2023 Willow Oak Bluegrass Festival report

Deeper Shade of Blue at the 2023 Willow Oak Bluegrass Festival – photo © Laura Tate Photography

Willow Oak Bluegrass Festival in Roxboro, NC, continues to grow yearly. Located in the north central part of the state, the rural 60-acre park offers a pastoral setting that includes a large fishing pond, green grass fields, and plenty of shaded campsites.

“It’s the prettiest park in bluegrass,” Lorraine Jordan announced from the stage. The ‘Lady of Tradition’ and her group, Carolina Road, served as the festival’s host band.

Festival promoter, Mike Wilson, stated…

“It’s the best ever! Attendance is the best we’ve had. The crowd, the weather, everything has been good.

We sold out of the campsite power hook ups weeks ago. Everybody knew that and came prepared to primitive camp. They’re stacked in here like cord wood.”

With only a few brief downpours on Friday afternoon, attendees experienced Goldilocks’ weather. It wasn’t too hot or too cold, but just right.

The three-day event offered several surprises. During supper break on Friday, Allen Mills of the famed Lost & Found band and Buddy Michaels, well known North Carolina bluegrass radio personality and event announcer, conducted an MC workshop. The pair reminisced and discussed what it takes to keep a band’s show lively by actively engaging the audience. 

During Saturday’s supper break, Little Roy Lewis left the stage after his first set and held a banjo workshop. He picked several tunes, accompanied on guitar by Hunter Berry, and shared how he got started in the music business beginning at age six. 

In honor of Father’s Day, Lorraine invited surprise guest Lynn Dyer, former guitarist/lead singer with the Brothers in Bluegrass, and father of her guitarist, Allen Dyer, to join his son on stage to sing a duet, I’ll Go Stepping, Too.

Another surprise was a mini-reunion concert with the Bass Mountain Boys, a festival-circuit band in the late ’70s through mid-’90s. Willow Oak promoter, Mike Wilson, was a founding member. The guitarist was joined by three of his former band mates: Johnny Ridge on fiddle, Mike Auldridge on mandolin, and Mike Street on bass. Accompanying the BMB were Auldridge’s son, Brian, of Wood Family Tradition, on banjo, and Grasstowne’s Jeff Huffman on guitar.

Russell Moore introduced IIIrd Tyme Out’s newest member, 21-year-old, Colton Baker, from Kentucky. Colton replaces Kevin McKinnon on bass who has accepted a position as sound man for Authentic Unlimited.

In keeping with the family-style festival, Royce Jordan, Lorraine’s 92-year-old dad, and Doug Whitley of Hwy 40 Bluegrass served as MCs. Mike Wilson’s grandchildren operated an ice cream stand and Lorraine’s daughter helped with merchandise sales. The Bass Mountain Boys’ children and grandchildren cheered when their patriarchs took the stage. It was definitely a family event.

Other bands appearing on the festival included the Lonesome River Band, Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers, the Grascals, Alan Bibey & Grasstowne, Deeper Shade of Blue, the Gospel Plowboys, Dewey & Leslie Brown, and many more. Plans are already underway for next year’s event.

Photos by Laura Tate Ridge and Gary and Sandy Hatley. We will have more of Laura’s images as the week goes on.

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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.