UNC Asheville bluegrass band meets Olivia Jo

Olivia Jo at Bluegrass First Class 2023 – photo by Mike Lane

A meeting of young minds and talents was held on Saturday afternoon during Bluegrass First Class in Asheville last month. Students from Wayne Erbsen’s UNC Asheville Bluegrass Band ensemble gathered to jam with rising artist, Olivia Jo, from Stuart, VA. 

In an upstairs conference room of the Crowne Plaza, the blossoming musicians convened to swaps stories, licks, and sing a few familiar tunes with one who’s beginning to climb the entertainment ladder. Erbsen, their instructor, was also present for the collaborative ensemble. Originally from California, he decided to come to the southeast to be nearer in the music that he loved. Since his move, the historian by trade has taught bluegrass band and individual instrument classes at CPCC, Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, and the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He also has published almost 40 instruction books, beginning with Banjo for the Complete Ignoramus in 1973.

“I had hundreds of students due to (the popularity) of the Deliverance movie (with its Dueling Banjos theme song),” the multi-instrumentalist recalled.

“In my 40 years of teaching, this is the most fun band I’ve had. They support each other and take turns featuring each one on songs.”

Students in the band class must be proficient in their instrument.

“This is not a beginner course,” Erbsen stressed. “They are green. I let them choose songs, but keep a tight leash.”

Assembled for the learning session were: fiddlers Shaelyn Dossett (19) of Memphis/Asheville and Emeline Scales (21) of Asheville; dobroist Roland Willis (20) of Scottsville, VA; guitarist Colson Combs (19) Raleigh, NC; celloist/mandolinist Matt Files (26) of Charlotte, NC; mandolinist Cole Pilgrim (22) of Hickory, NC; Clayton Hutchison (21) of Reuter, MO is normally on bass, but high school student, Chase Arden, of Asheville, filled in on this visit. Unable to attend due to work was their banjoist, Chun Si Lee (24) of Conover, NC.

“He’s amazing,” Scales said of Lee. “He plays all the instruments.”

Olivia Jo talked about the experience. “It was a pleasure getting to share some tips and tricks with them about songwriting and live performance, and talk about our shared love for bluegrass music. It’s a wonderful thing to see younger generations taking such a passionate interest in bluegrass. That is the future of the genre.”

Director of Operations for Bluegrass First Class, Vicky Hutchens, was present to make sure the meeting ran smoothly. She also introduced the Ferranti Brothers, two young aspiring fiddlers from Raleigh. Students of Jan Johansson, Alexander (10) and Benjie (8) first started with Suzuki violin at their Montessori school, but wanted to play bluegrass. They have been taking lessons with Jan for five years.

Hutchens smiled, “This is another Milton-ism,” referring to festival promoter Milton Harkey, who was absent this year due to illness.

Noting even in his absence, Harkey was still actively involved in the 28th year of his annual Asheville-based, mid-February bluegrass festival. Harkey is all about promoting the next generation of bluegrass with acts such as Olivia Jo & the MVPs, and the Jake Goforth Band performing this year on the main stage. So it was no surprise that he arranged for the college bluegrass class and these young fiddlers to meet with the rising artist.

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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.