ROSINE, Ky. — The sound of a high, lonesome voice beckons me into the old barn. Michael Lindsey, 60, a building contractor, commands the attention of a few dozen locals who make the Rosine Barn Jamboree a weekly ritual in this town of 41 residents.
Before the first song of the night is complete, I learn that my pew-mates, Joe Eversole, 80, and Mildred Johnson, 72, are soon to be married after a whirlwind courtship that started over campground karaoke. Alvin Roof, who wears a mesh Grayson County Hillbilly hat, introduces himself as the barn opener. He unlocks the door at 4:30 p.m. every Friday.
A sign on the wall reads, “I Get High on Bluegrass.” There’s no alcohol in this dry county, but you can have a cup of instant coffee for a donation and a bag of popcorn for a buck.
Nell Ferguson, 74, whose parents, Edith and Everett Woosley, bought the barn in 1944, dances with Lincoln Midkoff, who moves gracefully but swears he’s about to turn 90.
Midkoff has just two weekly rituals. Sundays he drives his 1929 Model A Ford to church, and Friday nights he puts on his best pair of bib overalls and cowboys boots and hits the dance floor at the jamboree.
Nearly every Friday night for the last 20 years, bluegrass aficionados have gathered here in this tiny town where Bill Monroe (1911-96), considered the godfather of bluegrass, was born and raised. Monroe played his final gig at the barn and is buried around the corner. His spirit lives on at the jamboree, where admission is free and musicians are never paid.
Since 1944, the barn has functioned as a general store, a blacksmith shop, a Louisville Slugger workshop, and a bus depot, among other things, and it now has landmark status.
“This is not a money-making venture,” says Ferguson between songs. “We come here to have a good time. We take up a collection to cover our light bill and water bill and the insurance, but that’s it.”
Gwen Cagle, 82, a guitar player who says he went to elementary school with Dolly Parton, says, “Tonight it’s just a bunch of us locals here. But we get people from all over. Everyone wants to play on the same stage Bill Monroe played on.”
Earlier at the International Bluegrass Museum in nearby Owensboro, Chris Langdon set me straight on what distinguishes bluegrass from old-time Appalachian and country music. “A big part of it is that high lonesome sound that defines bluegrass,” he said. “It’s that tight-throated, high-pitched, piercing male vocal.”
The youngest of eight children, Monroe was born in Rosine, then a town of 166 people. He moved to East Chicago as a teenager in 1929 and found work in a barrelhouse. He played dances with his brother Charlie and by 1931 they were good enough to quit their day jobs. The brothers parted company in 1938; some say it was over a woman, but most have debunked that explanation.
Monroe went on to play with his band, the Blue Grass Boys, for 57 years and became one of just five musicians to be inducted into the Rock and Roll, Country Music, and Nashville Songwriters halls of fame. His headstone reads: “Bill Monroe is Bluegrass Music!”
The collection of musicians on stage grows and as they launch into a spirited instrumental number, the crowd floods onto the dance floor. The music is infectious, the dancers full of life.
During a break in the action I repair to Woosley’s General Store next to the barn for a bite to eat and discover that there’s music there too. A trio from nearby Henderson is warming up in front of the cash register and there’s a jam session in the back of the room. The population may be 41, but there are at least that many musicians in town tonight.
Back at the barn, an ad hoc group is playing “Ashokan Farewell,” a sweet, mournful tune made famous by Ken Burns in his Civil War documentary series. We listen to heartfelt ballads from a pair of female vocalists brandishing spiral notebooks with the lyrics written in them. John Probus, a retired drywall finisher whom I’d met that afternoon, greets me like an old friend.
“Here comes Big Foot,” Probus says, nodding his head in the direction of a man wearing a camouflage shirt making his way toward the stage. “Wait until you hear his voice.”
Darryl Madison takes the stage and his powerful, moving voice rattles the barn. Ferguson joins him for a stirring rendition of “Somebody Loves Me.”
The show ends promptly at 10 p.m. and as we emerge into the cool, starry night I ask Michael Lindsey if the jam will still be around in 20 years.
“That’s a really hard question to answer,” he says. “We have a lot of young musicians around these parts, but most of them are trying to find gigs that pay. I hope it survives but I just don’t know.”
As I say goodbye to new friends, I realize that I’ve discovered the secret to longevity. The good folks of Rosine stay active and engaged. They take care of each other. And they sing and dance together every Friday night.