Camp Springs Labor Day Bluegrass Festival continues to grow

Junior Sisk at the 2023 Camp Springs Labor Day festival – photo © Laura Tate Photography

“This was our fifth year,” Camp Springs promoter, Cody Johnson, shared on Sunday night at the close of the Labor Day weekend festival. “It continues to grow. We had our largest attendance yet.”

The three-day music event, site of the first bluegrass festival held in North Carolina in 1969, had a winning combination of perfect weather, the beautifully restored historic Blue Grass Park, and a line-up of great music. The sunny skies and seasonal temperatures were a welcome sight for the promoter, the performers, and the attendees after the cold, wet Tony Rice Memorial Musicfest everyone endured this past May.

A star-studded schedule included Larry Sparks, the Dukes of Drive, Drive Time, Roxboro Connection, and Just Cauz on Friday. Saturday’s line-up featured the Grascals, the Tennessee Plow Cleaners, Starlett & Big John, Buttermilk Creek, and an extended evening show by Junior Sisk. Sunday’s schedule began with a worship service at 11:00 a.m., followed by performances by the Gospel Plowboys, Deeper Shade of Blue, the Edgar Loudermilk Band, Kenny & Amanda Smith, and concluded with a high-energy two-hour set by Little Roy & Lizzy.

Johnson gave special attention to the iconic festival linking the present with the past. The Grascals’ bassist Terry Smith and the Plow Cleaners’ guitarist/lead singer Billy Smith returned to their old stomping grounds where the brothers played decades ago.

“We played the first festival in 1969 with the Camp Springs Bluegrass Band,” Billy recalled. “Later, we changed the name to Camp Springs Newgrass after seeing the Newgrass Revival (perform there). The original band was my dad, Patrick Smith, Alan O’Brant, and brother, Terry. Later we had Mike (Aldridge) on mandolin and Johnny Ridge on fiddle. Then we formed Blue Haze with Alan, Terry, and J.B. Prince. We played with the Shinbone Alley Allstars, I believe it was late ’70s or early ’80s.”

A highlight of Saturday’s show occurred when Billy joined his brother on stage with the Grascals. He was accompanied by David Talbot and Shad Cobb, Plow Cleaners’ banjoist and fiddler, respectively. Talbot was a founding member of the Grascals and Cobb had filled in with the band on several occasions. The merged bands did a rousing version of Little Girl of Mine in Tennessee to the audience’s delight.

Another past connection was Deeper Shade of Blue dobroist, Frank Poindexter, who attended early festival years with his nephew, Tony Rice, who first played Camp Springs as part of Bluegrass Alliance with Sam Bush (pre-New Grass Revival), then with JD Crowe & the New South.

Sunday’s finale featured Little Roy Lewis who had played Camp Springs for then promoter Carlton Haney many years with his kinfolk, The Lewis Family. He even recalled an incident when a clothes-less streaker ran across the front of the stage while they were singing gospel songs.

Present all three-days was retiring Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em, Terry Baucom, who sat beside the Dukes of Drive merchandise table greeting fans, swapping stories, and posing for photographs. His wife of 20 years, and radio personality, Cindy Baucom of Knee Deep in Bluegrass, served all three days as the festival’s MC.

Throughout the multi-day event, superb audio was provided by Blue Ridge Sound with Jackson Bethune running the board for BRS CEO John Holder, who was away teaching a sound workshop.

At the close of the Saturday show, Johnson took the stage to invite attendees to return for 2024 Memorial Day and the second annual Tony Rice Musicfest, with the sixth annual Labor Day Bluegrass Festival to follow in September. Make plans now to be part of these epic events.

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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.