ACCORDING TO CONCERT PROMOTER NORMAN ADAMS, he’s “the man” to speak to about the New Year’s Bluegrass Festival that’s been taking place for over three decades at Jekyll Island’s Convention Center.
A founder of the festival who has run it ever since, his company A & A Bluegrass is known far and wide in that acoustic music genre’s industry.
In advance of the 33rd Annual installment of the three-day celebration of bluegrass, Southern gospel music and family fun, I spoke at length with Norman via phone from his home base of Dahlonega, Georgia.
The following is a complete transcript of our conversation.
Ticket and schedule info can be found at the end of the article.
How long have you been independently promoting bluegrass shows and festivals?
Norman Adams: 35 years.
How did you first get involved with promoting shows?
Norman Adams: Well, that’s a long story. Here’s a short version of it: Of course, I’ve always loved the music. My dad listened to the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday nights with a battery operated radio. There was a bluegrass festival going on over in Livonia, Ga., and it was the only one in the state of Ga. at the time. I’d bought 170 acres of land in Dahlonega with a partner, and the market fell out of land. So we were sitting here with a gig land payment to make and no way to do it! We came up with the bright idea to have a bluegrass festival on the property and make our payment. WRONG. (laughs) That was not the case!
I’m sure you’ve heard of the Gold Rush Days event we have here in Dahlonega. They were claiming they were getting 100,000 people here for that each year and now they claim 200,000. That was about 1973 or 1974 and we figured we were bound to get ten percent of ‘em to come to our bluegrass show, but it wound up raining for all three days.
Did you do this full-time for 35 years, or did you have a regular day job?
Norman Adams: I’m retired from 40 years in the insurance business. I’m an old man! (laughs) I sold it all — any kind of insurance there was: property, casualty, life, the whole ball of wax.
Now, this was long before the resurgence of interest in bluegrass music.
Norman Adams: Oh yes. Before it was anything! But I always believed in it and never did give up. I guess it’s gotten to be an ego thing. (laughs) I felt like I’d never failed at anything I tried, so I just kept hangin’ in there with this, too.
Are you a bluegrass musician yourself?
Norman Adams: Lord, no. I don’t play anything. That’s why I put on the shows! I can’t play nothin’ ‘cept the radio. (laughs)
If you could play, what instrument would you choose?
Norman Adams: I don’t know. I like ‘em all. I don’t think I’d have one preference over another. It takes all of ‘em together to make bluegrass work. I tried when I was younger, but it never worked for me. It’s a God-given talent. You gotta have somethin’ there to start with, and I guess I got left out of that category.
Putting on these shows, though, you’ve gotten to meet and spend time with so many of the biggest bluegrass stars. That must be a nice perk.
Norman Adams: Oh yeah. Bill Monroe was a personal friend of mine. We had him play the first show we ever did. He was a super gentleman who became a good friend. As a matter of fact, we’d already booked him for two shows when he passed away.
Sometimes you don’t want to ever actually meet your musical heroes because they can turn out to be less than friendly in real life. It can ruin your affection for their music.
Norman Adams: All the bluegrass musicians are really, really friendly people. They’ll sit down with their fans after the show and sign autographs. It’s not like at a country show where you can’t even get to the artists.
Did you ever consider branching out into presenting other types of concerts — like rock or country or blues for instance?
Norman Adams: Not really, but I have done a few gospel concerts over the years.
So now that you’re retired from the insurance business, this is your main career?
Norman Adams: ep. I’m 100%. In the January issue of Bluegrass Unlimited, which is a national magazine, they did a big piece on me. We actually made the cover.
How many other people are in your organization?
Norman Adams: I have a partner named Tony Anderson. His wife and my wife and just a few other people help us out. My niece and her husband volunteer to help, so we have a small staff.
You’ve been doing this so long, you must have the whole act of booking festivals down to a science.
Norman Adams: Well, there’s always something different about every show. You just take it as you go. But I hope I’ve figured it out by now! I’ve been workin’ on it for 35 years! (laughs)
This is the 33rd Annual Jekyll Island New Year’s Bluegrass Festival. Have you been the person behind this event every year?
Norman Adams: I started that show 33 years ago.
What caused you to choose Jekyll Island as the location for this event?
Norman Adams: Well, my partner had been goin’ down there for a few years after Christmas. He’d stay a few days, and it was his idea. He likes the island, and the Convention Center has good acoustics and is a good place to have a show. We took a beatin’ on it for the first few years.
So, it was a little rough to get folks accustomed to coming out for a bluegrass festival in Jekyll Island?
Norman Adams: It was a whole lot rough! (laughs) It’s real hard to get somethin’ like this started. It takes a good while.
I guess you have to be prepared to lose a bunch of money for several years in the hopes of establishing a real tradition.
Norman Adams: That’s definitely the truth.
On average, how many people attend these Jekyll Island Festivals each year?
Norman Adams: Well, I believe the Convention Center says that it holds 2,100 people, and it’s usually pretty full every day. Maybe a bit fuller on Friday and Saturday than it is on Thursday. But we got all the top bluegrass people comin’ in: Rhonda (Vincent) and Ralph (Stanley) and Doyle (Lawson). We try to throw a gospel group in there as well. We’ve got The Chuck Wagon Gang this time. This is a new lineup, but they sound just like the original group. I’ve heard ‘em since the last original member —who was Jimmy Davis’ wife— left, and they’re just “A-Plus.” Then we have The Inspirations, who have been singin’ gospel music for somethin’ like 45 years.
Some people who come to the festival stay in hotels, while others bring their RVs and camp out right in the parking lot of the convention center, correct?
