WARETOWN — As the Last Whippoorwill Bluegrass Band exited stage left at Albert Music Hall on Sunday afternooon, Mark Miklos & the Bennett Family were already heading onto the stage from the door to the right, ready to stand up and play.
That’s how things went at the 38th Ocean County Bluegrass Festival, which squeezed nine bands into a long afternoon of music.
The Sunday show was a rarity — one of just two every year at this local landmark, both of them called the Ocean County Bluegrass Festival. But a fast-moving mix of bands is a long-running tradition at Albert Music Hall, which has hosted music with a country-flavored twang almost every Saturday night for decades in one place or another around Waretown, near the heart of Ocean County’s Pinelands.
“They have a time limit from the minute they walk out,” said Elaine Everett, a board member of the Pinelands Cultural Society, the group that built and operates the hall. She remembers a visitor who knew his way around the music business coming and watching a standard Saturday night show, then reporting back with his observations and suggestions.
“He said, ‘It’s impossible to do it that way,’” said Everett, who drives more than 45 minutes to Waretown from Monmouth County every week with her husband, Roy, the president of the PCS. “And we said, ‘Well, we’ve been doing it that way for 40 years.’”
Actually, the Albert Music Hall tradition goes back even farther, to the 1940s and ’50, when brothers Joe and George Albert would hold weekly get-togethers for musician friends at their hunting cabin in Waretown. The cabin was at least a mile down a Pinelands sand road and had no indoor plumbing, and it got to be known as the “Home Place.”
But those nights of music got so popular that they started drawing crowds in the hundreds. And when fiddle player George Albert died, his aging brother couldn’t handle all those people anymore. So the music died, too, until some of the musicians missed it so much that they got together and rented a bare shed in the Waretown Auction in the early 1970s.
“There were more people playing than there were in the audience in those early days,” said Randy Bailey, of Manahawkin, who started going to the Saturday night shows around 1972.
Now Bailey is a bass player who’s in demand — so much so that he played with three different bands Sunday at the Bluegrass Festival. They included his steady band, called Past Times; Mark Miklos & the Bennett Family; and Heidi Olsen & The Night. But when he started going to the Albert Hall events, Bailey was a guitar player so green, he was afraid to even take his instrument out of its case.
Bailey credits one of the old-time musicians, Joe King, for helping him overcome that shyness.
“He was a regular, and he said, ‘You’ll never learn to play that thing with it sitting in its case,’” Bailey said. “So he kind of broke the ice for me, and then I looked forward to getting out and playing.”
When King needed a bass player for his own band, he recruited Bailey to make the switch from guitar. And Bailey has been busy as a bass man ever since, usually playing at least once or twice a month at Albert Music Hall.
The Pinelands Cultural Society built its own home in 1996 and opened it in January 1997 — with a seven-plus hour marathon of music, in which the players were limited to two songs each. Still, the group figures it drew a crowd of more than 1,000 people coming and going through that long opening day, which isn’t bad for a hall that seats just 350.
By official count, the PCS figures its total attendance is up to 253,000 people since the new hall opened — not counting Sunday’s near-capacity crowd.
The group built its home for about $350,000, but it had help in the form of volunteer labor from many loyal members, some of them also musicians popular at the hall, said Roy Everett, the PCS president. But the volunteers at Albert Music Hall always include the musicians — because, as Everett emphasized, nobody ever gets paid to play there.
He has been going to the Saturday shows since 1985, the hall’s days in the auction house — in a space that later burned down. From there, the music moved to a school near its present location.
“This,” Everett said Sunday, looking out at a stage full of musicians, and a house almost full of fans, “looks beautiful by comparison.”
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