Bluegrass First Class has long been considered among the top destination events on the festival calendar for bluegrass fans. Held in February each year, the BFC offers a respite from the winter’s bluegrass isolation at a “first class” indoor resort, for what many think of as the opening of the festival season each year.
But the 2013 event boasts a very special performance, one that unites festival host Milton Harkey with one of his premier achievements, the 30th anniversary of the historic 1983 Bluegrass Album Band tour. This superstar aggregation (Tony Rice, J.D. Crowe, Doyle Lawson, Bobby Hicks and Todd Phillips) will reunite for a single day at Bluegrass First Class on February 16 in Asheville, NC. Josh Williams will join this legendary lineup providing Tony’s vocals from the original recordings.
I spoke this afternoon with Milton, who shared a classic story about how this reunion came to be. Anyone who knows Mr. Harkey knows he is a great spinner of yards, so bear with us as it is a fascinating and revealing tale.
“I remember talking with Rice back in either late 1981, or early in ’82, about coming to my festival in Denton, NC (Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver Festival), and he and I just sort of hit it off. Don’t know how or why, but we just clicked and have had a great relationship over all these years.
The first album, The Bluegrass Album, had come out on Rounder, and the second had been recorded but not yet released. I thought this band was the best thing I had ever heard.
Tony agreed to play the Denton festival in ’82 with that same lineup. At the festival, I was so impressed with them that I asked him if he would like to do a tour with these same guys the next yeah. He said he wanted to think on it a bit.
So a few weeks later I called Tony back and he said, ‘You know that sounds good, and I’ll do the tour, but I’ll do it under one condition.’ I remember getting nervous when he said that, but he said his condition was that ‘we’ll do it again in 30 years if everyone is still around.’
I said that’s a deal, and we never talked about it again until MerleFest this Spring.
You know, that tour in 1983 is when the name The Bluegrass Album Band was first used. Tony had asked what we should call the band for the tour, and I told him, ‘well… let’s call it The Bluegrass Album Band’ since that was the name of the album that was out. So I used that name on the flyers and I guess it just stuck.
Anyway, when I saw Tony at MerlesFest in April I asked him if he knew what next year was, and he laughed and said, ‘Yeah… it’s 2013.’ I asked if he knew what else it was and he said, ‘Yeah – it’s our 30th year. I guess our time is up.’
Tony knew exactly what I was talking about all along. I figured I would be more likely to remember it since I’m more of a fan, but he rememebred that promise from 30 years among all the things hs’s ever said in his life.
We talked about who would be doing the singing, and he said that Josh Williams could do it, and would be a great choice. I asked whether Josh would fit well with Doyle, and he looked sternly down at me over his glasses and said, ‘Doyle Lawson can sing tenor with anybody!’ “
Harkey then set about contacting the other members of the original band who all quickly signed on, including Josh Williams who had been serving as Rice’s vocalist with The Tony Rice Unit for some time. An old set list was dug out of Milton’s boxes of memorabilia from the original tour, which will serve as the basis of the February concert.
He also mused on the tremendous effect The Bluegrass Album Band’s six albums had on the course of the music during their 15 years together.
“Back in ’83, we knew that it was good music, but nobody imagined it would have such a huge impact on the then-current and subsequent generations of bluegrass musicians. Not even the guys in the band.”
Tickets for Bluegrass First Class 2013 went on sale this week, and Harkey is expecting a complete sell-out. Tickets and full schedule details can be found online at www.bluegrassfirstclass.com.
You can expect to find some never-before-seen video clips from the 1983 tour on the website soon as well.