Camp Springs Bluegrass Festival 2021

Doyle Lawson at the 2021 Camp Springs Bluegrass Festival – photo by Gary Hatley

Whether it was the night chill from pre-autumn temperatures or goose bumps from watching a historic movie on the very spot where it was filmed, Friday night of Labor Day weekend at Camp Springs Bluegrass Park in North Carolina, definitely left its mark on all in attendance. 

In a stroke of genius, the festival line-up was selected to represent many who appeared in the film, Bluegrass Country Soul, from 50 years ago, including Ralph Stanley, The Rice Brothers, Doyle Lawson, AL Wood, Bobby Osborne, and Missy Raines. It set up a “super-theme” that carried throughout all three days of the event, giving veteran attendees a chance to re-live what they already knew, and young pickers and fans a good education on the history of our beloved music.

Part of the evening’s performances included a tribute to guitar wizard, Tony Rice, who had graced the stage in 1971 with two bands, Bluegrass Alliance (his last show with that band), and J.D. Crowe & the New South (his first show with that band), and who tragically passed away last Christmas Day.

Tony’s younger brother, Wyatt Rice, and friend, Richard Bennett, two of our most well-known disciples of Tony’s style of picking and singing, played and sang some of Tony’s memorable tunes, and reminisced about the man and the magical place called Camp Springs. Special guest was Wyatt’s son, Jordan, who joined the pair for a few tunes on mandolin.

Bennett shared, “I’m glad to be here again. J.D. (Crowe) said a lot of important footsteps have been left here.”

It was the guitarists’ first appearance since the COVID outbreak, and their first time performing together in half a decade. They easily reconnected and the soft sounds of their six strings drifted lightly over the evening air. Songs like Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right, Leaving’s Heavy On My Mind, and Summer Wages brought back fond memories of Tony and the music that he made. 

“I was here when I was 8,” Wyatt said pointing into the audience. “I was sitting on the grounds. My cousin, Ron, and I tied drink can tabs together and made necklaces. Someone took our picture and it made the newspaper!”

In keeping with the festival’s theme, and in perfect timing, immediately following a set by Ralph II and the Clinch Mountain Boys, night settled in and a screen dropped in front of the stage as attendees gathered in to watch Bluegrass Country Soul. 50 years ago on Labor Day weekend, thousands of music fans descended on the farm in rural Caswell County in North Carolina to watch the biggest and best in the bluegrass industry, including Dr. Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys performing within a few feet of the projection screen. During that iconic event, a camera crew captured it all on film.

Present for the current showing from Burbank, CA, was the film’s producer, Albert Idhe, and executive director, Ellen Pasternack.

Idhe stressed to the audience, “This is historic…to show the film where it was made 50 years ago. Not many films have done this.”

Surveying the festival grounds and the fruits of the labor of the Johnson family, the film’s producer added, “Cody (Johnson) has been able to make it even better than it was before.”

Everyone settled in to watch the movie where, on Labor Day weekend in 1971, the filmmakers shot a documentary capturing a pivotal moment in the history of American music. It was a first of its kind in the state, Carlton Haney’s three-day celebration featuring both bluegrass veterans and future stars alike.

Shown under the steel I-Beam now preserved from the original stage, stars that have left us, including Roy Acuff, Ralph Stanley, Earl Scruggs, Keith Whitley, and Tony and Larry Rice played the music that influenced future generations. The movie also captured excellent performances by banjo-master, Bill Emerson, who passed away recently. Everyone there felt the magic, and the memories, and enjoyed the melodies that made Camp Springs a shrine to bluegrass music.

The new proprietors, Cody and Donna Johnson, are lovers of God and country. Saturday’s festivities kicked off with Cody’s childhood friend, Pastor Jason Simmons, saying a prayer and Uwharrie Drive’s Kaleigh Stills, fiddling the national anthem.

“I’m happy,” expressed Cody. “The weather is great. The crowd is good.”

In its third year, the music festival drew a larger crowd than its previous years as news of the reopening of Bluegrass Park spread, and music lovers returned to where the first bluegrass festival in North Carolina was held in 1969. 

During Buttermilk Creek’s set, their guitarist, Tim Rice, admitted, “I grew up under this stage. Who knows, I might have been conceived out in this parking lot.”

Later in the evening when Wood Family Tradition performed, Mike Wood, son of AL Wood, stressed, “I was fortunate to play on this stage with my dad. He appeared in the movie during the banjo segment with Earl Scruggs.”

Wood was returning to Camp Springs with three generations to entertain festival goers. They sang new material, but also performed vocals and an instrumental penned by the senior Wood, who played at Camp Springs a half a century ago.

“As a teenager, I remember staying up on that hill in a Winnebago, waking up to bluegrass and going to sleep with bluegrass. Bluegrass folks are the best people,” Mike affirmed.

When Doyle Lawson took the stage, he joked, “I was here 50 years ago when the movie was made. I’ve started shaving since then.” To continue the weekend history lesson, Lawson stated that on the day of the 1971 filming, he had been with the Country Gentlemen for only 5 days, having just vacated the spot with J.D. Crowe that was being filled for the first time that day by Tony Rice.

He praised the Johnsons.

‘They are working very hard. Show them your love and support. What they have done here is remarkable. Tell people this is the place to come hear good bluegrass music.”

Sunday’s lineup included Bobby Osborne and the Rocky Top Express and Missy Raines. Bobby and Missy (not performing) both appeared in Bluegrass Country Soul. To quote festival promoter Cody Johnson, “Rocky Top was awesome.”

Following Sunday’s performances, a drawing was held for a raffle for the first Tony Rice Memorial Scholarship Fund. First prize was a Martin D-18 guitar.

We will have additional photo coverage from this historic event throughout the week.

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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.