First class weekend for Bluegrass First Class

Terry Baucom’s Dukes of Drive at Bluegrass First Class 2023 – photo by Gary Hatley

Even without its visionary at the helm, Bluegrass First Class in Asheville ran flawlessly, and presented another outstanding weekend of music for its 28th year. Milton Harkey, BFC’s promoter and IBMA founding member, was convalescing off-site per doctor’s recommendations. His family, friends, and employees stepped up to the plate and assumed duties to generate another topnotch festival.

Jason, Milton’s son, shared, “He’s done a great job of preparing all of us. Also, making sure that the folks that are here every year that support what we do, they know what they’re supposed to do when they show up. Strangely enough, while he’s not here, it’s been able to go pretty smoothly. We’ve had a lot: the bands and the sound and the folks that are here at the hotel, and they all know what they’re supposed to do. We are very grateful for the years of influence and knowledge that my father has given to all of us, which has made it much easier.”

Father Harkey, said in a phone interview, “We have a new sound reinforcement company (GBS from Ohio), and an updated stage appearance. Our new Director of Operations, Vicky Hutchens, and I wanted to create a more modern appearance for the stage at Bluegrass First Class. We put our heads together and hatched the idea of using digital panels as a backdrop, which was well received.”

During Friday night’s show, Sideline’s front man, Steve Dilling, had moments of seriousness and humor while on stage for the band’s last BFC performance.

“Milton Harkey has been about as good to me as anybody that wasn’t a member of my family. This place has special memories for me. Milton was actually my landlord back in 1994-95 while I was living up here in Asheville. He picked me up, took me here, walked inside, and said, ‘Son, we need to have a bluegrass festival here.’

One of the best things he did for me was when I was a senior in high school in 1983. He told my dad, ‘I’m doing a tour with the Bluegrass Album Band and we’ll be gone 13 days. I want Steve to go on that tour.’ My dad said, ‘he’s got school.’ He told my dad, ‘Don, he’ll learn more on that tour than he will ever learn in school.’ So my parents let me go.

My first job was to drive Milton’s van down to Greenville-Spartanburg airport and pick up J.D. Crowe, Tony Rice, and Todd Phillips. They didn’t know me, but boy, I sure knew them! I can’t thank Milton enough.”

The big man joked about his on-stage attire, a NC State hoodie, explaining that he had been on the bus swapping stories with Russell Moore and lost track of time. “If I am offending anyone, I’m out of the business in two months anyway!”

During the Grascals’ last performance on Friday evening, they invited Darren Nicholson on stage as a special guest to pick and sing a number with the band. Lonesome River Band closed out the show with an extended set to the delight of the audience.

Saturday’s show kicked off with the Jake Goforth Band, featuring the 16-year-old powerhouse guitar picker from Troy, NC. He was accompanied by a talented group of young musicians from across the southeast. He was followed by rising youth songbird Olivia Jo & the MVPs from Stuart, VA. Her band was comprised of seasoned veterans backing up the next generation of music. Both groups demonstrated that the future of bluegrass is in competent hands.

Milton Harkey, who promotes not only the music of today, but tomorrow as well, also invited Wayne Erbsen, professor and author, to bring his bluegrass band class from the University of North Carolina at Ashville to attend Bluegrass First Class. Erbsen’s students got the opportunity to meet, talk, and jam with Olivia Jo on Saturday afternoon, and learn firsthand from a rising artist about the tricks of the trade.

Day two of the indoor festival also featured performances by Deeper Shade of Blue, Terry Baucom & the Dukes of Drive, Rickey Wasson & the New South Tribute Band, and Authentic Unlimited. Appalachian Road Show closed out the night.

Deeper Shade of Blue introduced their new mandolinist, Milom Williams II, for his first BFC performance with the band.

Troy Pope, Deeper Shade of Blue lead singer, joked, “I got a ticket on the way here. The trooper said, ‘I’ve been waiting on you all day.’ I told him that I got here as fast as I could!”

During the Dukes of Drive set, Bauc’s wife and hostess of the Knee Deep in Bluegrass syndicated radio show, Cindy Baucom, came onstage to sing a soulful version of Wayfaring Stranger.

Rickey Wasson, long time lead singer for the late J.D. Crowe, was accompanied by several other former New South members. Ron Stewart commanded his usual spot on the left-hand side of the stage with his intricate fiddle work. Mandolinist, Don Rigbsy, rocked the performance center with his powerful, always on-the-mark, tenor. Matt Wallace joined in with solid bass playing, and Josh Hymer picked Crowe’s banjo, on loan, for their tribute performance, offering a hard-driving rendition of JD’s Train 45. The group of talented musicians also performed many New South favorites such as Summer Wages, Sin City, and Crowe’s classic Rounder 0044 lead track, Old Home Place

During their evening set, Rigsby invited his 15-year-old son, Andrew, to the stage to play guitar and sing Merle Haggard’s Back to the Barrooms. The father/son duo offered a power version of the song, which Crowe recorded in 1999.

“Today is my birthday, and I can’t think of a better way to spend my 55th birthday than with my son at Bluegrass First Class,” Daddy Don announced from the stage after their performance.

Authentic Unlimited returned to the very spot where they debuted their new band one year ago. Since then, the Billy Blue recording artists have been turning out hit-making albums filled with original material by the band members. AU’s banjoist, Eli Johnston, thanked Milton Harkey for helping launch their career, and requested prayers for the BFC promoter.

Emcee, Dale Morris, offered assurance. “I just video chatted with Milton, and he’s going to be back! Plans are already underway for next year’s show.”

Appalachian Road Show offered a high-energy performance, paying homage to the people and the music of the mountains where they were raised, kicking off their set with Dance, Dance, Dance. Their portion shared the hard work of the coal miners, the faith and determination of the mountain folks, and the joy of their music.

Fiddle man, Jim VanCleve, noted that their album, Tribulation, was released on the day the world shut down in March 2020, but they are happy to be back performing live with their follow-up project, Jubilation.

Those in attendance, those on stage, and those working to make Harkey’s 28th year of Bluegrass First Class run smoothly were truly jubilant.

Continuing the jubilation theme, the King James Boys from Spartanburg, SC, presented an hour-long gospel sing on Sunday morning to wrap up another great weekend of first class bluegrass music in Asheville, NC. Happily, everyone left looking forward to the 29th in 2024.

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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.