Bluegrass First Class celebrates 25 years

Bluegrass First Class celebrated its silver anniversary this past weekend in Asheville, NC.

Promoter, Milton Harkey, was honored during Friday evening’s show. Kelly Epperson, general manager of WPAQ Radio in Mt. Airy, NC, conducted the presentation.

“This is quite an evening,” Epperson began. “This is a special night indeed, 25 years of Bluegrass First Class, and there’s a first class guy behind all this, Milton Harkey.”

The promoter was then presented a framed declaration from the Lieutenant Governor of NC. The award read:

“Be it known that the Lieutenant Governor of North Carolina presents this Certificate of Appreciation to Milton Ray Harkey in recognition of his outstanding contributions to the bluegrass community of the state of North Carolina.” It was dated and signed by Lieutenant Governor, Daniel F Forest. 

Harkey humbly accepted the award, stating, “I didn’t know we did this in North Carolina. It belongs to all of us.”

A video presentation followed with a host of bluegrass celebrities congratulating Harkey on his 40th year in the music business and his 25th at Asheville. The Who’s Who of clientele included Nancy Cardwell of IBMA, and entertainers such as JD Crowe, Dailey and Vincent, Rhonda Vincent, Darin and Brooke Aldridge, Ben Eldridge, and many others.

“Thanks for all you’ve done for bluegrass,” Crowe stated.

Jeff Parker stressed, “It is a First Class venue.”

Sideline’s Steve Dilling, shared, “Milton has probably done more for me than anyone else (outside of my family). He took me on the Bluegrass Album Band tour when I was 17 years old.”

“You’ve helped numerous bands and artists and brought so much joy,” said Jan Johansson, who is originally from Sweden.

On Saturday night, when headliner, Ricky Skaggs, took the stage, he began with, “Congratulations, Milton, on 25 years! You’ve worked hard for the music.”

The three day event featured a main stage with acts such as Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper, Seldom Scene, Lonesome River Band, Rhonda Vincent and the Rage, Appalachian Road Show, Steve Gulley and New Pinnacle, and IIIrd Tyme Out to name a few, and a showcase stage for new and upcoming acts.

Russell Moore was present for all 25 years of Harkey’s star-studded weekend of music in western North Carolina.

Stan Merritt, assistant to Harkey, stated, “It’s hard to outdo what we did in year 24, but I think we pulled it off.”

Harkey agreed. “Every year we try to outdo the previous year.”

One of Harkey’s workers, Bailey Hill, was impressed with the attendees. “I like the way that people were engaged. Everyone was happy to be here.”

“Everything was full again,” the celebrated promoter shared.

The seating capacity of 900 in the Expo Center of the Crowne Plaza Resort was nearly sold out both nights and the hotel was completely booked. 

“This is an entire experience. It’s not just come to a show and go home. There’s so much to do here: main stage, showcase stage, people meet and pick. I just left a room with 11 dobros in it,” Harkey shared. “People are jamming in the hallways and the rooms all over. I see a lot of people who can really pick! ”

Barry Abernathy, banjoist with Appalachian Road Show, reflected, “I met Jimmy Van Cleve, our fiddler, right here at Bluegrass First Class.”

ARS’s guitar player, Zeb Snyder, added, “I got my start right here in 2008 with the Snyder Family Band.”

“This has become a big family. We’ve had 25 years of growing. We had a lady here who has been at all 25, and has her second generation of family with her,” Merritt beamed.

Harkey smiled, “I share it with my family, too.”

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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.