Norman Adams: Yeah. The State of Georgia, which runs the Convention Center, makes an exception for us. We had the understanding when we first went down there that folks could stay parked in the lot for four nights: Wednesday through Saturday. We have to pay for the parking lot, but we don’t want to pass that along to our customers. I didn’t want to be chargin’ people for a ticket and then chargin’ them to park, too.
So normally, folks would not be allowed to stay in the parking lot overnight, but they let your crowd do it because they’re very well behaved?
Norman Adams: That’s right. We have a very good reputation. Bluegrass people are some of the nicest people in the whole world. They don’t make a mess or anything like that. Plus, we make sure everything is lookin’ good before we leave there.
Approximately what percentage of the crowds your event draws are locals versus people who traveled there specifically for the concerts?
Norman Adams: I’d say the majority of them travel to be there.
A lot of serious bluegrass festivals are alcohol-free and geared toward a family environment. Is that the case with this festival? What about all your others?
Norman Adams: That’s 100 percent in our case. We don’t allow any alcoholic beverages — even at our outside shows. And there’s no smoking in the concert area. I’ve raised my kids and grand kids up in all this, and we don’t put up with no stuff! We’ve never had any problems, except for the second year at Jekyll, when we had some guys show up who got real loud and rowdy. It was on the actual night of New Year’s Eve and they’d been drinkin’ somewhere else before they came in. We had to get security to take ‘em out. But they came back the next day and apologized in person. It turns out they were all off-duty policemen! They’d just got carried away and were ashamed.
Do you have a lot of young children attend the Jekyll Island Fest?
Norman Adams: There’s been a lot of children comin’ out since the O Brother thing in 2000. There’s a lot more young people than we used to see, and a lot more young people who are gettin’ involved in playin’ bluegrass, too.
Some of the names at this event are the biggest and most celebrated in the world of bluegrass. Is it difficult to get so many big names to all play on the same bill?
Norman Adams: Nah. I book about a year in advance. If you want the big names, all you gotta do is just get up off your pocketbook! (laughs)
I notice you schedule the acts at this festival like our own Savannah Folk Music Festival does - you have most of them play two shorter sets at different times of the day, rather than one long one. What’s the rationale behind having the artists split up their shows like that?
Norman Adams: Well, my thinking is there might be some people who can’t stay the whole day. So, this way, you can see everybody do one full set in the afternoon or the evening. They don’t do the same show, of course. They split up their long show, so if you want to be there all day long, you can see everyone play twice and hear all their songs. The only person we have on the bill who insists on playin’ one long set is Ralph Stanley. I’d actually like to have him break it up into an early and a late show, but he prefers to do it his way, and since he’s 81 years old, I figure I’m not gonna argue with him. He can do what he wants to! (laughs)
Do you have a lot of folks who do stay for both halves of the artists’ sets?
Norman Adams: We have plenty of folks who are waitin’ there before the day starts and are still there when the last song stops! There are diehard bluegrass fans just like in sports like stock car racing or golf or fishin’. Whatever floats your boat. There are also people that follow these shows. We put on nine festivals a year, you know, and some people got to all of ‘em! All we do are three and four-day-long events. No one-night stands.
Since New Year’s Eve is always a big night for professional musicians, I assume that a lot of these artists who’re scheduled on the opening day of your festival must have to come from far away after playing a big New Year’s Eve gig.
Norman Adams: A lot of ‘em do. Lots of times our shows happen to fall exactly on New Year’s Eve. When that happens, we’ve had lots of confetti thrown around and sometimes all the musicians get onstage together and sing “Auld Lang Syne” at midnight.
Are there food and drink vendors set up in the convention center, or do audience members have to bring their own food?
Norman Adams: The Convention Center serves food in the afternoon. They have a big buffet line with three meats and four vegetables, salad, drinks and stuff like that for somethin’ like nine dollars. It’s real reasonable. Then we have different vendors set up in the parking lot sellin’ what I call junk food: funnel cakes, hot dogs, hamburgers, BBQ, you know.
You mean “Fair Food.”
Norman Adams: (laughs) Yeah, that’s right! I love it, myself.
How many tickets are still left available for this year’s festival?
Norman Adams: We’ve got some still available, but I’m not sure how many. There’s Reserved and General seating, and there’s not a whole lot of Reserved seats left. Those are the better, closer seats, while the General seats are the ones on the sides and farther away in the back.
Well, I figure if the place only holds 2,100 people, there probably isn’t a bad seat in the house.
Norman Adams: Oh, you can see and hear good from anywhere in the auditorium. There’s seven different sections of seats, but no balcony. It’s all one level.
Is there any one particular moment or show from previous Jekyll Island Fests that stands out in your mind, and which you’ll never forget - either good or bad?
Norman Adams: Well, when you love bluegrass like I do, they’re all good. I don’t book any bad bands. Every group on these bills are great, professional artists. I do enjoy Little Roy Lewis and The Lewis Family. He comes out and clowns around sometimes with somebody in the crowd and then he’ll pick a banjo tune with them. The Lewis Family are great and they’ve been to every festival we’ve had.
What would you say to folks who may not be all that familiar with bluegrass music, but have been curious about seeing it performed live?
Norman Adams: I’d say if they’ve never tried bluegrass, they need to come out and try it in person. Until they’ve heard bluegrass live in concert, they ain’t heard it. It’s a whole different atmosphere than it is on records.
33rd Annual New Year’s Bluegrass Fest
When: Thurs. - Sat.
Where: Jekyll Island Convention Center
Cost: $15 - $75 (6 & under, free w/parent)