Camp Springs Labor Day Festival continues to grow

Original IIIrd Tyme Out Reunion at Camp Springs 2022 – photo by Gary Hatley

Bluegrass Park in Camp Springs (near Reidsville, NC) was covered in lawn chairs filled with bluegrass fans this past weekend. Overflow parking was needed. An extra row of campers plus a whole new area was added to accommodate all the RVs that rolled onto the historic grounds. Jams erupted throughout the park, playing until the wee hours of the mornings. It was a return to its heyday.

“First of all, I want to thank the good Lord,” shared promoter, Cody Johnson. “This is the biggest crowd, the most campers since we started.”

Hard work and dreams paid off. Now in its fourth year since being resurrected from the ashes, Johnson and his wife, Donna, were ecstatic to see the site of the first bluegrass festival in North Carolina back in 1969, and the location of the movie, Bluegrass Country Soul, in 1971, revived on the rural site Carlton Haney started over 50 years ago. Gracing the stage then were bluegrass pioneers Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, the Osborne Brothers, and Ralph Stanley performing alongside newer bands of the era like Country Gentlemen, Seldom Scene, and New Grass Revival.

Haney, with his right hand man, Fred Bartenstein, ran the festival for 10 years, followed by Bass Mountain Boys John Maness and Mike Wilson, who operated it for five years. But in 1985, the stage fell silent, the park grew into a forest, and the festival became a distant memory, until the Johnsons had a vision, rolled up their sleeves, and went to work.

Their new larger stage sits on the foundation of the original one. The previous stage’s I-Beam loomed above performers and served as a reminder of its legendary past. T-shirts for the 2022 festival sported the historic Camp Springs beam as their logo.

The three-day event featured performances by the The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys, Seth Mulder & Midnight Run, the Gospel Plowboys, and the Malpass Brothers to name a few. A highlight of the festival was a reunion show of the surviving members of the original IIIrd Tyme Out on Sunday evening. In addition to Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out, Johnson included Lonesome River Band, Alan Bibey & Grasstowne and Terry Baucom’s Dukes of Drive to his line-up to have the original 3TOs present.

The band, consisting of Russell Moore, Alan Bibey, Terry Baucom, and Mike Hartgrove, were joined by the current IIIrd Tyme Out bassist. Kevin McKinnon, who was just 5 years old when the band formed, filled the slot vacated by Ray Deaton who passed in 2019 at just 66 years of age.

As the first 3TO took the stage, the audience moved closer, cell phones and cameras focused on the musicians, and a hush settled over the crowd only allowing in the sound of late summer cicadas. 

“Thank you for helping us celebrate the mostly original band from the 1991-92 era. This is only the second time Terry, Alan, Mike, and I have shared the stage since then,” Moore, the IBMA’s most awarded vocalist, began.

“I don’t know what’s happened to you guys…you got old,” he joked. “Hard to believe it’s been 30 years.”

Then the well-loved and greatly respected bluegrass musicians launched into their first number, Crazy Arms, from their second album. That configuration recorded two LPs for Rebel Records, a self-titled project in 1991, and Putting New Roots Down in 1992. Rebel has repackaged IIIrd Tyme Out’s first release which includes many of their trademark tunes such as Erase the Miles, Moundsville Pen, and Love Gone Cold, along with vintage photos of the original quintet. All of the afore-mentioned tunes were revisited on Sunday evening as were songs from their second recording.

Their reunion set featured classic 3TO gospel numbers such as When My Time Comes to Go, The Dream, and When He Reached Down His Hand for Me. A powerful blast from the past was their western swing rendition of Miles and Miles of Texas that featured precision twinning on fiddle and mandolin by Hartgrove and Bibey.

Though Moore was still living in Texas when Camp Springs had its original run, several band members have vivid memories and connections. Hartgrove played the stage with the Bluegrass Cardinals; Baucom picked with the infamous Boone Creek. Bibey attended the first festival when he was five years old.

“I remember my daddy sitting me on the edge of the stage. I was looking up at Little Roy Lewis,” the two-time IBMA mandolin player of the year shared with the audience. “I never thought that I’d play here. When I think of a bluegrass festival, I think of Camp Springs. This is the holy grail of parks.”

Bibey went on to praise his former band mates. “This band is a brotherhood.”

Hartgrove, who Moore said possessed the three Ts of bluegrass fiddle (taste, timing, and tone), emotionally agreed. “It is an honor to be back.”

Bauc, lauded by Moore as “the best right hand there ever was,” stated, “It’s great to be with all these folks. Most are my kin. We are in NC.”

McKinnon, looking to the faithful four beside him, confessed, “This is surreal.”

Called back for an encore, Moore was grateful for the opportunity and the crowd’s response. “When you get this kind of support, we felt like we’ve left a good mark. We are very thankful.”

Following the reunion show, The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys closed out the festival with a high energy performance.

Mandolinist,  CJ Lewandowski, pondered… “If we have a 30 year reunion show, it’ll be 2044.”

Guitarist, Josh Rinkel, returned. “Hey, boss, don’t think I can make it!”

There were other comments made about the iconic stage throughout the weekend.

Frank Poindexter, dobroist for Deeper Shade of Blue, pointed from stage. “I’m looking up on the hill beside that big tree. My nephew, Tony Rice, and I were sitting there in 1970. He left and joined Bluegrass Alliance and I left and got married.”

Chris Malpass of the Malpass Brothers reflected as he studied the stage. “Carlton Haney booked so many big names.”

Franklin Station’s Steve Worley told the audience, “This is my first trip (to Camp Springs). I’m making my own memories today.”

Near the end of Sunday’s show, Johnson concluded, “We are growing every year and I want it to keep growing.”

The promoter announced from stage that he is adding another event, a Memorial Day Festival, in May 2023. Details soon to follow. 

More photos from Camp Spring 2022 will be posted soon.

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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.