2023 Malpass Brothers Bluegrass & Country Festival filled with special moments

Authentic Unlimited at Denton FarmPark (5/13/23) – photo by Gary Hatley

The second annual Malpass Brothers Bluegrass & Country Festival at the Denton FarmPark in central North Carolina is now in the books.

“The Malpass Brothers and all the bands put on an awesome show! We are thankful for such a great turnout,” expressed FarmPark co-owner, Karen Loflin Miller.

The Mother’s Day weekend music event had been hosted for 40 years by Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver. Even though he has retired, and wasn’t physically present this year, his impact on the festival was largely felt. Numerous Quicksilver alumni graced the stage, including five former fiddlers: Jason Barie (Joe Mullins & Radio Ramblers), Mike Hartgrove (Lonesome River Band), Jim VanCleve (Appalachian Road Show), Stephen Burwell (Authentic Unlimited), and Hunter Berry (Little Roy & Lizzy). There were also lots of references to the festival’s original namesake.

VanCleve shared, “I played this stage in 1998 with the Bluegrass Album Band (that included Lawson). I was 18 years old and sacred to death.”

Former Quicksilver lead vocalist, Ben James made a guest appearance during Joe Mullins’ Friday show. Barely recognizable in a ball cap and t-shirt, he confirmed his true identify when his unmistakable high lead voice filled the pavilion.

In the midst of the Malpass Brothers’ Friday evening set, a transformer providing power to the park blew, throwing the music hall into darkness.

The show continued on flawlessly as the host band immediately stepped in front of the now silent microphones and performed an all-acoustic set, while audience members provided stage lighting with their phones and flashlights. Taylor Malpass laid down his electric guitar and grabbed his mandolin. The other band members followed suit. Connor Murray switched to an acoustic fiddle, Landon Smith brought up a snare drum, and their newest member, Jesse Personeni, pedal steel player, and Patrick Hudson, guest keyboard player, also picked up guitars. Already unplugged, Chris Malpass continued with his flat-top guitar and Jake Riggins stepped forward with the upright bass. The impromptu ensemble entertained the audience for approximately fifteen minutes until power was restored.

“We wouldn’t let the power out stop us from doing a show for the fans,” stated Chris.

Appalachian Road Show took the stage next. Barry Abernathy, former Quicksilver banjoist, joked, “Doyle should have paid his power bill.”

Authentic Unlimited which includes three of Lawson’s former band members closed their set on Saturday afternoon paying homage to their old boss.

AU banjoist, Eli Johnston, asked the packed pavilion, “How would you like to have a Doyle Lawson tune? We used to do this one as an encore.”

The group then launched into a powerful version of Lonesome River.

Following Lawson’s tradition of a family-style festival, a special guest on the Malpass Brothers’ afternoon sets was Arlen Riggins, 2 ½ year-old son of bassist, Jake Riggins. He sat quietly on the floor next to his daddy, cradling a miniature guitar on Friday, and a miniature fiddle on Saturday. Already developing a stage presence, he waved to the audience when Chris introduced him along with the other band members.

The Malpasses introduced several new activities during this year’s event. They held a live auction for a pair of suits the brothers wore during a Stonewall Jackson tribute on the Country Family Reunion show, a silent auction for some of their old jackets, plus a raffle for a Malpass Brothers guitar.

Referencing their apparel, Chris Malpass admitted, “I can’t believe they sold! Bluegrass fans are the best in the world.”

There was lots of laughter, both on stage and off, as Taylor rambled on with his humorous tales throughout the Malpass Brothers’ sets, as did Little Roy Lewis during his Saturday shows. There was even a brief beauty contest between the two with Little Roy being crowned the Malpass Brothers’ Festival King as voted on by the audience’s response.

In all seriousness, there was also a lot of love shown throughout the festival. Entertainers and fans were happy to be together again after the global pandemic, with plenty of fellowship, smiles, hugs, and photo-ops. 

Taylor Malpass referenced his brother, “I call Chris ‘Elmer’ because he’s the glue that holds us all together.”

The only other country act on the three-day festival was Jimmy Fortune, former lead and tenor singer with the Statler Brothers. He delivered a powerful set to close out the festival that included such great originals as My Only Love, Elizabeth, and More Than a Name on a Wall.

66 year-old Larry Bradford of Albemarle, NC, attended the music festival for his very first time. Totally deaf, he enjoyed the weekend by feeling the vibration of the sounds.

“I’ll be back next year,” he stressed.

Plans are already underway for the third annual Malpass Brothers Bluegrass & Country Festival at the Denton FarmPark, Mother’s Day weekend 2024.

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About the Author

Sandy Hatley

Sandy Chrisco Hatley is a free lance writer for several NC newspapers and Bluegrass Unlimited magazine. As a teenager, she picked banjo with an all girl band called the Happy Hollow String Band. Today, she plays dobro with her husband's band, the Hatley Family.