One of my favorite things to do – something I like better than almost anything else – is to attend bluegrass festivals. The great performances, the jamming, the chance to catch up with friends I haven’t seen since the last festival… it all combines for a great atmosphere that thousands of other bluegrass fans obviously love, as well. This past weekend, I was especially excited for the chance to attend the Bristol Bluegrass Spring Fest, held at the Holiday Inn in Bristol, Virginia, only about a 40-minute drive from my home in Kingsport, Tennessee.
This was the first year for the festival, which was promoted by the team of Jeff Brown and Randall Hibbitts. Both men are well-known in the southwest Virginia/east Tennessee bluegrass community, and it seemed like they also know their audience, as well. In many ways, the festival was almost a preview of the upcoming Dr. Ralph Stanley Festival in Coeburn, which is a perennial favorite in the region. Larry Sparks, Junior Sisk, Ralph Stanley II, Judy Marshall, and several other groups appeared this past weekend in Bristol and will return for Stanley’s festival in May.
For the most part, the festival had a friendly, easy-going vibe. Artists could be seen mingling with fans in the halls and ballrooms, and a few jams got going throughout the weekend. Jamming was a little light, especially compared with similar festivals like Bluegrass First Class in Asheville, North Carolina. I think that this year helped the audience get a feel for things, and that next year will see more instruments pulled out in hallways, elevators, and hotel rooms.
Both Friday’s and Saturday’s artists leaned toward the traditional side of things, reflecting the music that has long been most popular in the region. I was able to catch the majority of the artists both days, and was pretty impressed with what I saw overall. Highlights on Friday included an extremely tight set by the Darrell Webb Band, which has been honing its skills recently performing almost every day of the week for Old Smoky Moonshine in Pigeon Forge, and an energetic hour from Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice. Both Webb and Sisk had added new band members since the last time I had seen them, but the new musicians seem to have jumped right into the swing of things.
Although there was a heavy crowd on Friday night, enough fans came out on Saturday for groups like the Lonesome River Band and Blue Highway to prompt the addition of more chairs in the hotel ballroom. The Jimmy Martin fans in the room certainly seemed to enjoy Kody Norris’ set, which was filled with strong guitar runs and classic bluegrass and country songs, not to mention, one of the shiniest suits in bluegrass. Adkins and Loudermilk also received a strong welcome from the crowd, although they were lacking a banjo player for the day. Dave Adkins is very charismatic and earnest on stage, which many fans seemed to appreciate.
The best hour and a half of the day, however, came from Larry Sparks and the Lonesome Ramblers. Like several of the other acts, Sparks’ band had changed a bit since the last time I had seen him, but to be honest, he could be on stage by himself and I’d still watch him all day long. However, the return of Barry Crabtree on the banjo was a welcome surprise, as Crabtree executed seemingly effortless backing and breaks throughout the set. The room was filled to capacity, with some folks standing along the walls and it was one of the most spirited and enthusiastic crowds I’ve ever seen at a bluegrass festival – including one man who shouted for Single Girl after every song. Although his wish was unfulfilled, Sparks still ran through most of his top songs, concluding with the excellent Tennessee 1949.
Especially for its first year, the Bristol Bluegrass Spring Fest seemed to be a success. It would have been nice to see a few more local acts – perhaps on a second, smaller stage – or an area specifically dedicated to jamming. However, the music and setting was enjoyable, and the festival seemed to be a welcome addition to the bluegrass-heavy Tri-Cities. I’ll be keeping an eye out for next year’s dates, and perhaps you should too!