Friday, February 26, 2010

Jennings Chestnut Memorial/Benefit - RIP

On Sunday, February 21st, well over 500 of Jennings Chestnut's friends turned up at Conway High School for what was supposed to have been a benefit concert to help raise money for his medical care and family obligations. Jennings had hoped to be there, but, sadly, had died a little over a week earlier of the brain cancer he had only learned of about a month earlier. The benefit turned into a memorial for a man who was loved and respected in his community, to which he had devoted much of his efforts through the years. As it is with such events, there were tears and a great deal of sadness at his too quick loss. There was also plenty of laughter as people remembered his quirks and qualities. And, as was almost always the case around Jennings, there was lots of fine bluegrass music. Through the efforts of Donald Smith, his partner in Bluegrass on the Waccamaw, the annual “Free to the Public” bluegrass festival he had built, Shane Hubbard, who has been running the Chestnut Mandolin Shop for the past several weeks, and especially, Alan Bibey, the great mandolin player who lives nearby along the Grand Strand, the Memorial/Benefit concert drew together many of Jennings' friends to make music and remember him.

Willi Chestnut & Ginger Campbell
Jennings Chestnut is survived by his wife Willi, five children, eighteen grandchildren, and eight great-great grandchildren.

The Chestnut Family

Jennings Chestnut is perhaps best known as the promoter of Bluegrass on the Waccamaw, which will be having its fourteenth edition on May 8th of this year.  It was Jennings' conviction that the people of Conway and Horry County deserved the opportunity to enjoy world class music "Free to the Public" because many of the people who live there couldn't afford to attend festivals charging an admission fee.  As Donald Smith, his partner in the venture commented on Sunday, "Just because it's free doesn't mean it doesn't cost anything."  Through the history of this festival, Jennings tirelessly raised money and community support to provide the funds to make it happen.  In recent years, he was able to get his festival declared a 501 c(3) non-profit organization and seek foundation and public funds to help support the effort.  He was recognized by the State of South Carolina as a winner of the Folk Heritage Award. 

The Old Peanut Warehouse
When Jennings decided to inaugurate the first Bluegrass on the Waccamaw, he remembered the disused Old Peanut Warehouse owned by Burroughs and Chapin Corporation and located under the Main Street bridge.  He and Willi, along with a few friends, cleaned the accumulated mess from the historic old building, including years of pigeon leavings and offered the first festival held there.  Over the years, the back stage area has become legendary among bluegrass performers for the good food and warm fellowship offered by the crew of volunteers headed by Miss Willi.  Jennings estimated that between 5,000 and 6,000 people attended the event annually. As a native of Conway, it was Jennings wish to provide an opportunity for his lifelong friends and neighbors to enjoy the music he so loved in a uniquely appropriate setting for bluegrass music.

Jennings and Daughter Ginger Campbell

At the Memorial/Benefit concert held on February 21st, a number of bands appeared to help raise funds and a number of items were offered as door prizes or by auction.  I'd like to reminisce some about our own experiences with Jennings over the too short years we knew him as well as present pictures of some of the many people who attended the event.  

The Pathway Bluegrass Band

Long-Time Volunteers
Eve Hinman and Dee Payne
We first met Jennings and Willi Chestnut in the Chestnut Mandolin Shop in Conway, South Carolina shortly after we had moved to Myrtle Beach for a brief period.  I had bought a banjo, but found learning to play it very slow going, so I called Jennings and asked whether he gave lessons.  He said, "No, but if you need some help, give me a call, come on out, and I'll try to give you some help."  So began what was to become an important relationship in Irene's and my life.  After we moved back north, we made it a point to spend a day or so visiting with Jennings and Miss Willi on our way through Myrtle Beach and were privileged to work as volunteers at Bluegrass on the Waccamaw.  Often, when we were visiting, a regular customer would come into the store.  Jennings would introduce us and then look towards the north-facing rear of the store and say, "Ted comes from up there; he's a Yankee, but he's all right."  At other times, he look at me with a twinkle in his eye, and then look out the back and say, "Ted, you know there's Yankees live up there."  Jennings was a man of his time and place - a true gentleman and a great friend.

Jennings often spoke to us of the Red White Band and their importance to him.  While White has passed away, his family gospel band remains and performed with fervor and skill at the benefit.

