the music live on in those who were lucky enough to share the magic of bluegrass in Henderson.