By D. Lanier Shook August 21, 2018
The atmosphere under the wooden pavilion at Tom Johnson Camping World was more like an old time gospel camp meeting than a bluegrass concert. A sea of lawn chairs covered every inch of the concrete under the twenty foot high roof and extended under tents set up for the overflow. Occasional spontaneous dancing broke out as the audience sang along with their favorite songs.
This is the scene I saw as I arrived at the 44th Annual North Carolina State Bluegrass Festival just west of Marion, North Carolina. For the next few hours I was immersed in a scene not that different from an old fashioned gospel meeting, complete with gospel songs like “Prayer Bells of Heaven” — a personal favorite of mine as a child — performed by Lorraine Jordan’s Carolina Road. Yet another song by the Malpass Brothers — “Keep Your Eyes On Jesus” —- with a recitation of the Matthew 14 account of Jesus walking on the water from the King James Version, no less!
The Malpass Brothers’ quoting the King James Version is a great way to open this article since the old King James Bible and Bluegrass music seem to share many similarities. Both seem to be waning in popularity, both are associated with a certain demographic, and both share a undying loyalty from their fans. But for anyone at the Festival, the death of Bluegrass music was far from a reality.
If you’re a fan of Bluegrass — or traditional music in general — this is the place you need to be next year. The names present read like a Who’s Who not only of Bluegrass, but of American culture — period. The Primitive Quartet, Ronda Vincent, The Inspirations, and Lorraine Jordan are only a few of those who came. Even if you don’t like Bluegrass, the music is high quality and well performed. The people on this stage are good at what they do and have worked hard to get here.
Garrett Newton is a good example of what I’m talking about. He’s only eighteen years old but he’s worked hard to get on the stage at the Festival. He took the time to listen to skilled bluegrass performers as he learned how to play the music. His skill and hard work brought him to the stage in Marion, but it also took him on the road with Lorraine Jordan and all the way to bluegrass venues as far afield as the Ardara Bluegrass Festival in Ireland.
That’s right, sports fans, this young man played in the ancestral home of bluegrass music. Click here to visit his website, listen to a few of his tunes, and learn why his CD title “Young Heart, Old Soul” is an apt title. Listening to the CD I would’ve never guessed the voice or picking belonged to an eighteen year old. Whether or not you’re a fan of bluegrass this is a rising star you need to watch because he is going places.
Mr. Newton was one of several Bluegrass musicians I had the privilege of speaking to. Although plenty of groups were there, time was limited and the crowds were thick. I enjoyed speaking to Lizzy, from “The Little Roy and Lizzy Show,” a true entertainment experience. Lizzy is Little Roy’s cousin and they are the focus of an incredibly entertaining music experience. Seriously, this group is as much comedy as music. The Malpass Brothers followed them on stage and in the middle of their first number Little Roy came out on stage — as far as I could tell — wearing a wig and an apron, playing a base fiddle like a guitar.
But you don’t have to take my word for it because they will be at the North Carolina Mountain State Fair on Sunday September the 16th at 6 pm. They toured with the Lewis Family for years, then set out on their own. Both Lizzy and Little Roy started their careers at an early age and the honors they’ve garnered reflect this. But like the other acts that graced the stage, their true love is for the audience that loves their music. When I asked Lizzy what the favorite part of playing was, she replied. “The people. (It’s) like a big family reunion everytime we get together.” If you like what you’ve heard — or want a preview of what’s coming to the Fair — click here to visit their website.
One of the privileges of the show was meeting Lorraine Jordan, a true “Lady of Tradition” for Bluegrass Music, although she would prefer calling it “Truegrass.” Lorraine is emphatic that alot of country-western music and even music classified as bluegrass isn’t. Evidently fans of bluegrass music agree with her and have pushed her music to Number One spots in Canada and Australia. She related the story of a Australian reporter who called for an interview at 11 am — Aussie time, which is evidently 4 am North Carolina time.
One reason I’m a big fan of Lorraine’s is that she owns a coffeehouse! (That is awesome.) That’s where she also hosts Bluegrass Jams on Tuesday. Click here to visit her Coffee House’s website — its a very impressive page. Not only does the menu look pretty good, but she has a very robust event schedule with an impressive list of live music.
Lorraine and her band Carolina Road are very representative of the talent and dedication you can expect if you visit the North Carolina State Music Festival. You can visit their website by clicking here. Like the other people on the stage, Lorraine has earned many awards based on both her stage presence, her skill, and her belief that bluegrass should be “truegrass.” In fact, when I asked for a good quote I was not surprised when she said. “Why can’t bluegrass just be truegrass again?” Its a sentiment echoed by the audience and the performers at the Festival.
The Earls of Leicester echoed the same sentiment when they took the stage next. Between two numbers they specifically stated they play Flatts and Scruggs music — but only between 1954 and 1966. They said that was before Flatt and Scruggs started playing Bob Dillon songs, which was “a little weird.” This Grammy Award winning group very much hearkened back to the days when country and rock musicians performed in suits and ties instead of t-shirts and blue jeans — if that. Some of you may be surprised, but when the Beatles first appeared on American television, they were neatly dressed in suits with neat — if a bit long — hair. For a good selection of Flatt and Scruggs music — from ’54 to ’65 of course — click here to visit their Facebook page.
Of course, the Bluegrass Festival experience is more than just music. Like Lizzy said, it was more of a family reunion — with food trucks, merchandise vendors, and giveaways. Shelby, North Carolina’s Frostbite Ridge ice cream truck offered strawberry shortcake sundaes or a root beer floats. Kyle’s Concessions was where you could get ribbon fries, Philly cheesesteaks, blooming onions, polish sausages, and even more. Plus there was a snowcone truck — I am personally convinced that snow cones are a food group in their own right.
Finally, I have to pause and thank the folks at Tom Johnson for hosting this event. You need to click here to visit their website even if you’re not looking for an RV, just to thank them for providing facilities for events like this. This is an amazing company that not only sells and services RVs but helps them attend amazing events in them.