STOMPIN 76 MUSIC FESTIVAL ABOUT TO SEE 30TH ANNIVERSARY
We’re coming up on the 30th anniversary of Stompin 76, the legendary bluegrass/ blues festival held August 6, 7, 8, 1976 at Doyle Lawson’s Farm, 7 miles North of Galax, Virginia.
Did you attend the biggest party in southwest Virginia history? About 150,000 of us did and still talk about it. Some now have died over time. But many relationships, friendships, marriages, kids and careers were created by the simple interaction of so many with similar lifestyles meeting for a few summer days on a farm on a hill…from everywhere, mostly the eastern U.S.. It was a wild, self-controlled, beautiful event for the attendees. It was the time of sex, drugs and rock. Even the bluegrass seemed rocky in that amplified, natural amphitheater for 3 hot rural Virginia days. It was the Woodstock of Bluegrass Music.
People partied and were happy. It was the bicentennial year and everybody needed a place to celebrate, to remember 1976. Elton John and Dave Mason were the big stadium tour that year and the promoter took good advantage of it by having pretty girls pass out vinyl bumper stickers in cities from Chicago east. Occasionally, you can see one those stickers on an old Dodge Rambler or VW bus. The festival was promoted heavily on radio back then and in major newspapers before faxes, before the internet. “You could afford to advertise in Rolling Stone and The New York Times back then” says Hal Abramson, the then 21 year old drop out, standing stoop shouldered, flicking a cigarette, (as the local papers depicted him), Abramson, now 51, originally from Baltimore, lives in his home state, Maryland and still promotes but mostly as a marketing consultant. He has put on 4 music festivals in these 30 years, promoted Ringling Bros Circus, Ice Follies, been a Promotions Director in Las Vegas and a travel marketing executive. He’s also written 3 books on concerts, music fests and resorts.
Many Carroll County locals were not happy during and after Stompin 76. Young, naked New Yorkers urinating on lawns, polite strangers camping in their backyards and not enough parking and camping led to epic backups. Only motorcycles could get up and down the road leading to the farm. Local residents just couldn’t get home or leave, not that they wanted to leave- in fear of their homes being ransacked or burned down by the heathens.
“Everyday I am sorry for how the event adversely effected the locals. That’s my disappointment that lingers from an event that was supposed to be a fun weekend for all. We were all so young, we had no experience in producing something on this scale. We figured it out as we went.” Abramson said.
There are however, people who never lost their coolness who get through to me and want to share their memories of a once in a lifetime musical event that changed their lives. Although I have heard over the years that one person died as a result of the event, there was an enormous amount of good both socially and for Galax- materially.
“Though many stated that I stole all of the money, the fact is that the festival sold about 32,000 tickets at $12.00 each = $384,000.00. The show cost more than that. The festival food concessions did not show a profit. At least this is what my roommate who handled it reported. I did not take a salary. The food We had no other vendors. This event was truly supposed to be about getting a lot of people together in one place and enjoying a weekend of incredible music. It was probably the least commercialized music event in history. I remember being called a crook by many that always stupidly thought “the promoter left with all of the money”. Abramson stated.
Nick Litrenta, the head of CES, the Baltimore based security company put a .45 cal. pistol on the table of the motor home I was in and said “I need $30,000 or we’re walking off the gate”. I said “you already walked off the gate”. This security company allowed the pagans to basically take charge of the front gate entry and did little to secure the perimeter. It could have been done with better forethought. But music festival technology was still raw then and you didn’t get a second chance the next year to get it right. .
