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Legal fight waged for right to Bill Monroe's name


There's a sour note in the legacy of bluegrass music legend Bill Monroe, as the man who runs an annual festival in Monroe's honor is locked in a legal battle with the county over who gets to use Monroe's name.

Campbell "Doc" Mercer can't use Monroe's likeness or name to promote The Jerusalem Ridge Bluegrass Music Festival, which he puts on annually to honor the "Father of Bluegrass."

Ohio County and the county industrial foundation lay legal claim to Monroe's name and image, having bought the usage rights from the musician's son 13 years ago.

The dispute over whether the county ever gave Mercer's organization, The Jerusalem Ridge Foundation, the right to use Monroe's name also prompted Mercer to move the event from Monroe's home site to a neighboring farm — once the homestead of Monroe's grandparents.

"Of course we were given the right," Mercer told The Associated Press. "It's a silly case and we think we can win."

Mercer, an accomplished bluegrass musician, and the county are set to make their arguments Nov. 19 before the Kentucky Court of Appeals when it meets in Hardinsburg. Messages left for the Ohio County Industrial Foundation were not returned Wednesday and Thursday.

Monroe, born Sept. 13, 1911, at Jerusalem Ridge, near Rosine in Ohio County, is credited by music historians with creating the sound that became known as bluegrass music — a combination of fiddle, five-string banjo, mandolin, upright bass and guitar. Since Monroe's death in 1996, Ohio County has tried to capitalize on his legacy. County officials and the Industrial Foundation purchased commercial rights to Monroe's name and likeness in 1999 from the musician's son, James Monroe of Gallatin, Tenn.

Two years later, they hired Mercer, who lives in Hartford, to run the Bill Monroe Bluegrass Music Foundation, with the aim of restoring Monroe's home site near Rosine and developing a memorial park.

Ohio County Circuit Judge Ronnie Dortch concluded last year that the informal actions and comments of industrial foundation officials indicated the foundation "would eventually assign the Monroe Name Agreement" to the Jerusalem Ridge Foundation.

However, Dortch also said the Industrial Foundation never put in writing or deed permission for Mercer to use the name.

The Industrial Foundation severed ties with Mercer in 2003 after their relationship soured. The Industrial Foundation declined to give usage rights to Monroe's name and image to Mercer's organization.

James Monroe won a 2005 injunction in Tennessee stopping Mercer from using his father's name. Then Mercer sued the county in 2007, saying officials broke a promise. The Industrial Foundation contends Mercer never had a claim to the Bill Monroe brand.

"It was never any intent of anyone associated with the industrial foundation to make a formal, legal assignment to those rights," the Industrial Foundation's long-time general counsel, Frank Martin, testified at the 2011 trial in the dispute.

Mercer's attorney, Steve Pitt of Louisville, contends all of the actions by the county and foundation lead to the conclusion that Mercer should have right to Monroe's name.

"They set up the corporation and gave it the name. What more can you ask for?" Pitt said.

Ohio County barred Mercer from holding the festival at Bill Monroe's home place this year. Mercer moved the festivities to the adjacent property, which he owns. Regardless of what happens in the lawsuit, Mercer believes the county will eventually put Monroe's name to good use in promoting the festival.

It started Thursday and runs through the weekend and is expected to draw 15,000 to 20,000 people.

"It's a beautiful place. I own it, so I'm not going to evict myself," Mercer said. "I think it will eventually all come together."

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