Dan Tyminski at the 2022 Bluegrass First Class – photo by Gary Hatley
After being on hiatus last year due to the pandemic, Bluegrass First Class bounced back bigger and better than ever this past weekend.
“It’s been a long two years since we’ve been able to have music like we wanted, but with the mandates dropped at this point in time, it allowed us to have a great, enthusiastic, standing-room-only crowd,” stated promoter, Milton Harkey. “We were one of the last ones to have live music in 2020 and one of the first to have it in 2022. I wasn’t expecting so many walk-up customers. We had to add more chairs each night. It was unbelievable. The entire hotel was full.”
Held in Asheville, NC’s Crowne Plaza Resort, the indoor festival kicked off on Thursday with performances by next generation grassers, the Jake Goforth Band and Olivia Jo, a 26-year-old songbird from Stuart, VA.
Harkey praised the up-and-coming artist. “Bluegrass has found a new star in Olivia Jo. I think she will be the next big name in bluegrass. She had an all-star cast with her on Thursday night.”
A-listers backing the young vocalist included Elmer Burchett on banjo, Ron Stewart on fiddle, plus Terry Baucom’s Dukes of Drive’s Will Clark on mandolin and Clint Coker on guitar, with David Peterson’s 1946’s Nate Stephens on bass.
With festival t-shirts displaying a guitar with “58957” (Tony Rice’s classic 1935 D-28 serial number), Bluegrass First Class welcomed guests as many of the bands paid homage to the late guitar guru.
The Jake Goforth Band from North Carolina was the first band to take the stage on Friday. The youthful group, led by the 15-year-old hotshot guitarist, closed their set with a high energy version of Rice’s Me and My Guitar. Next, another NC-based band, Second Chance Bluegrass, followed with a TR version of the Jim Croce song, Age.
Special guests, Richard Bennett, Junior Sisk, Tim Massey, Burchett, and Stewart followed suit with a Santa Cruz reunion. Two of Sisk’s band, Johnathan Dillon on mandolin and Curt Love on bass, provided solid backup. Wyatt Rice, Tony’s youngest brother, was unable to participate due to family health issues. Preceding their performance, a video of photographs of Tony Rice performing throughout his career was shown while his recording of Summer Wages played.
In memory of both Tony Rice and J.D. Crowe, Bennett and Stewart played soulful versions of Wayfaring Stranger and Just a Closer Walk with Thee.
The remainder of Friday featured the Caleb Daugherty Band, the Junior Sisk Band, Danny Paisley, and Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out. Moore was celebrating 30 years in the music business.
“It’s like a homecoming. We have been the only band to have been here 27 years for Bluegrass First Class,” Moore cited. “We’ve recorded so many songs, I don’t remember them all.”
His longtime mando-man, Wayne Benson, teased, “I don’t remember the ‘90s!”
The evening show concluded with a powerhouse performance by the Dan Tyminski Band.
Saturday’s lineup featured Deeper Shade of Blue, Seth Mulder & Midnight Run, the Lonesome River Band, Authentic Unlimited, and Dan Tyminski.
Harkey recognized DSOB dobroist, Frank Poindexter, as Tony Rice’s uncle and invited Poindexter’s band mates to lead the audience in singing Happy Birthday as Frank celebrated his 73rd on that day.
Authentic Unlimited, the offspring from Doyle Lawson’s band, made their debut at the Asheville festival on Saturday.
Emcee, Dave Snyder, welcomed the newly formed group to the stage. “I think they should be called First Time Out,” he joked. “I stayed up last night practicing their name.”
Harkey took the mic and stressed to the audience, “This IS the first time this band has ever played live.”
Following their afternoon performance and a double encore, Snyder admitted, “Well, I am impressed!”
Stephen Burwell, fiddler for the new super group, shared after their first set, “It’s been wonderful. It couldn’t have been a better place. It’s one the best festivals with hospitality and respect. We’re really excited to get to share our music.”
Eli Johnston, the band’s banjoist, added, “We’ve all been preparing for it.”
The band’s new vocalist, John Meador, declared, “We’re really blessed to do what we love.”
Jesse Brock, AU’s mandolinist, was more than pleased with the audience’s reaction, “It’s been 20 years since I received TWO encores at the end of a set, and this was our first show!”
Lonesome River Band followed with a set of the “Early Years,” featuring their tunes from the ’90s. The band performed some of their most requested tunes including two Billy Smith numbers, Crazy Heart and Hobo Blues.
Founding member and banjoist, Sammy Shelor, stated, “It is good to be back at Bluegrass First Class. It’s great to be back anywhere.”
LRB also remembered Rice. Shelor said from the stage of his long time friend, “God bless Tony Rice. He changed music for the better, and they’ll never be another like him.”
During AU’s evening set which leaned heavily on Gospel tunes, Burwell told the audience, “We want you to feel God’s love in our music.”
Meador added, “Not only do we pick and sing together, we’re brothers in Christ.”
The festival concluded with an almost two-hour set by Dan Tyminski and his hard-driving band (Gaven Largent-dobro, Jason Davis-banjo, Grace Davis-bass, Maddie Denton-fiddle, and Harry Clark-mandolin).
Tyminski took the stage for the second night, looked out into the crowd, and beamed, “You came back!”
Near the end of his fast-paced performance, Tyminski confessed, “I hope you enjoyed this music as much as I’ve enjoyed playing it.”
Harkey concluded, “I am happy for the bands and the fans. They needed this show. I am so happy to be a conduit for it. I believe in the music and the bands. I was going to have it if it was just for me.”
Plans are already underway for the MRH Production in 2023.