Two of bluegrass music’s biggest voices joined forces Friday, November 3 for an evening of traditional grass at the Breaks Interstate Park, located on the Virginia/Kentucky border. The Russell Fork River Bluegrass Show, a first-time concert that both the park and the musicians involved hope to make an annual event, paired Dave Adkins and Larry Sparks in front of a sold-out audience.
Adkins, who lives just a few miles from the park in Elkhorn City, KY, served as host for the event and opened the evening with his band, performing a number of fan favorites from his solo albums, his record with Republik Steele, and his recent Gospel effort. His group has changed a bit since his last solo album release, but they’re definitely a solid band with several fine musicians. I was excited to see the excellent Barry Crabtree (who played with Sparks for a number of years, among other artists) on banjo. The group offered a strong set, highlighted by Adkins’s radio hits like Sold and covers such as You Can Have Her and Please Come to Boston.
It’s interesting to note that while one might assume Sparks would be the bigger draw, that wasn’t necessarily true here. Hometown boy Adkins had a huge crew of family and friends (including his mom, who was treated to several funny stories and a few of her favorite songs) out to support him, many of whom had only seen him perform a few times with a full band. Though he was admittedly nervous, he put on an excellent show – probably the best I’ve heard him sound. His Gospel songs were especially well received, as was the number one single Pike County Jail. Adkins has a knack for capturing the audience’s attention with the humorous stories behind songs he performs, such as the tale of his first date with the woman who’s now his wife – where he bribed her to listen to him sing Please Come to Boston by saying if she didn’t like it, he’d never talk to her again, or even write her a letter. He’s got a big voice, a big personality, and a big heart, as well, and is always a pleasure to see live.
Of course, Larry Sparks put on a show as only Larry Sparks can. He might be in his seventies, but I’d still rather watch him than almost any band touring today. He has a group of young musicians touring with him currently, but they can pick, and they know his music. Though Sparks seemed a bit under the weather at the beginning of the show, by the time he made it to Face in the Crowd, he had found the sweet spot. There’s no one out there that can sing and play like Sparks, and as he ran through standards and lesser known numbers alike, the crowd hung on every note. Adkins, whose vocals Sparks compared to the late Dave Evans, joined him for a rendition of Ramblin’ Letters, one of the evening’s highlights.
It’s a different experience seeing Sparks at a festival and seeing him at a smaller concert, especially one somewhere in Appalachia. He’s more easygoing, always willing to take requests and even speak with members of the crowd from the stage. He definitely knows his audience. The crowd had obviously enjoyed Adkins’s Gospel numbers earlier in the evening, so Sparks treated them to quite a few of his favorites, fulfilling requests for Going Up Home to Live in Green Pastures and I’ve Just Seen the Rock of Ages, among others. There was quite a bit of snazzy instrumental work, as well, and a Hank Williams medley that I’d never heard him do onstage before.
The park, which is centered around a gorge known as the “Grand Canyon of the South,” proved a choice location for the concert, drawing fans from towns across Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia. Concertgoers could purchase a ticket package that included a night’s accommodations in one of the park’s lodges, as well as dinner and breakfast buffets. Judging by the cars in the parking lot and chatter prior to the show, it seemed that many folks took advantage of the package. Close to 300 seats were filled, and a number of folks were turned away once the room reached capacity.
Adkins recently posted on his Facebook page that he has locked down plans for a second Russell Fork River Bluegrass Show, to be held November 10, 2018. There will be two additional guests this time, Ralph Stanley II and Blue Highway, and the park will again offer lodging and dining package deals. Adkins also mentioned that they hope to add close to a hundred more seats to accommodate as many fans as possible. I, for one, am already making plans to be there.
Advance reservations for next year’s package deals at Breaks Interstate Park are available by calling 276-865-4413, ext. 3206. They will run $165 for 2 concert tickets, Saturday lodging for 2, dinner for 2 on Saturday, and breakfast for 2 on Sunday morning.
Given the strong response to the Adkins/Sparks pairing, the Mountain Arts Center (MAC) in Prestonsburg, KY has booked both of them for a concert on Saturday, November 3, 2018.