By DJ Dave Hoffenberg
The best and most affordable festival around is the Basin Bluegrass Festival in Brandon, July 7-10. It’s been going strong for 26 years with this being the 27th. I attended the past 2 and was blown away by all it had to offer. The music is exceptional. I didn’t know any of the bands but they were all awesome. It’s a family atmosphere with down-home bluegrass music. You can find more information at basinbluegrassfestival.com.
Sunday kicks off with a Gospel Sing at 9 a.m. under the tent led by Mary and Michael Robinson. I had the pleasure of seeing them last year and it was unique and wonderful. I got to speak to them both recently to hear their story.
They travel the East Coast doing these gospel sings at various bluegrass festivals. Michael said, “We do Maine to Mexico”. They started in 2000 and it became full-time in 2004. They perform on land and on sea because they’ve done Danny Stewart’s Bluegrass Cruise in January for the past 10 years with another one coming up January 9-13, 2023. They spend their winters in Florida and their summers in New England but they’re always performing. Michael said, “We’re down there until the end of April, then we’ll catch some shows in Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and work our way back up to New England where we started and then we’re busy all summer.”
They hail from central Massachusetts and their standing church is Christ Community Church in Belchertown. They attend whenever they’re not on the road, usually in May and the fall. Mary just attended a ladies retreat and participates in a ladies prayer Zoom on Wednesday mornings with women from the bluegrass community. If they have a good signal in their RV, they can watch their church service online.
In 1999 they attended a festival in Moodus, Connecticut where there was supposed to be a gospel sing on Sunday morning and they had never heard of that so it intrigued them. The performers never showed so Michael and Mary grabbed their instruments and started playing gospel music. Michael said, “Pretty quick we ran out of the words because people didn’t know all the verses to sing along. We got a big book from one of the vendors, laid it out in a picnic table and we all crowded around it. We started to play some of the gospel section of that book. After a few minutes I said since it’s Sunday morning I’d like to take the chance to pray, if that’s OK. Everyone agreed and after it was over, people came up to us and said it felt like worship and was a neat thing.”
That was in August and they thought about it for the next few months and figured they could hand out their songbook with the words and choruses and put a gospel track in the back, like a giveaway. They would travel to festivals, free of charge, and on Sunday mornings gather people, hand those books out and sing those songs. Michael said, “I would preach as well. We didn’t tell anyone about it. We were just contemplating it in our own hearts and praying about it. In the fall, a lady came up to us and said if we had a songbook with the words in Moodus, we’d have all been able to sing along. That was sort of our answer from above that we’re supposed to do this.”
They sat down with their pastor to discuss the idea and wanted to be sent out as missionaries. Michael said, “He thought it was a great idea. He talked to our elders who laid hands on us and sent us out as missionaries to the bluegrass community.”
Michael’s been playing guitar since he was young and was in a band, “The Cow Tippers.” That helped him get in with some of the promoters. Mary picked up the mandolin when they went full-time. Mary said, “I always loved leading the gospel sing from 2000 but I’d never done any special music. Now that we do nursing homes, churches, prisons, I’ve sort of had on-the-job training with learning how to sing in front of people and play a mandolin.”
When Michael was a teenager, he and Doyle Willis were in a duo called “The JC Messengers.” They would go around to various churches and play Christian music. Doyle was the guitar player and taught Michael how to play. They didn’t play bluegrass but Michael learned about it on the Andy Griffith Show. He said, “I never knew what kind of music that was but whenever I began to hear bluegrass, it reminded me how cool that music was. That was a little seed that was put in my head of this neat acoustic music. It came full-circle when I was older and attending festivals.” When Mary and John were teenagers, they both loved John Denver.
In 2012 Mary published a book, “My Journey and His Story.” It covers about 10 years of their life experiences on the road and a lot more like how they funded their ministry. You can download a PDF of it on their website. In 2020 when their shows were getting canceled, Mary wrote another book, “With Love to my Grandchildren: Life’s Lessons from an Old Girl,” kind of an advice book. That was published last year. Michael has some original music they play of songs he’s written.
At these festivals, Michael loves being able to proclaim God’s word through preaching. He said, “For me, the purpose in that is above anything else. That opens the door and gives you the opportunity to meet someone and tell them about God’s love for them that may never hear anywhere else. That’s what we’re on the planet for as believers.” Mary does a lot of counseling. People will come to their booth and ask her deep, spiritual questions. Mary added, “Gospel music is such a big part of the bluegrass genre. People come up to a gospel sing at a bluegrass festival who may never darken the door of a church but then hear the message for the first time. We’ve had many people come to faith over the course of our ministry. We don’t know the effect we’re having on people until we get to the other side but just showing up and being Jesus to these people is fine with us.”
They’ve been at the Basin Bluegrass Festival since 2000. They love working with Linda Berry, love the festival and you will too. They call it a picking festival where people do a lot of jamming and playing music around the campground. You can check them out at www.bluegrassgospelsing.com. It’s filled with all kinds of great content plus from there you can get to their Facebook, YouTube channel and subscribe to their newsletter.