Debut Tony Rice Memorial Day Musicfest survives the rains

The cool dizzily weather failed to dampen the spirits of the artists and attendees at Camp Springs Bluegrass Park near Reidsville, NC, this weekend for the first annual Tony Rice Memorial Day Musicfest. Promoters, Cody and Donna Johnson, labored arduously to make everyone comfortable by transporting performers from hospitality tent to the stage on UTVs, and setting up a large tent for the audience to assemble comfortably from the elements.

Kody Norris joked as rains fell during his performance. “I feel a strange disconnect [referencing the long distance between the stage and the tent where the audience was seated]. I guess it’s good to have grass between us at a bluegrass festival. Y’all are high and dry back there.”

During their show, several ducks waddled throughout the audience. “They paid for front row seats,” he teased.

Later in the day, Don Rigsby recognized a couple huddled under an umbrella close to the stage. “That’s hardcore right there!”

The two-day event featured tributes and ties to the late master of the guitar. Pam Rice, Tony’s widow, was present both days. Also in attendance was their daughter, India.

Pam talked about how Tony cherished the Camp Springs Bluegrass Park. 

“Tony planted long leaf pines here. This place was very special to him.”

It was on those grounds that he played his last show with Bluegrass Alliance, and his first show with J.D. Crowe on the same Labor Day weekend in 1971.

Rigsby stressed, “We’re pleased to be on the same property where that stuff happened.”

On Friday, during the Church Sisters’ evening set, Savannah Church Alvis, recalled meeting Rice at MACC in Ohio. “We were about 12 and he made us feel like our music was important. We are all influenced by Tony’s music.”

Camp Springs has long been known for its impromptu collaborations on stage. In that same vein, the twins invited rising songstress, Caroline Owens, to join in on a great trio song, Those Memories of You (originally recorded by Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and Linda Ronstadt in 1987). 

Also on Friday, Tim Stafford, co-author of the biography, Still Inside, The Tony Rice Story, and founding member of Blue Highway, shared, “It’s a wonderful event. Cody and the Rice family just knocked it out of the park with it. We’re so glad to be involved.”

During Blue Highway’s final show, Stafford dedicated their a cappella gospel song, Some Day to the memory of Rice.

Darin & Brooke Aldridge closed out the Friday night. Darin said, “It’s good to play for the Rice family. Tony always knew the right music to play.”

On Saturday, Southern Legacy (Josh Williams, Don Rigsby, Mike Anglin, Ron Stewart, and Jim VanCleve) took the stage and basically reincarnated the 1975 version of The New South that had performed there. VanCleve channeled Bobby Hicks on several Album Band tunes, including Big Spike Hammer. After Williams’ hot Rice-driven guitar break, one attendee pointed skyward, as if to say, “Tony, your legacy lives on.”

Stewart was hammering out Crowe licks to the delight of the audience. After a powerful version of Nashville Skyline Rag, Williams noted, “They love you in the back, Ron.”

During their rendition of Summer Wages, Williams was bending the strings just like the master.

“It’s one of my favorites,” he admitted.

There were lighter moments, too. Williams told about a 20 hour ride back from Colorado with Rice, and a moment during that trip following one coffee/gas pit stop. “We got out to the entrance ramp (at the interstate), and then he just stopped, and I was afraid something was wrong. I was like, ‘hey man, is everything alright?’, and all at once he mashed down on the gas and threw me back in the seat and scared the ever-loving crap out of me. And, oh my gosh, the truck fish-tailed and all kinds of stuff, then he looked over at me and he said, ‘You know, every once in a while you got to get that fuel line clean.’ I said, ‘Well, we better stop up here so I can get me my underwear clean.’ So, that was better than any ride Opryland ever had. I can tell you that.”

When Southern Legacy played Your Love is Like a Flower, Rigsby noted, “Tony took a guitar break with the Album Band that would the peel the paint off any wall.”

During the band’s second set, several tunes such as Blue Ridge Mountain Home, She’s Gone, Gone, Gone, and Rounder 0044’s Old Home Place, became a sing-along under the tent as audience members joined in remembering Rice, Crowe, and their trademark tunes.

Williams did a touching solo rendition of Rice’s epic Church Street Blues.

Following Southern Legacy’s performance, Bluegrass First Class promoter, Milton Harkey, admitted, “They brought me to tears.”

The last act of the festival was the Seldom Scene. The original band backed Rice on his California Autumn project released in 1975.

Plans are already underway for next year.

Kody Norris praised the promoter of this inaugural festival in this beloved historic place. “We appreciate all the work Cody and his wife have done to carve this place out of the wilderness.”

“We want to thank everyone who came out and helped made this amazing event happen,” concluded Johnson. “The bands were great and we can’t wait until next year.”

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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.