“I learned the meaning of having a good organization that weekend by not having one. I have no proof of any Pagans stealing money. I was a natural promoter with very little sophisticated assistance (most of the staff was around my age). I had no experience at large festivals yet, though I had already, at age 20, promoted in Baltimore: Thin Lizzy, Golden Earring, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Chick Corea, Leslie West and Mountain, Natalie Cole, Spirit, Nils Lofgren and others. Not really enjoying the business of small concerts (concert tickets only sold for $5.50 - $7.50 at that time) and the low profit margins, on a blustery winter late afternoon, Sunday February 20, 1976 in my Reistertstown, MD apartment, with two friends present, I decided that the best way to learn about festivals was to put one on. Based on the music format that was being tossed around the room, the first name that cam up was STOMP, then moments later STOMPIN, then I yelled out STOMPIN 76! Within a month the advance work had begun, the search for land led to a contentious attorney from Winston Salem, Mickey Andrews who found the inadequate Lawson farm. No time left, I took it. “ stated Abramson
Realizing that a rock festival was out of the question- too expensive, I decided to assemble one of the most interesting talent lineups ever. Bluegrass with a dash of blues and other contemporary hip national acts like Bonnie Raitt, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, John Prine, Ry Cooder, David Bromberg and Papa John Creech. The grass was as blue as could be with the Earl Scruggs Revue, Lester Flatt, Doc & Merle Watson, Vassar Clements, Osborne Bros., The Rowans, The Dillards, John Hartford, Hickory Wind, New Grass Revival and others. This ticket was just $12.00 for all 3 days! No wonder half the east coast wanted to be there!!!
Stompers then aged 4 - 30 with families and careers, now write to me about their heartfelt experience. The festival changed many people’s lives. Some for the worse, tens of thousands for the better. Both contact me through the Stompin site, www.stompin76.com
This event made a major impact on the folk’s lives that were there and added to our contemporary music culture at that time. There were relatively few music festivals then compared to nowadays. It is a part of your region’s history that cannot be swept under the carpet. Hate it or love it, the festival hosted over 150,000 and with the roads backed up 11 miles to the interstate, the state police said many more would have been there had they been able to get in. Galax will never see that again. Carroll County ordinances introduced strict rules as a direct result of the event.
“For me, the reward has been the lifelong realization of how, in many ways, the event was a great achievement conceived and executed at an incredibly early age. There will be no 30 year revival. The funds aren’t there and I’m not sure anyone down that way would welcome me. I have found to this day, the general population there is hostile toward me. “ said Abramson. Hopefully, the Stompin Spirit felt during those magical 3 days will carry until the last Stomper passes on. Those memories don’t fade.
Readers with Stompin 76 photos may email them, if acceptable, they will be posted on the site www.stompin76.com where a limited number of reproduced T shirts are now available.
Hal is available for interview by phone or email to the media.
THOUSANDS CROWD MUSIC FESTIVAL NEAR GALAXThe Roanoke Times
Saturday, August 7, 1976
By RUSSELL LEAVITT
GALAX- Thousands of young people from up and down the East Coast converged in a field near here in Carroll County for the beginning of "Stompin 76".A spokesman for the Carroll County Sheriff's Dept. said Friday night that an estimated 50,000 people were inside the gates for the three-day music festival.Thousands more were still trying to reach the site. Traffic on one road into the area was reported backed up for 10 miles.The crowd is being drawn by some of the biggest names in country and blues music. Entertainers include the Earl Scruggs Revue, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, John Prine, Bonnie Raitt, Vassar Clements, Doc & Merle Watson, the Osbvorne Bros., Hickory Wind and New Grass revival.All roads I the Galax area were choked with traffic most of Friday.Law enforcement officers said people were parking as far as 12 miles away and walking to where the festival is being held. Some people were apparently parking in private driveways and police were threatening to tow vehicles away. Some enterprising people rented inner tubes to float down the New River to the music grounds.Those attending the festival came in campers, pickups and cars. Most of them are in their late teens and early 20's. They carried coolers of beer, sleeping bags and food with them.
The music site is a 400-acre field about eight miles north of Galax.
August 8, 1976 Roanoke Times
50,000 jam Galax festival siteThe Roanoke Times
Sunday August 8, 1976
GALAX- estimated 50,000 people crowded into farm fields for the second day of "Stompin 76", a king-size country and bluegrass music festival.
"Officials said the crowd last night was well- behaved." Sheriff E.O. Semones of Carroll County said the biggest problem has been finding space for all the people. He said it created a problem with farmers in the area.
"They are pretty hot about it but there are no reports of conflict yet" the sheriff commented. The Twin County Community Hospital in Galax said the staff has been tripled for the festival. A spokesman said a number of persons are being treated for minor injuries and that three or four had been treated for drug abuse. Semoanes said that as of last night, only four arrests associated with the festival had been made.
