Neither a global pandemic nor intermittent showers could dampen the spirit nor the music this past weekend at the Denton FarmPark in central North Carolina. Doyle Lawson’s 40th Annual Bluegrass Festival was one for the record books.
With seating spaced to maintain social distancing and a covered pavilion to keep attendees dry, the event ran safely and smoothly. Everyone present just seemed happy to be there, listening to live music, and reuniting with longtime friends.
“I’m just happy to be back with my bluegrass family,” expressed one fan.
“We’re glad to be at a REAL bluegrass festival playing for REAL people,” Melanie Williamson of Williamson Branch announced during their first set.
Host, Doyle Lawson, stressed, “With this COVID mess, Karen (Miller) and I held out as long as we could. We made a decision and moved the festival (from May) to September. It was a wait and see thing.”
“We were blessed to have a great crowd. Bottom line: I love being back to pick and sing. I thank the good Lord that we were able to have the festival.”
Park co-owner, Karen Miller, agreed. “We are thankful to the Lord. What could have been a washed out weekend turned out really good. We had 309 campers in the park plus many camping in the rough.”
She added, “I miss Daddy being here.”
Denton FarmPark founder, Brown Loflin, passed away last September, leaving the duties to his family.
“I miss Brown and other people here do, too.” Ruby, his widow, stated.
The Loflin family worked closely with local authorities to maintain the annual music event, and keep the festival safe for attendees.
Afternoon emcee, Bob Webster, noted that the family style festival presented a family band performing on the stage each day. Trinity River Band appeared on Thursday, Mountain Highway on Friday, and Williamson Branch on Saturday.
The three day event also offered changes, substitutions, and surprises that made for a memorable weekend. There were changes from the initial line-up due to the pandemic. Fast Track filled in for Donna Ulisse on Thursday and IIIrd Tyme Out took Larry Sparks’ spot on Saturday evening. Bailey Coe (Sideline alum) and Lee Sawyer subbed for Drive Time’s bassist, Grayson Tuttle, who was in the midst of clinicals. Jeff Parker pinch hit for Mike Terry of Radio Ramblers. Terry was by the bedside of his ailing father.
Joe Mullins explained, “First time we played with Jeff was about 30 minutes before we came on stage.”
Parker hit a home run, playing all the mandolin breaks and singing the third part on the band’s trio numbers.
“I studied their material,” the mando man admitted, but with only a couple of days to prepare.
There were several firsts at the festival. Kevin Richardson debuted as Merle Monroe’s new guitar player. Lawson’s alum, Stephen Burwell, guested with original Quicksilver on Thursday evening, then joined Doyle’s new fiddler, Matt Flake, for twin fiddling during Quicksilver’s Friday and Saturday performances. Attendees were introduced to Doyle’s new ensemble with Eli Johnston returning to the band, but this time on banjo. Ben James, a guitarist from Hickory, NC, blew the crowd away with his large voice. There was some swapping of instruments when bassist, Jerry Cole, would switch to rhythm guitar and Flake would move to bass for some of the numbers.
A nice surprise on Saturday morning was the powerhouse singing of the National Anthem by 18 year old, Caroline Owens of the Garrett Newton Band, that revved up the audience and spring-boarded the festival into a high energy afternoon and evening.
Even with laryngitis, Sideline’s Steve Dilling gave it his all. He whispered into the microphone and pointed, “This festival means a lot to me. In 1981, I sat right there on the front row.”
Scott Burgess of Deeper Shade of Blue told those assembled, “I know we’re living in trying times, but we serve a higher power and we know who’s in control.”
Lawson was obviously pleased with the 40th festival that bears his name. Evening emcee, Jeff Branch, presented Doyle with a placard filled with signatures of performers from the festival.
Doyle concluded, “Milton Harkey came to me with the idea of this festival. It has turned into just what I wanted, a family style festival. I look out and see children, their parents, and grandparents.”