NC BanjoFest makes its mark in the dark

Assembled banjo pickers at the 2019 North Carolina BanjoFest – photo by Gary Hatley

The show must go on and it did, despite a two hour power outage during a rainstorm, at the North Carolina Banjofest this past weekend in Clemmons, NC. Just as Deeper Shade of Blue concluded their Saturday evening performance, the room went dark (except for emergency lighting in the hotel), the sound system silenced, and for many, the concert would have ended or at the very least, paused. But not for promoter, Lorraine Jordan. The lady of tradition and her band, Carolina Road, planted themselves in front of the stage and performed their entire set in the dimly lit room.

“Move to the center section if you want to hear,” Jordan suggested to the room of banjo and bluegrass enthusiasts.

For the next hour, the band sang and interacted up close and personal with audience members. From taking suggestions (ghost song, Long Black Veil) to singing weather appropriate tunes (Jordan’s own Carolina Hurricane) to sing-alongs (a Gospel medley), to walking up and down the aisles as they picked, Jordan kept the show moving and the crowd entertained. Next, Terry Baucom’s Dukes of Drive followed suit with Bauc dealing jack hammer banjo breaks during the temporary blackout. Midset, power restored, Bauc and band relocated to the stage and the evening continued in normal fashion.

The Friday and Saturday night all-things-banjo celebration held at Village Inn Hotel & Event Center, just west of Winston-Salem, was the brainchild of Garrett Newton and orchestrated by Jordan.

“NC is all about the banjo,” she explained. “Shake a tree and a banjo player falls out. Garrett came to me. (His group served as host band for the event.) It was his idea. He said, ‘NC is known for banjo players. I thought it was time for them to be recognized.’ As a mandolin player, I know I take a backstep to banjo pickers in NC.”

Not only did the weekend focus on the five string, Steve Wilson of Wilson Banjo Company also recognized all the banjo players that performed in daily award ceremonies.

“It’s an honor to sponsor and be a part of the festival,” the banjo builder and picker of Westminister, SC, shared, as he presented plaques. “It’s pretty amazing to stand on stage with all these great musicians. It’s the reason that I do this. I am proud to say thank you to these folks. I’ve stolen plenty of their licks.”

Each player was given a chance to express their thoughts.

“It is appropriate for this event to here in North Carolina,” stated Steve Dilling of Sideline.

Danny Bowers, banjoist with Travis Frye and Blue Mountain, conveyed, “Love expresses itself in many ways. I think music is the best. To be a part of the bluegrass community, I am truly blessed.”

“I want to thank the people for coming so that we can do what we do,” added Carolina Road’s Ben Greene.

Terry Baucom readily agreed. “It’s always nice to win an award for what I enjoy to do.”

Special recognition was given to two pickers (one in honor, one in memory) by pickers. AL Wood was presented a plaque by Gena Britt, banjoist with Sister Sadie, on Friday night for his contributions to NC bluegrass music. The late Al Batten was remembered on Saturday night with a plaque conferred by banjoist and friend, Lee Flood of Steady Drive, and presented to Batten’s daughter, Laura.

Referencing her banjo-picking patriarch, Laura shared, “Dad said that he was like the State Fair. He got bigger and better every year. Keep making the music my daddy loved.”

Jordan elaborated, “We went to different ends of the state (Wood-west, Batten-east). A committee that included Cindy Baucom, Steve Dilling, High Lonesome Strings, myself, and a few others made the selections. Our hope is that as we move forward that the Earl Scruggs Center will get more involved.”

In addition to the awards portion there were also performances by other top-notch NC groups such as Sideline, Wood Family Tradition (AL Wood’s off spring), Mickey Galyean and Cullen’s Bridge, and Mark Templeton Band to name a few. Friday night featured traditional bluegrass music with a collaboration of Danny Paisley and Junior Sisk joining Jordan on stage. 

On Saturday, there were workshops held by masters of the five: Steve Dilling, Terry Baucom, Steve Wilson, Ben Greene, Garrett Newton, Danny Bowers, and Randy Smith. There were also mandolin, fiddle, and guitar tutorials. Participants came from four states and ranged in age from 11-86 in these instructional sessions.

Emcee, Cindy Baucom, expressed, “Bluegrass is so generational. I grew up with a banjo picker, my dad. Banjo is the whole idea behind this festival. Earl Scruggs made it popular. He gave us the sound that made our music.”

Now married to banjo extraordinaire, Terry Baucom, the host of the syndicated radio show, Knee Deep in Bluegrass, teased about her husband, “He’s had two love affairs in his life-the banjo and me.”

Door prizes were doled out to audience members who correctly answered banjo trivia questions. Plans are already underway for the next Banjofest to be held Feb 12-13, 2021, with Terry Baucom & The Dukes of Drive serving as the event’s host.

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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.