Today will be the official start of the 23rd Oklahoma’s International Bluegrass Festival in Guthrie. The first festival was held in October 1997, featuring many of the top bluegrass acts of the time with Vince Gill and Ricky Skaggs two of the top draws. OIBF was established as a 501(c)3 charitable organization, with a mission to educate our youth on bluegrass music and provide assistance to youth with music instruction and camps that focus on bluegrass music.
Byron Berline had recently relocated to Guthrie from the Los Angeles area, where he had a storied career as a fiddle player since the 1960s. His recording credits are too many to list but range from Bill Monroe to The Rolling Stones. Byron envisioned creating a bluegrass festival that featured many of the international artists that he had met during his career.
With the assistance of Oklahoma State Legislator Joe Hutchinson, Oklahoma Tourism, and a number of bluegrass enthusiasts, funding was secured and a board of directors soon found themselves heading up a long list of volunteers to produce the multi-stage event. The stages were set up around downtown Guthrie with a campground in the Cottonwood Flats area on the west side. Stages were typically set up at the Masonic Temple, the high school baseball field, a small amphitheater near City Hall, and at the campground. Early years also saw stages set up in a children’s tent downtown, an official OIBF beer garden, and other small venues.
The original treasurer for the organization was an Oklahoma City based CPA and banjo player, Mike Clark. Mike was an exceptional banjo player (as was his father Charlie). Mike’s brother Bobby was a national, international, and world mandolin champion and regularly appeared on the Grand Ole Opry with Mike Snider for many years. Mike’s son Justin is also an exceptional mandolin and fiddle player whom I had the pleasure of working a number of shows with in Nashville and at OIBF as The Neverly Hillbillies. Sadly, prior to the 1999 festival, Mike suddenly passed away. It was not long thereafter that I was asked to become the OIBF treasurer, a position I’ve held now for 20 years! The ultimate compliment for me occurred during the 1999 festival when Mike’s mother, Omega, caught me on the street and told me that I would have been the one she would have picked to replace her son at OIBF!
Eventually, the entire festival was moved to the campground area, although continuing to run three to four stages. Logistics, administration, transportation and costs were all challenging with the stages spread about town.
While bluegrass is part of the name, the music has been very diverse over the years. The 1999 festival featured pop artist Mason Williams with the Oklahoma City Symphony orchestra. The following year the headliner was Willie Nelson, who stood in freezing rain to sign every last autograph after his show. There have been a number of Western Swing artists over the years including The Texas Playboys, Asleep At The Wheel, and The Quebe Sisters. Country acts have included Vince Gill, Larry Gatlin and The Gatlin Brothers, Kathy Mattea, and Suzy Bogguss.
Opening day usually features Oklahoma talent, with a bluegrass version of The Red Dirt Rangers opening the festival for every year since inception. The Byron Berline Band is always entertaining, and the day is typically capped off with a “Random Band Jam” event that invites all patrons to participate in a themed talent show where everyone is a winner! Over the years, bluegrass bands have been represented from Italy, France, German, Switzerland, Japan, Australia, England, Sweden, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Holland, and more!
Byron is known for bringing in exceptional talent, and each year brings a unique experience that is not to be missed. Whether it is a tribute to John Hartford (Gentle on My Mind), reunion of The Darlin’ Family, or Country Gazette, there is always a memorable moment. Of course, some of the finest bluegrass in world has been represented, from traditionalists such as The Osborne Brothers, Earl Scruggs, and JD Crowe, to the more progressive acts such as Sam Bush, Sierra Hull, and Mark O’Connor.
For 2019, Byron once again has a stellar lineup of talent with Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper, Rob Ickes, and Kenny and Amanda Smith. For information for the 2019 festival, visit www.oibf.com.