In all my years of playing bluegrass music, the Outer Banks of North Carolina have always held a special place in my heart. My band, Boss Hawg from Boone, NC, would travel all over the southeast, but the biggest highlight of the year was the week we’d spend on Ocracoke Island, playing in restaurants and bars all over the small, tight-knit village. Through the years, we discovered a small community that was passionate about live music and loved the driving energy that bluegrass pickers brought to the island.
I’ve often wondered what makes Ocracoke and the rest of the islands so special for this music that comes from, and thrives in, the Appalachian mountains. This summer I had the opportunity to write a feature article about the history and present day status of bluegrass music for The Mile Post Magazine, one of the Outer Banks’ top local publications. Through this process, I talked with people such as Larry Keel, who helped usher in the most recent bluegrass revival with his band McGraw Gap in the mid-’90s, “We would do shows at the Jolly Roger restaurant in Ocracoke,” says Keel. “Everyone on the island would come out — and I mean everyone. Most of the people didn’t really know what bluegrass was but they loved the feeling of it.”
The “locals,” as the people who are born there like to call themselves, have more in common with the small, rural appalachian mountain communities than they realize. A rich history of Irish immigrants and their fiddles, horse and mule logging operations, self-sufficient and rebellious temperaments, and even a brand of famous moonshine during the prohibition era out of the long-gone Buffalo City community paint a rich picture that mountain people will easily recognize as their own.
Today, the Outer Banks current passion for bluegrass was in part ushered in by an eastern Tennessee transplant, Mark Criminger. He had heard stories about these magical islands from a fellow forest ranger while fighting wildfires in Idaho and promptly moved there. “The family that owned Silver Lake Lodge had a music background from booking acts in New Jersey — people like Stevie Ray Vaughn,” Mark remembers. “So they were all about live music. I got a tape from a band called McGraw Gap. They had just won the Telluride bluegrass competition. So we started a little back door scene for acoustic and bluegrass music, and it just blossomed.”
McGraw Gap consisted of champion bluegrass guitar player Larry Keel, along with his wife Jenny on bass, Will Lee on banjo, and Danny Knicely on mandolin. (Larry, Jenny, and Will are still performing together today as The Larry Keel Experience.)
“After a couple of times we started renting a house and there’d be a bunch of us musicians,” says Keel. “We would play a show and then have a picking party back at the house. We made friends with everybody as we were playing parties and gigs. I think when we brought bluegrass out there it appealed to everyone in a wild way, and we kept going back.”
As bluegrass popularity ebbs and flows through much of the nation, it has remained strong on these barrier islands thanks to promoters such as Cory Hemilright and Wes Lassiter.
Cory is the founder of The Outer Banks Bluegrass Festival, taking place September 23-26 of this year. Debuting only 4 years ago, this festival has seen the attendance quadruple from 3,000 to 12,000 in the first three years. And with this year’s Cherryholmes reunion show, the numbers should keep going up. “I think what attracts people is it’s a very unique location,” says Hemilright. “People want to go somewhere that has beaches, bluegrass, fishing…the whole package. That’s why we’re doing so well. We are even getting fans from overseas.”
The festival will also feature the following national acts: Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, Rhonda Vincent and the Rage, Sam Bush, Laurie Morgan and Pam Tillis, The Steep Canyon Rangers, Dailey and Vincent, The Lonesome River Band and a massive fireworks show to end the final night.
On a more local and regional level, Wes Lassiter brings bluegrass to his Red Drum Pottery Theater, located in Frisco, NC, every Wednesday night. “It’s really great to see a packed house where everyone is standing up and moving,”says Wes. “ The music is hot. The air conditioner can’t even keep up. I live for those nights.”
Bluegrass music has always had natural ebbs and flows of popularity throughout the country, but throughout North Carolina it remains a consistent, beautiful force, whether you’re on top of a mountain or enjoying a daiquiri on the deck of the Jolly Roger on Ocracoke Island.