The White Family Band

Jennings began building instruments when his son, Jennings, Jr., has indicated he'd like to learn to play.  Not having enough money to buy one, he decided to make it, and the first Chestnut mandolin sounded O.K., so he thought he'd build some more.  At his death, the last three completed mandolins were still in his shop, but they've since been sold.  Ricky Stroud, of the Hagar's Mountain Boys, plays a Chestnut mandolin, which he prizes above all others.  Jenni Gardner, a native of Conway now a professional musician in Nashville, spoke tearfully and eloquently at the benefit about the importance of Jennings to her development as a picker and her love for her Chestnut mandolin, number fifty-six.  Jennings completed seventy-six mandolins and the pieces of four more remain in his work-shop.  His instruments are sought after, currently selling in the $6,000 range.  One is on permanent exhibit at the McKissick Museum at the University of South Carolina.
Jenni Gardner

Jennings was exceedingly loyal to his friends, sometimes hiring them to perform long after they had passed their peak as performers.  At the same time, he was a good judge of upcoming talent, immediately recognizing the young Snyder Family as excellent musicians and a good draw, and booking them for his festival a couple of times.  The Snyders, including four year old Owen, were eager participants in the benefit.

The Snyder Family Band

Food Provided by a Local Restaurant

Jennings was also very clear about how he thought things ought to operate and what he saw as right and wrong.  While he claimed never to get angry, woe betide the band which ran over its time or behaved on stage in inappropriate ways.  He was a bluegrass traditionalist, once having refused a band permission to put electronic keyboards on the stage at Ocean Lakes, where he was booker for many years and acted as emcee during their annual August bluegrass festival.  Jennings stood by his principles!  

The Conway High School Acapella Choir

Lizzie Long, Miss Willi Chestnut, Little Roy Lewis
Jennings was determined that he would not leave Willi with huge expenses as a result of his death.  We arrived at their modest home a few miles outside Conway on a drizzling day to see a large FedEx delivery truck unloading something into his garage.  Jennings, dressed in a blue bathrobe and assisting himself with a wheeled walker was outside supervising the unloading of his own casket into the garage.  He told us he had had to purchase one when his brother died, and it had cost $3,000 dollars.  WalMart caskets were $895 and that was good enough for him.  While he had seemed to rally for a while, Jennings died on February 14th.  His funeral was held the following Wednesday, and again, he succeeded in managing his own exit.  Jennings insisted that his beloved Chevrolet Suburban, 'Ol Blue, be used as a hearse to transport him to the graveyard, and so it was.  His idiosyncrasies were a deep part of his character, and they were honored at his funeral and at the Memorial.  Both Donald Smith and Jennings' old friend bluegrass promoter Milton Harkey spoke at both events.  

Donald Smith

Milton Harkey Presenting a Check from His Festival
Bluegrass First Class

More musicians wished to perform than time was available, and the program inevitably ran over time.  Jennings would have been rolling over in his grave at this, as he was a stickler for timliness and having a highly disciplined stage.  Nevertheless, Alan Bibey drew together a top notch lineup of talent, and Cactus Jack Murphy, a local radio personality and station owner (WLSC in Loris, SC) tried valiantly to keep it moving along, despite the difficulty of getting some bands off stage.  Jennings would have known how to do it.
Alan Bibey on Stage

Jack Murphy Conducting a Drawing with the Help of
Shane Hubbard and the Tew Daughters 

The Gena Britt (Tew) Band

Little Roy Lewis 

The Successful Bidder for the Martin HD28 Guitar
With His Wife and Miss Willi

The Audience

The Jeanette Williams Band

The Morris Brothers
Darin & Brooke Aldridge

Carolina Sonshine

Dayton and Ginger Campbell, Miss Willi
and Grand Daughter Amanda Lynn

Jennings Chestnut often said there was nothing special or unusual about him, but he was wrong.  While he was a simple man who lived a simple and un-ostentatious life, he was loyal, sometimes to a fault, honest, and doggedly consistent in his commitments and his work ethic.  To make Bluegrass on the Waccamaw a success, he worked ceaselessly throughout the year raising money to support the event.  He didn't put on airs or high hat anyone.  Here are a few pictures of him doing what he liked to do best.
Giving Lifetime Service Award
The Late Rocky Springs' Family