In 2004, John and Joyce Bowers decided to host a little one day Bluegrass festival on the property of their recently developed campground. Little could they imagine that 13 years later they would win the IBMA award for Best Bluegrass Event of the year in 2017.
John and Joyce enjoyed attending the Music in the Mountains festival, and on one of their trips home, John began talking about starting his own bluegrass festival, again. “He did that every single time we left there,” Joyce recalled. “But this time I surprised him. He started talking, and I just kept saying ‘Let’s do it’. So, we started looking for a location. For months we looked for the perfect location. Debbie Stevens of Stevens Realty in Parsons, West Virginia heard we were looking and told us about some real-estate for lease from PRO, a nonprofit entity. They wanted to lease a business that would help stimulate the economic growth of Tucker County.”
Joyce and John surveyed the eight acres, and even though it was an hour and a half from where they currently lived, took a gamble and signed for the property. “It was by the river and pretty overgrown,” Joyce recalled, “but with a little imagination, we could see its potential.” They went home and prepared for the biggest decision they’d ever made; sell everything and move.
“We sold everything we owned that wouldn’t fit in our 30 foot camper and our pickup truck,” Joyce said. “John put in his two week notice at work and within that time we had moved to Parsons, WV. The only person we knew in Parsons was the real-estate agent, and we didn’t know her very well.”
The couple immediately began cleaning the property, hiring bands and a sound company, bought a stage, and printing fliers. The summer was nearly over and they were anxious to have our first event. At the suggestion of a friend, knowing that Bluegrass music fans also like to camp, John and Joyce added some campsites. They managed to install 10 full service campsites two days before the opening performance.
On August 21st, 2004, the first Pickin’ in Parsons Bluegrass Festival got under way. It was a one day event with six local bands. “And it was a complete disaster,” Joyce remembered vividly. “It rained parallel with the ground for six straight hours. We had about 50 attendees, if you count staff and dogs. But we were committed, so as soon as it was over we started planning for the second annual Pickin’ in Parsons.”
The following year they added a second day to the festival and hired their first national touring act, Ronnie Reno and Reno Tradition. “Every few years we would increase the number of bands and occasionally add a day to the event, until we got to where we are today.” Pickin’ In Parsons is now five full days of music and features 25 national touring bands. “We have continued to purchase property to expand our facility size from the eight acres that we still lease to 48 total acres, 120+ full service campsites, and 10,000 square feet of covered seating. During Pickin’ in Parsons Bluegrass Festival, the local population triples, which is a boon to the local economy. The festival attendees are very welcomed by our community,” Joyce added.
“We sought advice from the producers of Music in the Mountains, owners Edgar and Eunice Kitchen often. Throughout the years we had developed a relationship with them and they gave us a lot of great insight on the ins and outs of the business. But most of our knowledge and experience has come from the school of hard knocks. We learned what worked best for us, mostly by trial and error,” Joyce laughed.
Native To The Land
Joyce and John are not strangers to West Virginia and the deep held traditions of folks from around the area. They were both born in Upshur County, raised in the same small rural town of French Creek, and even attended the same high school growing up. They had some friends in common, but really weren’t until after school. “I was out of school for a year before I laid eyes on him again,” Beth recalled. “I was on my way to work when I happened upon a broken down old motorcycle and a long haired guy hitchhiking. My parents always warned me about picking up hitchhikers, but I recognized this one. It was John Bowers.” She quipped. “So, I picked him up and took him down to the local garage. We exchanged numbers and he thanked me for the lift. As he exited my car, I didn’t expect to hear from him again. I was wrong. And that’s how our story began.”
Joyce told me that the two have always loved music although John was more of a Bluegrass fan originally. Joyce’s parents were more into rock n roll. “One of the first concerts I remember going to was to see Three Dog Night when I was about nine years old,” Joyce said. “John has seen lots of bands from Johnny Cash to Alice Cooper to Dr. Ralph Stanley. But he always says the first time he saw the Osborne Brothers on TV he was hooked. They were the band who got him into bluegrass music.”
It Had To Be Bluegrass
Bluegrass music is special to the Bowers. They love it’s honest, down to earth approach. “There isn’t many bluegrass personalities you cannot just walk up to and get an autograph and a picture. They are really great to their fans, one of the many reasons we and the fans love it,” Joyce said.
The Bowers are excited to present their 16th annual Pickin’ in Parsons Bluegrass Festival later this summer. “Our mission since we started has been to offer the best in traditional bluegrass for a great price. I believe we have accomplished that,” Joyce said. “We start on a Tuesday and finish up on Saturday night. So we have a full five days, 11am to 10pm, chocked full of the best bands we can find. Budget friendly non-service camping or Premier camping with TV and wifi. There is a camping package for everyone. We have set out to create a destination event that bluegrass fans will plan their summer around. Our guests can expect a high level of professionalism from the bands, sound crew, and personnel, because we do. John and I are laser focused on the music. We don’t clutter up the event with elements that distract from the enjoyment of the listening experience. Pickin’ in Parsons is an alcohol & drug free event that encourages campfire jamming with no quiet time. So, if you are looking for bluegrass and a jam with a side of camaraderie, you need to plan to be in Parsons, WV.”
By Greg Tutwiler