The Rise and Rest of the Hillbilly Picnic: Sunset Park

Far removed from the arena concerts and tour bus caravans of modern country industry are the mom-and-pop venues of years past. Once upon a time, the fans could get more than “up-close-and-personal” with their favorite performers: they could commune with them for a Sunday afternoon, beneath the cool breeze of the shade trees. Hillbilly songs would catch among the branches and float out into the open hay fields, gently floating down the creek into the pungent evening air. Music parks sprung up throughout the northeast, to accommodate the southern folk who had migrated north after the war, bringing with them the music and culture of their mountain childhood. For 60 years, Sunset Park was considered the premiere venue of this type, hosting both national and regional hillbilly acts, influencing generations of fans.

Started in 1940 by “Uncle” Roy Waltman, Sunset transformed from a dairy farm to a performance facility, in order to bring in more revenue. It hosted everything from vaudeville acts, to traveling music shows. During the depression, many rural southerners left their homes in the mountains in search of work and a better life. Families couldn’t support themselves in the small hollers of Virginia and North Carolina, so as men packed their suitcases full of clothes, they left enough room for their banjos and fiddles. The areas of Baltimore, Washington D.C., Cincinnati, and Philadelphia became populated with rural exiles, in need of an outlet of expression.

Throughout the 50s and 60s, parks such as Sunset became the mecca for traveling country and bluegrass acts. After church on Sunday, the kids would be packed in the car surrounded by fried chicken and sweet tea, ready for an afternoon of twin fiddles and Nudie suits. Everyone from Hank Williams to Ray Price, Flatt and Scruggs to The Stoneman Family, Ernest Tubb, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and countless more graced the tongue-and-groove fir stage. Other parks in the area included New River Ranch, where Ola Belle Reed and her brother Alex Campbell had a standing gig, Sleepy Hollow Ranch, Cripple Creek, and many others. All were stops for the stars while on the road, or in between Opry dates. What made these places so special was the accessibility of the performers; often staying around to sign autographs and eat a meal with the fans, performers were at their down-home best here.

Throughout the 60s, Sunset Park saw a convergence of generations; the young suburban kids were turning on to the counterculture of the hillbilly style. Bluegrass was coming into its own, becoming a new type of folk music, and the honky-tonk country that had been looked down upon for years was finding a new audience. Old and young alike were coming from town and country to catch the acoustic renditions of barroom foot-stompers. It was relaxed, it was fun and it was personal. It was special. This music was popular throughout the country, but Sunset Park, along with the others, made it cool and communal. The crooked, bastard-brother of the communal church service.

This continued throughout the 70s, 80s and early 90s, until Sunset Park finally closed in 1995. It still stands, a testament to times long gone, converted to something else. I am young; 25 but appreciative of where my years have come from. I would have loved to have been amongst the community of musicians around during this time. The glitz and the lights of today are a far cry from the glitzy suits and hot light of the sunshine illuminating the polished metal of the steel guitars. Lucky for me, there are photos and recordings to flip through. But it’s not quite the same…

Hank Williams at Sunset Park

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