The Bluegrass Festival: A Place For Kids To Roam Free

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Today’s column from Bert Daniel
Friday, July 16, 2010

I don’t know how much my parents worried about me as a kid, probably a lot. But it didn’t seem like that. In my mind, I was free to roam the neighborhood and do whatever I felt like all summer long. My best friend G.P. Callison lived about a mile away and I’d hike over there and play with him all day. The Callisons had a large family and kids from the neighborhood would congregate there for hide and seek games until it got almost too dark to find your way home. I do remember my parents cautioning about not taking ice cream from random strangers, but there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of paranoia about whether I’d come home or not on any given night.

Today seems different. Maybe it’s because I’m a parent now and not a kid. It seems like everywhere you look there are stories about kids being kidnapped and abused. It’s a disturbing reality of our modern society. You can get on the internet and get a map of all the perverts living near your house. They’re all out there waiting to pounce on your kid! And the natural thing for any parent to do is to insulate your child from the outside messed up world as much as possible. Whenever my kids are with me, I stress out about keeping them safe. There’s a predator around every corner and there’s no way they’re going to get my kid! In our family I think Mom is less paranoid than Dad but we both worry. It’s a lot easier when both parents work as a team. My wife always remembers to dress the kids in bright distinctive clothing so we can spot them easily when we go out to unfamiliar territory.

Every year I take the kids to Grass Valley for the Father’s Day Bluegrass Festival and I’m on my own. My wife Joyce is not keen on camping and she’s even less keen on Bluegrass music (even though I’ve tried hard to rehabilitate her). So every June, Daddy loads up the truck with all the camping equipment it can possibly hold (except for all the stuff he forgot), and we head down the road for Grass Valley. Our first trip was 2007, when my kids were ages 6 and 9. I basically made sure I knew where my kids were 100% of the time. They made friends with some neighbor’s kids, so my job was a little easier at times, but basically I missed out on a lot of festival highlights that I would have otherwise enjoyed because I was on 24 hour watch. The next year was a little easier. Returning friends and returning parents gave me some some confidence about whom I could trust and I let the kids ride the shuttle by themselves. They loved cruising around the fairgrounds with other kids and my daughter played her guitar for anyone who would listen. It took a while for me to get comfortable with the idea of allowing my kids to just wander off and play with any kid around but eventually it seemed like the right thing to do

Then it happened. Ethan went missing. I tried to calm myself down and take a deep breath. I knew he had been playing with one of his friends from a previous campout, so I figured I’d just stroll around the fairgrounds and he was bound to show up. I went everywhere. Nothing. Now I was close to panic and I kept thinking how foolish I had been to allow my child to wander off like that. I realized that I didn’t even know the name of the kid Ethan was playing with or where his family was camped. How was I going to explain myself on the missing person’s report? What would the wife say? A friendly camper sensed my distress and came up to me to offer help. That’s how I met Darby Brandli. From my description of Ethan and his friend, Darby was able to figure out where the other kid’s family was camped. I checked there without success but at least I had a lead now. Not too much longer after that, I located Ethan. He had been detained by the Grass Valley security staff as a missing person. Ethan looked like he had been close to tears from his long absence. I don’t know which one of us was more relieved.

Eventually I got some valuable experience from going to Grass Valley, and other festivals and campouts. Over time, I figured out what the environment was like and it seemed like a pretty safe place for kids. Most of the Bluegrass venues are fairgrounds, with a fence around the whole perimeter. People are generally honest and friendly. Lost items get returned and you’re even pretty safe leaving your instrument leaning against a tree for a little while if you need to. Let me ask those of you who know: what could be a better environment for a kid than a Bluegrass festival? Kids actually need a place where they can learn how to get by on their own. How else can they acquire the street smarts they’re going to really need when they have to be independent adults? If you insulate your kid too much, they’ll be safe in the short term, but you do them a disservice in the long run. The great thing about a Bluegrass festival is that it seems like a busy wide open world, but in reality it’s a fairly controlled environment. In a sense, it’s a gated community and a kid can always find a parent back at camp or near the stage sitting in a lawn chair.

But kids don’t have to run wild at a bluegrass festival. The CBA is extremely fortunate to have a number of dedicated individuals who organize activities for kids. Frank Solivan,Sr. and his Kids On Bluegrass staff do an incredible job year after year, not only at Grass Valley but at smaller venues like Plymouth. There’s a great program for kids at Music Camp called Fungrass. Kathleen Rushing and Carol Spiker do an incredible job with structured fun activities for younger kids. Rumor has it that there was a jumpy house for the first time this year at Grass Valley (I never actually looked for it though). There’s even a teen hangout now and a teen ambassador, Paige Anderson.

These days keeping track of my kids at a bluegrass festival is a lot easier for me. Both of my kids are pretty savvy about staying safe and they stay in touch with me, most of the time. Juliet is now a teenager and can help out a lot by supervising her younger brother. Before Music Camp this year she gave me a crash course on the preferred method of communication with her generation. I can attest to all of you that the art of texting is an absolutely indispensable skill if you want to be able to coordinate activities with a teenager. When the blood pressure starts to rise at midnight because your daughter is still unaccounted for out there somewhere in the campground, it’s a real plus to get an immediate response that she’s next in line to jam with Rhonda Vincent! (Of course, I wandered over to check on her anyway and watch the fun).

Yes, a Bluegrass festival is a great neighborhood to live in a for week or a weekend. The sense of community is something we could all use more of in our own hometowns.


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