“You throw out a handful of acorns hoping one of them will take root and that’s one right there” said David Shirley, the lone barber of the Drexel Barbershop. Shirley was pointing at a young boy who had recently started playing the banjo. Sitting under the tall pines that line the Catawba Meadows Park, it is clear that roots, family and tradition serve as the backbone of the Red, White and Bluegrass Festival.
Nominated as IBMA Event of the year in 2010 and one of the Southeast Tourism Society’s top 20 events for the month of July in 2011, Red, White and Bluegrass is an example of both the successes and struggles of a traditional bluegrass festival in today’s competitive market. One reason for the success of the festival is the devotion of the Festival Director, Gary Leonhardt and the dedication of the numerous volunteers.
Leonhardt grew up hearing his grandfather play claw hammer banjo and his uncles play guitar. Around the age of 18 he began playing the banjo and soon found himself picking during his lunch break with Joe Shuffler and Bobby Denton. In addition to serving Morganton as the Recreation Director, Leonhardt offers free banjo lessons on Mondays and Tuesdays (through a recreation department program). His love for the music is evident, but his organizational approach is what allows the festival to thrive. “We re-invent each year” Leonhardt stated. And that’s what it takes— dedication, vision, and the ability and courage to re-invent.
“We had eight great years and two hard years” Leonhardt shared with the crowd on Saturday night, speaking of the ten previous years of festivals. In 2012 a heat wave brought not only uncomfortable but dangerous conditions to the festival, while the attendees camped through massive rainfall and flooding in 2013. Experiences from these years (along with conflict of interests within the city regarding the fireworks show) led to changes in the format and timing of the festival. These changes were namely the shift from a five day to a three day event, and the calendric move. Even with the festival happening on June 26-28, rather than July 4, the American flag was prominent and on Saturday evening the anthem was sung.
Thursday June 26th
The Tone Blazers kicked off the festival on Thursday, featuring the guitarist and vocalist Jack Lawrence, known for his time touring with the late Doc Watson. Western North Carolina natives, Eddie Rose & Highway Forty, and the legendary Lost and Found performed the early evening sets for the growing crowd. Balsam Range, named for the place where “the Smokies meet the Blue Ridge” kicked off the evening show. Balsam Range has won the hearts of fans across the nation, but particularly in Western North Carolina where they live and perform heavily. Their emotionally poignant songwriting, tight vocals, stage banter and off stage kindness are just a few of the reasons they are so well loved by their dedicated fan base.
Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out closed the first evening. For this set, the group reached back into their (over) 20 years of material, playing a range of newer songs from their Cracker Barrel release (Timeless Hits From the Past… Bluegrassed), Gospel tunes, and Jimmy Martin covers. Recent changes in the group (the addition of bass player Blake Johnson and Keith McKinnon on banjo) have not changed the band’s iconic sound, which mandolinist Wayne Benson cites as a sound derived and continuously inspired by their hit, Across the Miles.
Friday June 27th
A highlight of Friday’s festivities began at 8:00 a.m. A unique opportunity was offered to visitors through a collaboration between the festival and The Earl Scruggs Center: Music and Stories from the American South in nearby Shelby, North Carolina. For ten dollars festival-goers were offered not only a tour of the Center, but also a ride from the festival grounds. Nearly twenty attendees made the trek ranging in ages from ten to ninety-one!
The Center opened its doors on January 10, 2014 with a mission to “combine[s] the life story of legendary five-string banjo master and Cleveland County native, Earl Scruggs, with the unique and engaging story of the history and cultural traditions of the region in which Mr. Scruggs was born and raised.” The space undoubtedly honors the Cleveland County native, but it serves everyone who walks through the door, emphasizing that each person has a story to share. The Festival group was honored to be the first viewers of a new exhibit called “The Luthier’s Craft: Instrument Making Traditions of the Blue Ridge and Piedmont.”
(For those interested in visiting, the Center’s website provides an updated list of events.)
Back at the Catawba Meadows Park, Detour, featuring vocalist Missy Armstrong, opened the festival on Friday. Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road followed with a dynamic set and are excited to be teaching the Festival’s Kids Camp next year, a wonderful opportunity for children to learn from talented professional performers. The rapidly emerging Volume Five’s powerful performance gave attendees a glimpse of what this band has to offer. While the group formed in 2008, it wasn’t until 2013 (with their third release) that their name began appearing in charts almost every week.
For many, the most important performance of the festival took place at 5:30 on Friday afternoon when the Kids Camp attendees performed with the help of their instructors, members of Flatt Lonesome.
Friday evening was a strong closing by Marty Raybon, Larry Sparks & The Lonesome Ramblers, and The Grascals—all of whom have previously performed at the festival.
Saturday June 28th
The Snyder Family Band, Claire Lynch, and Grasstowne performed before the “dinner break” which allowed attendees to visit the over 55 vendors in the park and grab their raincoat before The Kenny & Amanda Smith Band’s set. Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver took the stage at 8:00 p.m., stating that he “beat his record,” by performing three more songs before it started raining than he did previously. Fans were not moved by the scattered showers during Lawson’s energetic set. Open Carefully Message Inside, Lawson’s newest album was available to fans at the tape table.
The Whites performed before Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder’s finale. Buck White and his daughters, Cheryl and Sharon, continue to be premiere entertainers after thirty years in the business. A delay before the Skaggs set agitated the already wet crowd, moving Skaggs’ stage appearance to nearly 10:30. Skaggs’ solid set included appearances with Whites, but also showcased his phenomenal band, including new banjoist, Russell Carson.
As David Shirley reflected, there are many “acorns taking root” in Western North Carolina. The Red, White and Bluegrass Festival is one of the premiere events that brings the community together to celebrate local heritages and bluegrass music. The date of next year’s festival is not currently set, but will be in late June, or early July.