In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

Bluegrass Music


Bluegrass music—acoustic music played on banjo, mandolin, guitar, fiddle, and bass—originated in southern Appalachia during the 1930s and 1940s. It spread north via radio, and when some bluegrass musicians migrated to Maine, they brought the music with them, including the Lilly Brothers from West Virginia, who in 1957, recorded at Al Hawkes’ Event Records in Westbrook. By 1972, Kentucky transplant Jimmy Cox organized the first bluegrass festival in Maine in Phippsburg.

In 1995, Al Hawkes spearheaded a group of bluegrass music enthusiasts to create the member driven organization, Bluegrass Music Association of Maine (BMAM). Incorporated in 1996 as a non-profit, the membership grew quickly.

The purpose of BMAM is to encourage participation by fostering an appreciation of bluegrass through education about the history and culture, promoting bluegrass events around the State as family entertainment, providing workshops and educational opportunities, supporting local musicians and promoters, and preserving the memory of the Maine bluegrass pioneers.

BMAM is a member of the International Bluegrass Music Association and supports the Maine County Music Hall of Fame and Museum that has inducted many bluegrass musicians and promoters over the years.

Al Hawkes brought country and bluegrass to Maine

Al Hawkes, 1989
Al Hawkes, 1989Courtesy of the Bluegrass Music Association of Maine
Allerton & Alton: Cumberland Ridge Runners, circa 1948
Allerton & Alton: Cumberland Ridge Runners, circa 1948Courtesy of the Bluegrass Music Association of Maine

Allerton “Al” Hawkes (1930-2018) was a bluegrass, country, and rockabilly legend known for introducing these genres to Maine starting in the 1940s.

Hawkes grew up on his family’s farm in Westbrook. His father helped set up a radio antenna to receive broadcasts from West Virginia. An award-winning musician, Hawkes began playing mandolin when he was fourteen. From 1946 to 1948, while still in high school, Hawkes played school functions and for organizations in the greater Portland area.

In addition to his musical accomplishments, Al Hawkes worked to document and preserve the history of Maine’s bluegrass and country traditions. He recorded fellow musicians and started the Bluegrass Music Association of Maine.

Al Hawkes and Alton Myers started performing as a teenagers in the 1940s. They met while browsing 78 RPM records at a store. Their band, Allerton & Alton: Cumberland Ridge Runners, broadcast over radio station WLAM in Lewiston, and listeners throughout the Northeast and parts of southern Ontario, Canada heard the show.

Music historians mark this as the first bluegrass interracial duo in the United States.

Event Records

Musician and television repair man, Al Hawkes, founded the Event Records label in Westbrook in 1956 where he produced records by local Maine artists and popular out-of-state musicians on tour.

Throughout the 1950s and 60s, Hawkes recorded some of the most highly regarded country, bluegrass, and rockabilly songs, including by artists Dick Curless, Lenny Breau, Hal Lone Pine, and Betty Cody.

Event Records operated until 1962 when a fire destroyed the warehouse of its Boston distributor, putting Event Records out of business.

Jimmy Cox and the Blue Mountain Boys

Bill Smith playing a Cox banjo, 1992
Bill Smith playing a Cox banjo, 1992Regarded as one of the best banjo players of his time, Bill Smith performed in this photo with Bluegrass Supply Company. Courtesy of Lori Smith.
The Blue Mountain Boys, 1960
The Blue Mountain Boys, 1960Courtesy of the Bluegrass Music Association of Maine

Born in Kentucky, Jimmy Cox (1933-2021) started playing mandolin and banjo at age three, and performed on radio broadcasts at eight. He joined the Air Force, and when stationed at Presque Isle he met and married Yvette LeBlanc, making Maine his home.

The couple moved to Topsham in 1959 where Cox joined Charlie Gilliam of Orrs Island, and formed the Blue Mountain Boys. Performing around Maine for 20 years, the Blue Mountain Boys appeared regularly on Ken MacKenzie’s show and on a weekly live radio broadcast in Bangor. They had a hit, Casco Bay, in 1965.Starting in the 1960s, Cox inspired musicians to play bluegrass by providing lessons, formally and informally, and by starting Maine’s first bluegrass festival.

Cox is world-renowned for the high-quality banjos he made in his Topsham studio starting in 1967 where he manufactured most parts of the instruments from the washers to the bent wood. The Maine Country Music Hall of Fame inducted Cox in 2000 and the International Bluegrass Music Museum of Owensboro, Kentucky recognized him as a pioneer of bluegrass.

The Right Place At The Right Time
The Right Place At The Right TimeClick to learn the entire story

Playing Bluegrass in Maine
By Nellie Kennedy and Joe Kennedy

We discovered bluegrass music individually during the 1970s; fortunately, it was blossoming in Maine. Cambridge, Maine became a mecca for bluegrass music, with musicians moving from southern New England. Fred Pike and Sam Tidwell promoted the Salty Dog and Central Maine Bluegrass Festivals respectively. We met at the Salty Dog Festival in 1984, attended many festivals and were totally immersed—meeting other musicians, camping and playing music together, and forming lifelong friendships. During this time Nellie played bass with the Misty Mountaineers, and Joe played harmonica with Bluegrass Supply Company, and for a time, bass with the Kennebec Valley Boys. Each of us performed throughout Maine and recorded with our bands.

A seed was planted. Like others around the state, we started our own festival in Crawford, the Breakneck Mountain Bluegrass Festival from 1985-1995, hiring both bluegrass and old-time country acts. Our festival featured workshops, a children’s program, and a pot luck dinner that were unique to the festival, plus Canadian bands. In 1993, MPBN-TV series, “Mainely Bluegrass” filmed the festival.

We performed and recorded together with the Breakneck Mountain band (1989-1990) and Evergreen (1991-2015).

In 2014, the Maine Country Music Hall of Fame inducted us into their Hall of Fame. Joe serves on the board of the Hall of Fame. We are individually founding members of the Bluegrass Music Association of Maine; Nellie serves as Treasurer and Joe is Vice President as of 2024.