Keeping up with Milton Harkey after a health scare

Milton Harkey with his son, Christopher at Bluegrass First Class 2009

Milton Harkey, founding IBMA member and former Board Chair, Bluegrass First Class promoter/producer, and the visionary behind the Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver Festival in Denton, NC, just celebrated his 75th birthday, but shows no signs of slowing down. Even after several serious health issues, a lengthy hospital stay, and a recent bout with COVID, Harkey is bouncing back and busy planning events for the next calendar year and beyond.

“I hardly know where to start. There are quite a few things going on,” Harkey began in a recent phone interview about his current activity.

“We’re getting ready right now for the 29th year of Bluegrass First Class in February (2024). It’s been good for most everybody that loves bluegrass because it is sold out every year. 

By popular demand, Rickey Wasson and the New South Tribute Band will return. All the members were part of JD Crowe’s band at one time or another. They were a big hit last year. Of course, Authentic Unlimited will be back along with Appalachian Road Show. I’m going to bring in the Malpass Brothers to do some old country, and the newly founded group, Southern Legacy, featuring Don Rigsby and Josh Williams. I know they will prove to be a crowd favorite. We will also have a showcase stage for bands that want to perform. Talent buyers, promoters, and producers can hear the bands on that stage.

“Daniel and Carolyn Routh of Nu-Blu are going to do a video of Bluegrass First Class for their television show Bluegrass Ridge this year. There will be footage of the Crowne Plaza, the bands warming up, picking in the hallways and foyer of the hotel, and talking with people about their experience there. When we started IBMA, we needed to get bluegrass played on the radio and on TV, now some of that has transpired!”

Routh shared that, “We are excited to be able to be a part of Bluegrass First Class in 2024.  With Bluegrass Ridge TV being the largest show for bluegrass music, it just makes sense to film and show off this great event! Nu-Blu will be there on Saturday performing and filming, so be sure and come say hi and let us know what videos you would like to see on Bluegrass Ridge!”

Harkey continued…

“Before that, we have Dailey & Vincent shows at the Paramount Center in Bristol, TN and the JE Broyhill Center in Lenior, NC. These shows are coming up on their 9th consecutive year and are held the first full weekend in January. They’re already slated for 2024 and 2025.

We’re doing a little something different this year. I’m bringing the Collingsworth Family (a Christian group from Hebron, KY) to the Broyhill Center in April. This is the first time I’ve taken a gospel group to a major venue. Their mother is one of the fastest pianists in the world. We’re expecting a night of musical excellence and excitement from this talented group.”

He also has plans for holding shows in several theaters in the future.

“This will be good for us and bluegrass bands. It will give us more of an opportunity to contribute to their success and the music’s success.”

But there’s more…

“I’m also in conversation with people in Knoxville who want to start a record label. We have some of the finest equipment in the world. The label will have in-house studio with mastering and true Dolby Atmos mix capability. It’s the newest, state-of-the art system.  They just recorded Olivia Jo’s latest single that is to be released very soon. Primarily we want to do bluegrass, and our #1 goal is to be all about the artist and the quality of music being recorded. I’ve just turned 75, and I’m looking at helping start a record label. Isn’t that something?

We’ve hired Vicky Hutchens to be director of operations for MRH Bluegrass Productions. Her organizational skills, vitality, and knowledge of the industry and the music really compliment what I want to continue to do in bluegrass. I am very happy to have her here. 

There are many other people who help, too, in very influential ways. Mark Fisher works with the staff there in Asheville, the volunteers, and the hotel. Everything in the resort is set up and changed around especially for us. I maintain relationships with the Crowne Plaza and the civic centers. We appreciate them and they appreciate us.”

Milton Harkey is ready to roll up his sleeves and get to work. The MRH Bluegrass Productions promoter stressed, “I am moving away and seceding my other businesses to my sons so I can focus totally on bluegrass. Fortunately, I am back and I feel strong now. I’ve even took a few swings with a golf club. I’m lucky. I may be 90% back.”

And he may even have more surprises up his sleeve!

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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.