Bluegrass Christmas in the Smokies wrap-up

Country Gentlemen Tribute Band at Bluegrass Christmas in the Smokies – photo © Bill Warren

“What a wonderful weekend. It’s the social event of the year,” promoter Lorraine Jordan said at the close of her 2023 edition of Bluegrass Christmas in the Smokies festival

“It’s a family-style gathering. Some of my fans have been with me since day one. They tell me, ‘wherever you go, we will follow you. This is our festival, too.’ We don’t just come and sit in our seats and listen to music, we do things together as an audience. We had a veterans’ appreciation, a tribute to Larry Sparks, a Paul Williams’ sing-along, a DJ appreciation, and gave out some awards. We honored the Carolina Road band, thanks to Pinecastle Records. We just had a wonderful time.”

Jordan’s three-day festival at the Convention Center in Gatlinburg, TN, was well attended. Held in the WL Mills Conference Center of the complex, the festively decorated auditorium was filled with approximately 800 bluegrass fans.

Jordan was grateful. “What a successful festival. Not because it was totally full all three days, but everything ran so smoothly. I’m so proud of my Bluegrass Christmas in Smokies elves. It was a well-oiled machine. My volunteers knew what to do and how to do it. I was able to watch some of each band and enjoy myself. Fans bragged about all the bands and each band was fantastic!”

Jordan kept things running smoothly even though she was faced with some last minute changes in the program. Both Larry Sparks and Paul Williams were unable to attend due to health issues.

Jordan contacted some of Sparks’ present and former band members (Jeff Brown on guitar, Barry Crabtree on banjo, Scott Napier on mandolin, and Michael Feagan on fiddle, with Brown’s son, Austin, on bass) and held a Larry Sparks tribute show in his honor. The ensemble performed some of Sparks’ best loved tunes such as Blue Virginia Blue, I Just Want to Thank You, Lord, and John Deere Tractor.

The audience received a special treat when Jordan called Larry, placed their conversation on speaker phone, and held her phone up to mic.

Sparks said, “I had some issues with my gall bladder and high blood pressure. Everything is fine and I’m doing better. God is with me.”

The audience responded with thunderous applause. Jordan assured all present that Larry would return in 2024.

Napier shared that, “I was both honored and excited to perform as part of a Larry Sparks tribute band in Gatlinburg, Tennessee over the weekend. I started with Larry at age 18, and was blessed to learn how to play in a band from one of the greatest in our music. On the show, I also got to play my old Hutto mandolin, which I used in the majority of my time with Sparks, so it was nice to revisit that time in my life. It’s hard to believe even after nine years as a Lonesome Rambler that I haven’t played a note with Sparks in over 15 years. I still miss it at times. Thanks to Lorraine Jordan for putting the show together, and all my best to Larry in the coming year.”

Jordan tipped her hat to the songwriting talents of Paul Williams, too. Along with her band, Carolina Road, they performed some of his best loved originals including What Was I Supposed To Do, My Walking Shoes, and Prayer Bells of Heaven.

The promoter stressed, “We appreciate Paul Williams. He has been an ambassador to our festival.”

Carolina Road lead singer/guitarist, Allen Dyer, readily agreed. “He’s served the Lord with his talents.”

Royce Jordan, Lorraine’s 93-year-old father, and Doug Whitley of HWY 40 Bluegrass served as the event’s MCs. 

Before Saturday’s supper break, Lorraine also honored all veterans in attendance. Her dad recognized each branch of the military while Carolina Road banjoist, Ben Greene, picked their service anthems. Veterans were given a small flag in thanks for their service. A portion of the festivals’ proceeds are donated to Guitars 4 Vets. A guitar was given away during Saturday’s show to Vernon McClellan, himself a veteran.

Jordan also presented plaques to all her band members, recognizing their accomplishments, and Warren Blair agreed to remain as fiddler for the upcoming year. Blair was part of the fiddle role call that included fiddlers from this year’s festival: Mary Rachel Nalley-Norris from the Kody Norris Band, Adam Burrows from Larry Efaw & the Bluegrass Mountaineers, and Michael Feagan of Larry Sparks’ Lonesome Ramblers. 

Blair said, “We’re standing on a Bill Monroe bluegrass tradition and telling you how important the fiddle is to bluegrass music. Every year at his festival in Bean Blossom, IN, he had some of the greatest fiddlers in the world. I had an opportunity to be part of that fiddle role call in 1975. It was such an honor.”

Other special events at the festival included featuring a few tunes from 10-year-old banjoist Landon Brooks from Sylvia, NC, some guitar picking from John Paul, and a segment from Billy & the Kids.

“I love kids that play bluegrass music. We like to invite kids to come up and play,” Jordan shared.

The festival featured family members in some of the bands. Larry Efaw had his grandson, Chris Wilcox, playing guitar with his Bluegrass Mountaineers, and the audience got to meet Stetson Harper, young son of Grascals’ fiddler Jamie Harper. 

There were emotional moments, too. The Grascals’ Jamey Johnson received a standing ovation after performing Randy Travis’ Road to Surrender, and sharing his own personal story of recovery from addiction.

Another treat was reliving the music of Charlie Waller and the Country Gentlemen with a set by the Country Gentlemen Tribute Band. They performed such Gentlemen classics as Redwood Hill, Secret of the Waterfall, and Fox on the Run.

There were also humorous antics such as 81-year-old Little Roy Lewis with his stories and hats. During the Malpass Brothers’ set, Taylor rode onto the stage with an inflatable horse to sing Marty Robbins’ El Paso with his brother, Chris.

On a serious note, the festival was held in memory of Ron Cornett, Bluegrass Jamboree deejay, who passed away earlier this year. He had worked Bluegrass in the Smokies the previous year.

Near the close of the weekend, Dyer praised his boss lady and festival promoter. “Lorraine is the hardest working woman in bluegrass, and was the August Cover Girl of Bluegrass Unlimited!”

Plans are already underway for next year’s Bluegrass Christmas in the Smokies 2024 in Gatlinburg. For advanced tickets and info, visit the festival web site.

All photos © Bill Warren.

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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.