If you go
› What: Coke Ovens Bluegrass Festival.
› When: 6-9 p.m. Friday, June 3; 1-10 p.m. Saturday, June 4; plus fiddle workshop with Jackie Miller 10-11:30 a.m. Saturday (all times Central).
› Where: Dunlap Coke Ovens Coal Mining Museum and Park, 350 Mountain View Drive, Dunlap, Tenn.
› Admission: $4 donation Friday; $6 donation Saturday.
› Phone: 423-309-0069, 423-949-2294.
› Website: cokeovens.org.
Brown leads the Sequatchie Valley traditional 'grass ensemble Cumberland Band, for which he sings and plays guitar and harmonica. Despite these other musical dabblings, it was the banjo that first spoke to Brown at age 15 when he heard it on a radio show while living in Michigan.
"I didn't realize what it was," he says. "It was Earl Scruggs playing. My dad was there, and I asked him, 'What is that?' My dad told me, 'Well, that's a five-string banjo.'"
At the time, the area around Detroit had seen a massive influx of Southern bluegrass musicians, who resettled there seeking factory work. Brown's father was one of these, and he played in local clubs alongside legendary fiddler Arthur Smith and North Carolina transplant Wiley Birchfield. A late-night, post-gig jam session by Birchfield and Smith at Brown's home all but sealed the teen's interest in pursuing bluegrass music on his own.
"I wished I had me a banjo," laughs Brown, now 77. "I finally got one after a month or two. I had a paper route at the time, and I bought me one from a pawn shop up there for $25."
Brown taught himself to play by listening to slowed-down 78 records by artists such as Scruggs, Don Reno, The Stanley Brothers and Sonny Osborne. In the '50s, he left Michigan to join the Navy, and when he was discharged, he moved to Tennessee.
For more than three decades, Brown has performed in local bluegrass bands, but his second passion is for the Sequatchie Valley Historical Association, over which he presides as president.
Brown has actively supported the Dunlap Coke Ovens Park nonprofit for decades. He and his bandmates donated proceeds from shows and sales of their "coal mining cassette tape" to bolster the operating funds for the 62-acre park — the site of a historic coal mine — and to facilitate the construction of the Coal Mining Museum, which opened its doors in 1989.
Since 1987, the annual Coke Ovens Bluegrass Festival has served as the park's primary fundraising event. The two-day event celebrates its 30th iteration this weekend with two days of concerts, jam sessions and workshops Friday and Saturday, June 3-4.
This year, the schedule includes nine regional bands, including Bluetastic Fangrass of Chattanooga, Avery Trace of Crossville, Tenn., and Hot Biscuitz of Sparta, Tenn., with three shorter sets by Brown and The Cumberland Band.
By setting the festival in the park, Brown says, he's found a way to satisfy both of his passions simultaneously.
"The Coke Ovens Park and the amphitheater over here is a big draw for musicians," he says. "The facilities are very nice, and the amphitheater has some great sound.
"The sound and music are great. The people are great. It's a family-oriented thing. It's real reasonable."
Contact Casey Phillips at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.
Friday, June 3
6 p.m. Cumberland Band
6:45 p.m. Fox Mountain Express
8 p.m. Bluetastic Fangrass
Saturday, June 4
10 a.m. Fiddling workshop
1 p.m. Cumberland Band
1:30 p.m. Cannon Creek
2:40 p.m. Mountain Roads
3:50 p.m. Hot Biscuitz
5 p.m. Avery Trace
6:15 p.m. Valley Grass
7:30 p.m. Fredonia Bluegrass
8:45 p.m. Cumberland Band