This past weekend in Pigeon Forge, TN, Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road hosted the Christmas In The Smokies Bluegrass Festival at the Smoky Mountain Convention Center. Although hosted and promoted by the Larkin family for many years, this was the first year for Lorraine Jordan as the host and promoter.
An ultra-successful business woman, Jordan seems to have the midas touch. In addition to her business enterprises, and her rapid rise in the bluegrass music industry, her first year at the helm of this event saw attendance nearly double recent years’ audiences. A near capacity crowd on Thursday night gathered to hear a lineup that included Mountain Faith, the Jesse Alexander Band, the Hart Brothers, Carolina Road, Goldwing Express, and headliner Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, probably one of the most “bankable” acts in bluegrass. Forgive me for being blunt, but the old saying applies: they put butts in the seats.
Doyle’s performance was near flawless, as always, and appropriately included some Christmas music. I’ve been told Doyle is a big fan of the Time Jumpers, a Nashville based western swing group that regularly performs at the Station Inn, but I’ve never heard a big influence of that style in Doyle’s playing until he picked up an electric “mandocaster” (I use that term loosely as a generic term to describe a small electric four-stringed instrument). On several swing style versions of Christmas favorites, Doyle surprised with his jazzy, swinging solos.
Although the event started with a Wednesday night square dance and instrumental workshops, the show on Thursday didn’t start until 4:00 p.m., and Friday’s performances didn’t start until 2:00. This might seem a little strange, but there were so many things to do and see in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, the schedule permited time for everyone to get out and take advantage of area attractions. I had never been to Pigeon Forge at Christmas time, but it was everything I had heard and more. If you like Christmas lights, decorations, music, food, shopping and shows, there is probably no place more immersed in the Christmas spirit (at least the glitzy side of Christmas) than Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. The only thing missing was a coating of snow.
My wife (photographer, guitar player and singer), Valerie, and I took the opportunity to visit Gatlinburg and watch some of the performances by Darrell Webb and friends at one location, and Monroeville at another location on “the strip” (the main drag through Gatlinburg, which I commented to Valerie reminded me of a hillbilly Ocean Boulevard, the main drag through Myrtle Beach). We visited with both groups and were surprised to learn that they are playing 3-5 days a week, 8-10 hours a day, a grueling schedule, but all were happy to be making a living without the rigors of constant travel. It was a nice contrast with Darrell and company playing more traditional music and the Monroeville crew playing more contemporary music.
Back at the festival, Friday’s lineup included Ralph Stanley II, Ronnie Reno & Reno Tradition, The Gary Waldrep Band, and legend Bobby Osborne & The Rocky Top Express. While Bobby is still going strong in his 80’s, which is amazing, I felt BOJ (Bobby Osborne Jr.) is really growing into his role as bass player, harmony singer, and part-time lead singer. BOJ took the lead on Listening To The Rain, and gave proof that the Osbornes’ musical legacy is in good hands for the future. Bobby honored a request for Georgia Mules and Country Boys, which he said he hadn’t sung in years, and stumbled on a little section of a verse. I mention this because his “doodle-do-do-do” to fill the space (which cracked the band up, including BOJ, who evoked memories of Sonny’s belly laughs) was priceless. Bobby seems to joke more and enjoy himself more than I remember in the old days, which for me goes back into the mid-1970’s.
Saturday brought another collection of outstanding groups including Jerry Butler & The Blu-Js, Goldwing Express, Remington Ryde, Larry Effaw & The Bluegrass Mountaineers, Danny Stanley & The Bluegrass Gentlemen, Marty Raybon & Full Circle. After seeing what was one of the best vocal sets I had ever heard by Marty and his brother Tim at IBMA this year, I was disappointed when I learned before they took the stage that Tim had laryngitis and wouldn’t be able to sing. However, bass player Jason Leek stepped in and did a fine job on the tenor vocals (he usually sings bass on the quartets) and the band didn’t miss a beat. Marty is fun to watch, and his body movements remind me of Jimmy Martin. His sets draw on a wealth of material, from the traditional bluegrass he and brother Tim sang in their youth, to his country hits, to the Gospel and Christian influences, not to mention all the new and original compositions Marty has written.
Although James King was scheduled to perform, the recent death of his daughter prevented his appearance. A large card was circulated for attendees to sign, which was to be forwarded to the King family along with donations that were collected throughout the weekend.
All in all, Bluegrass In The Smokies 2012 was a tremendous success. While checking out of the Ramada Inn (adjacent on the same property with the Convention Center), I overheard the couple in front of me asking for the same room for next year, only to be told that most of the first floor rooms closest to the Convention Center were already gone, so it sounds like the future is bright for this event. Merry Christmas, and have a happy New Year in 2013.