The Associated Press reported that the festival promoter Hal Abramson, has 250 security personnel on duty. There are also some medical facilities at the festival site. He is with cactus Productions of Las Vegas, Nev. Tickets to the event are $12.
The Carroll County Health department reported that the promoters have set up 377 portable toilets and has 10 outlets from a well for drinking water.
Four trucks with 20,000 gallons of water are also at the site. The production company is using helicopters to take the entertainers to and from the festival and it is also being used as an ambulance.
Once "Stompin 76" is over, the Galax area must brace itself again for the next weekend when the 41st Old Time Fiddler's Convention will be held. This annual attraction is promoted by the Galax Moose Club.
The fiddler's convention attracts large crowds but not as large as those at the country- bluegrass event.
ALL LEAVE FESTIVAL ALIVEAugust 9, 1976 excerpts
from Roanoke Times articles
By Russell Leavitt and Ray Reed
GALAX- "Drug abuse and disturbances diminished Sunday as some of the 100,000 plus people began to leave the Stompin 76 music festival.""It's the greatest event that ever happened in the state of Virginia" , said Burl Ketchum, mater of ceremonies of the three day festival on a farm eight miles north of here.""We had over 100,000 people, we had no overdose deaths, wee had two babies born- Stompin One and Stompin Two" said Ketchum of Danville.""Many of the 100,000 people had a good time without touching drugs or alcohol and never fell in the mud or got hurt. But others were not so teatotalling or lucky. Early Sunday a traffic exodus started that police and volunteer workers said they expected to result in a monumental traffic jam. State Police in Wytheville reports traffic late Sunday was moving well out of the concert area and "We don't have any real problems." Many had left by 11p.m., but others were expected to stay all night to avoid the crush, according to a spokesman for a radio communications volunteer team." "Sixty state troopers and all Carroll deputies were working.""Stompin 76 was a nationally advertised production staged on a former cattle farm where the hillsides offered a natural amphitheater. Vehicles were parked on many hundreds of acres of surrounding land."Two nude men flatfooted near the stage Saturday, and on Sunday one of them was dancing again w, this time wearing a Stompin 76 bumper sticker on his buttocks. He was lefty alone.Messages were exchanged through notes posted on the sides of buildings.
One perhaps summing up Sunday's mood, asked for a ride to Philadelphia. It said : "Help! One person needs ride to Philadelphia Pa."
PromoterAugust 8, 1976
The Roanoke Times
By Peter Davis
GALAX- "No deaths and two births, that's not a bad record," said Hal Abramson summing up his idea of the spirit of Stompin 76.
Abramson, the 114-pound string bean promoter who conceived, produced and promoted the biggest show in Southwest Virginia history, is a mere 21 years old. He stands stoop shouldered in a gray sweatshirt and blue jeans, flicks a cigarette nervously and talks of six months of "work and more work" in preparation for the weekend event.
The strain has taken it's toll. He says he lost 21 pounds and uncounted hours of sleep in the two weeks before the festival. "It's just been an incredible job. We've had promotions in 22 states with radio, billboards, Rolling stone and handouts," Abramson said. He estimates production expense for the festival at $350,000 of which more than $60,000 went for advertising."
Does he expect to make a profit? Abramson says no, Cactus productions will be lucky to break even. Of a total attendance of more than 100,000 more than two thirds got in free. Abramson said. He said paid attendance was only 35,000 at $12 each.
"Our Baltimore hired security did not do the job as they should have." He said. However, no major disturbances occurred, a fact which he thanked the pagans.
Most of Abramson's production crew of about 25 are like him, in their early 20's he says. He says the three-day festival's problems were caused mostly by the larger than expected numbers of people who descended on the 117-acre farm of Boyd Lawson and about 200 additional acres rented for the festival.
"Renting more land for parking, some of the farmers got a little commercial about it. Reports were that one farm of fewer than 100 acres rented for $2,000 for the three days. The crowd itself was "No problem- a very passive group-best concert crowd I've ever seen."
Late Sunday, Abramson, was frantically trying to locate the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. "They're still on the road somewhere- we don't know just where," he said.
All groups were paid a flat fee in advance, the highest paid getting $15,000, he said. Gnawing on a steak Sunday afternoon, he said, "I may go down in history but I don't think I'm going to come out of this making any bucks."