To understand why and how a big, multi-day annual bluegrass festival took root in the small town of Milan in the 1980s, just think of the factory-job-fueled migration trail previously forged between Appalachia and the Detroit Metro area.
"In the late 60s and early 70s, people moved to this area from Kentucky, from Virginia, from Tennessee, from West Virginia, and [bluegrass] was the music they loved," said Mark Gaynier, who hosts and organizes the Milan Bluegrass Festival. "The Kigers [who launched the first iteration of the festival] came from Alabama originally. Lots of people around here had been born and raised on this type of music, so the Bluegrass Festival just felt like a big old family reunion."
Ruth Kiger planned the inaugural Milan Bluegrass Festival as a charitable fundraiser (to help a friend who was suffering from an illness) in 1980, but the response was so overwhelming that she and husband Cayce Kiger, who'd built the KC Campground, decided to put on the festival annually.
The festival quickly grew in prominence -to such a degree that bluegrass god Bill Monroe appeared at the last one planned by the Kigers in 1986.
"Then Ruth Kiger passed away from cancer," said Gaynier. "And the festival bounced around a little bit. It was in Leslie, Michigan for a while."
Back then, Gaynier was a salesman for Frito-Lay, and the Kigers' campground was one of his accounts. "I got to be friends with them," said Gaynier. "I used to joke and say things like, I should have a job like yours, where you sit out there in a lawn chair, and people just throw money at you and go put up a tent.' And then in 1996, they came to me and said, Why don't you buy the campground?'"
Gaynier did just that.
"And when I bought it, the first thing I wanted to do was bring back the festival," said Gaynier.
So he got to work, spending two years planning and booking acts without any grant support ("It's called blood and guts.' All cash money," joked Gaynier); and in 1998, the Milan Bluegrass Festival was reborn.
It was like it never left.
"It wasn't surprising to me, because when it had ended, it ended on a really high note," said Gaynier. "People who came really enjoyed themselves, so I'd wanted to do the same thing and put on the best show possible. That's why I took two years to hire great bands, and advertise it, and go to different festivals and hand out flyers, so there was buzz that Milan was coming back. We'd had this great reputation when it ended, and it's been good ever since."
The four day festival - scheduled from July 31 to August 3 this year (2019) - draws an average of 2,500-3,000 attendees a day; features up-and-coming acts alongside bigger-name headliners (like Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, the Gibson Brothers, Russell Moore III Time Out and more); and all performers offer both an afternoon and an evening set.
"Bluegrass people are different from pop stars and rock and roll stars," said Gaynier. "If you want to meet Rhonda Vincent and shake her hand -yes, she'd love it if you bought a t-shirt or a CD, too, but either way, she's willing to take pictures with fans. These are very personable people. There aren't security guards there pushing you away. They want to talk with fans. They welcome that."
The Milan Bluegrass Festival largely draws attendees from within a four hour travel range (including Ohio and Canada).
"Some drive in, pay $40 to stay all day, then leave, and the next day, they go back to work," said Gaynier. "Then there are the ones that camp here the whole week, and they really have a good old time of it. They play, they pick, they sing - once the music on stage stops, they're out there jamming. They'll get together at the campsite, and if you play an instrument and you're just walking by, you can often just step in and start playing with them."
Not surprisingly, the campground gets pretty full during the festival.
"It's packed," said Gaynier. "Some people just park their big motor homes on the grass, and they'll have no water, no electricity, but they'll say to me, We're here for the music. We're not going to sit in our camper, anyway.' They just want a place to park."
Alcohol isn't sold or served at the event, but attendees often bring their own.
"It's just a relaxed atmosphere, and everyone's generally really nice and patient and here just to enjoy the music, enjoy the day," said Gaynier. "We hire some guys from the Sheriff's Department to be here every night to walk around, because we want people to have fun, but we don't want anything to get out of hand, either. For a lot of people, it's a family thing, where you can bring your kids and hear great music, and not have to worry about the lyrics being obnoxious."
What drives Gaynier - who also sells farmers' insurance -to keep investing the time and effort necessary to put Milan Bluegrass Festival on each year?
"It's my passion for the music," said Gaynier, who noted his longtime love for the sound of acoustic instruments played well and vocal harmonies. "I want to see it grow. I want to see it last."
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