This reflection on the Bluegrass Album band reunion in Asheville is a contribution from Alan Tompkins, prominent Texas bluegrass musician, impresario, and radio host.
Mid-February weather in Dallas is usually great, some of the best each year, and not something I would normally leave (voluntarily) for a colder climate. But when Bluegrass Today posted that promoter Milton Harkey had lined up the Bluegrass Album Band to play their first 30-year anniversary reunion show at the Bluegrass First Class festival in Asheville, North Carolina – and that tickets were available – no further consideration was necessary.
The forecast was to have Tony Rice, J. D. Crowe, Bobby Hicks, Doyle Lawson, and Todd Phillips all on one stage, with Josh Williams singing lead. The festival lineup also included Rhonda Vincent & The Rage, Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out, the Lonesome River Band, and several other great bands. These are all bands that I bring to Texas with some regularity, so this would be a reunion opportunity in more than one sense. No doubt, this was a trip that had to be made, so the planning began.
- American Airlines: Flights available at a somewhat reasonable cost. Check.
- Crowne Plaza in Asheville: Rooms still available. Check.
- Willing accomplice: Cliff Fitch, retired builder of the Fitch Banjos: “You’re serious? Let’s go.” Check.
Arriving in Asheville, our first goal was to locate the Crowne Plaza. Garmin seemed to think this was no great task. So we ventured off the freeway and down the access road, down the hill, under the bridge, into the darkness, up the hill, and into the parking lot of a semi-abandoned strip center from the 1970s. OK, Garmin, you must be kidding. Around the back of the strip center and into the parking area of what appears to be a day-care center (complete with chain-link fence), and around the dumpsters. (It is bluegrass, so this is not completely unfamiliar territory.) Around the building and we’re into a back parking lot, and with a few more twist and turns, we’re there. Wow. Thanks Garmin!
Rhonda Vincent & The Rage had just finished their afternoon set as we walked in, so we spent some time catching up. They were set to play Kinston, North Carolina on Saturday night with Gene Watson, and regretted that they would not be around to enjoy the Bluegrass Album Band show. Rhonda and the band played a knockout set Friday night that brought a standing ovation, the highlights of which were Blue Sky Cathedral (from her new gospel CD) and their instrumental medley, kicked off by resophonic guitar phenom Brent Burke’s amazing interpretation of Foggy Mountain Rock. The Martha White Bluegrass Express rolled out late Friday night, with Josh staying behind to play with the Album Band.
On Saturday, we stopped in to see banjo legend J. D. Crowe. He was gracious, energetic, and full of laughs, as always. He’d brought his prewar Gibson style 3 flathead, which is the one he regularly uses on the road. (This banjo is fitted with a neck and resonator built by Frank Neat so that the original prewar parts aren’t at risk.) We covered all the important banjo-guy topics, such as Keith Tuners and Ron Stewart’s remarkable fiddle skills, talked about the big show (dutifully putting in my request for Ocean of Diamonds), and went on our way. Down the hall we ran into Bobby Hicks, who was looking great and armed with his usual terrific sense of humor. It was clear that this was shaping up to be a great night for a bunch of folks who love traditional bluegrass.
At 8:00 p.m., the Lonesome River Band kicked off a great, strong set of old favorites. Then at 9:00 p.m., Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out took the stage. Russell was suffering from a temporary throat condition that had him under doctor’s orders not to speak for a week or so, which created a bit of a challenge for this hard-working band! Edgar Loudermilk spent the week learning most of the lead vocal lyrics to fill in for Russell, and was joined on stage by Dustin Pyrtle who covered some lead vocals as well. The guys did a great job, and Russell reminded everyone that he was still very much in charge by cranking out a mighty fine flatpicking version of Carroll County Blues.
Finally, at 10:00 p.m., the time had come. Milton Harkey, who originally managed the Bluegrass Album Band, promoted the band’s only tour in the early 1980s, and arranged the reunion, stepped on stage and announced that Tony Rice was “in the house.” You couldn’t hear what he said after that because of the thunderous applause. Harkey offered a few war stories and brought out his Members Only Album Band tour jacket – and tried it on to prove that it still fit. Steve Dilling, banjo player for Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out, joined Harkey on stage and recounted the great opportunity that he had, as a high school student, to accompany the band on tour.
Then Harkey introduced the band members individually, starting with Josh Williams and finishing with Tony Rice. Most folks who love this music know that Tony has been in ailing health for years and is not able to sing as he once did. Rice tapped Josh to provide lead vocals for this show, and he certainly did not disappoint. The band appropriately kicked off the set with the first cut from Bluegrass Album Band Volume 1, Blue Ridge Cabin Home, and the applause nearly brought the house down. Crowe’s pinch and intro was as strong as I’ve ever heard it, and the song simply cannot be done better than it was by this group. Doyle Lawson’s fabled tenor was strong and clear for the entire set, and Crowe sang a wonderfully supportive baritone.
The set included favorites from the group’s six bluegrass albums, including Devil In Disguise, Please Search Your Heart, Hey Lonesome, We Can’t Be Darlings Anymore, Toy Heart, Cherokee, Big Spike Hammer, Ocean of Diamonds, We May Meet Again Someday, Head Over Heels, Letter From My Darling, Your Love Is Like a Flower, Freeborn Man, and Somehow Tonight. Bobby Hicks played with stellar tone and timing all night, and brought cheers from the crowd when he played Maiden’s Prayer and Faded Love.
Crowe was in rare form and was clearly enjoying himself, particularly when he ripped into a foot-stomping version of John Henry. Doyle’s mandolin chop was steady as a metronome, and his breaks were appropriately evocative of Monroe. Todd Phillips was strong, supportive, and creative on the upright bass with a groove that was where it should be.
The legendary Tony Rice was, well, legendary. His level of creativity has inspired generations of guitar players, and it was frequently hard to hear the detail of his breaks over the overwhelming applause (and more than a few hoots and hollers) from the crowd. Most importantly, the group seemed to have a great time on stage and humbly received the adulation from the sold-out crowd. It’s hard to imagine how this evening could have been better.
Sammy Shelor mentioned in the hallway that Rudy Fest, hosted by the Lonesome River Band in Grayson, Kentucky on June 19-22, will also have a headline set by the Bluegrass Album Band.
I think it’s time to start going through the travel checklist again . . . .