Debut Blue Highway Fest report

2022 Blue Highway Fest in Big Stone Gap, VA – photo © Jeromie Stephens

This review of the initial Blue Highway Fest is a contribution from Lisa Brewer, a legal assistant at the fourth-generation law firm of Brewer & Brewer, PLLC in Wilkesboro, NC. She is the executive director of the annual fundraiser, Carolina Bible Camp Bluegrass Festival in Mocksville, NC. You can reach her by email. Photos are by Jeromie Stephens.

At a time when several festival closures have been announced, hope is on the horizon.

The inaugural Blue Highway Fest was held this past weekend, and it was exactly what one would expect from its namesake band. 

Blue Highway is, as one festival artist put it, every bluegrass band’s favorite band. Founding members Tim Stafford, Wayne Taylor, and Shawn Lane created the award-winning group in 1994. Banjoist Jason Burleson joined soon after, and dobro player Gary Hultman is the newest addition. Together, they have honed and perfected the Blue Highway sound that is at once traditional, original, warm, and familiar, while moving forward with relevant new compositions.

It could make you shake your head in wonder, seeing so much talent in one band. And then they go and launch a festival.

Big Stone Gap, Virginia was the lucky location chosen by the band and supporter, attorney Larry Roberts. Town Manager Stephen Lawson and Director of Tourism and Economic Development Ked Meade provided knowledgeable and enthusiastic support. On closing night, Lawson took the stage to thank volunteers and each town department by name for their festival work. He closed his comments in a handshake deal with Tim Stafford promising to bring the festival back for year two.

And what a festival it was.

Tommy Emmanuel, CGP, kicked off the interstellar artist list with a special performance Thursday night at Mountain Empire Community College. The show included Blue Highway band members as well as Dave Eggar, Richard Bennett, Thomm Jutz, and Ashley (Mrs. Gary) Hultman, a founding member of the Loose Strings Band. 

The two-day festival was held at Bullitt Park, a football field and recreational area. The surrounding mountains featured the first fall leaves of color, and sometimes the breeze blew just right so those leaves danced in time with the music. It was a magical sight. 

The stunning line-up featured bluegrass royalty from the host band (twice!), to legends Larry Sparks, Sam Bush, and the Seldom Scene, to name a few. Unmatched harmonies took the stage with Balsam Range, Darin & Brooke Aldridge, and Ralph Stanley II. Singer-songwriter Darrell Scott played a powerful moving set, as did Sierra Hull. Friday night turned into a dance party down front when high-energy Scythian took over the evening. Fedoryka brothers Alex and Dan, Ethan Dean, and Johnny Rees produced a joyful set that found at least four generations of festival guests unleashed from their seats for some inspired dancing. MC and bluegrass podcast personality Daniel Mullins lent his energy and expertise to the stage show. 

The total experience for festival guests was outstanding. There were friendly volunteers, a variety of food trucks, and a comfortable infrastructure (thanks for the clean, warm stadium restrooms, as well as plenty of port-a-johns!). The carefully curated vendors featured only local tourism and events, as well as the performing artists’ merchandise. Prucha Bluegrass Instruments donated a $6,000.00 Spirit Jason Burleson Signature Model banjo; raffle ticket proceeds will benefit the Mountain Music School at Empire State Community College, and Bluegrass, Old-Time, and Roots Music Studies at Stafford’s alma mater, East Tennessee State University.

Beyond the festival grounds, an enthusiastic and supportive town displayed banners, sign, and marquees welcoming guests to Big Stone Gap. The Visitors’ Center featured live local music much of the weekend. The Southwest Virginia Museum, housed in an 1895 mansion featuring original woodwork, offered a fascinating look at the area’s history. Local restaurants, such as the 404 Café and Creamery and Good Times Coal-fired Pizza and Pub, became personal favorites. There are numerous good dining, touring, and hiking options to explore. 

Can enough be said about how good it is to see live music thriving? I think not. And while we acknowledge the closure of some festivals, we cheer the longevity of others, and we welcome Blue Highway Fest to the festival family. The Blue Highway brand is quality and comfort, at once a homecoming and a never-left-home kind of feeling. 

This road isn’t blue, it’s golden.