Willow Oak Bluegrass Festival – a weekend of special moments

“Music makes the world a better place.” That’s a line Russell Moore sang from Grandpa’s Mandolin Saturday afternoon at Willow Oak Bluegrass Festival in Roxboro in north central North Carolina. Written by Billy and Terry Smith and Mark Irwin, the lyrics seem to ring true as the music industry resurrects after more than a year of pickers and fans being stuck at home due to the global pandemic.

The Father’s Day weekend festival drew a larger than normal crowd and offered lots of special moments as eager musicians returned to the stage, happy campers converged on the grounds, and appreciative fans listened, visited, and supported the music we all love.

Emcee, Sherry Boyd, welcomed everyone. “Live music is back! Everything is getting cranked up. I’m happy about that.”

“The Lord has seen fit to get us through this ordeal,” Robert Montgomery, banjoist with David Davis and the Warrior River Boys, expressed in his gratitude from the stage on Friday afternoon. “Hope we never have another year like the last one!”

Lorraine Jordan and Carolina Road served as the host band for the annual music event promoted by former Bass Mountain Boy, Mike Wilson.

At a time when we honor our fathers, Jordan’s 90 year old dad, Royce, fondly introduced his musical offspring to the audience.

“This little girl from eastern North Carolina always wanted to play music, even though she wasn’t from a musical family. I’m so proud of her. They call her the Lady of Tradition. I call her my daughter.”

“It’s good to get out of the house,” confessed the festival hostess.

Steve Dilling, Sideline banjoist, readily agreed. “There’s nothing better than live music. It’s so good to be back out.”

During Sideline’s sets, they welcomed their newest member, Nick “Stride” Goad, to the stage. The show also marked a return to the stage for band member Skip Cherryholmes following the birth of he and wife Stephanie’s new daughter, Adeline Macie.

A special guest on the Sideline show was former band mate, Zack Arnold, who now plays guitar for Rhonda Vincent. The young western North Carolina picker performed a tragic song he wrote that is on their latest recording.

Friday was also the birthday of Jason Moore, Sideline’s bass man. Another honored guest on their afternoon set was Moore’s uncle, Allen Mills, founding member of the powerhouse group, Lost and Found. Retired, he joined his nephew and other Sideline band members for a couple of well-known L&F tunes, Homer Lawson’s Field and Ida Red.

During Kevin Prater’s set, Moore returned to the stage along with Adam Poindexter to do a memorial tribute to their former employer, James King. The trio performed Thirty Years of Farming and Days of Gray and Black.

Saturday continued memorable moments. A large entourage of fans from Garner who frequent Lorraine’s Coffee & Music House assembled on the hillside in support of the festival’s hostess. Jordan’s band performed a wonderful tribute to the military with her long time banjoist, Ben Greene, picking the songs from each branch of service as veterans were recognized.

Jordan also invited a youth band, Southbound 77 Bluegrass, to come on stage. After performing several tunes, Lorraine encouraged the audience to make donations so the kids could cut a record. A short time later $667 was presented to the young musicians.

Their 13 year old banjoist, Etta Ray from Mooresville, NC (who also picked a tune with Sideline the previous day), accepted the monetary gift, but announced, “We want to give back $100 for Lorraine to give to the charity of her choice.”

“I love cats,” she stated, “but I’m going to have to give it to the military.”

Also in attendance were promoter Mike Wilson’s long-time friends and former Bass Mountain band mates, Mike Aldridge (two of his sons played, Bryan with Big John and Starlett, and Nathan with IIIrd Tyme Out) and Johnny Ridge who fiddles with the Malpass Brothers. 

The vintage country band was playing in their backyard. On their first number (Haggard’s Big City), Chris personalized the lyrics, “Turn me loose somewhere in the middle of Person County.” The musical brothers’ families were well represented at the bluegrass festival. Their dad came out of retirement to play bass with his sons and Chris Malpass’ young son, Barrett, stood on stage the entire first set decked out in western attire and holding an electric guitar. Taylor Malpass brought out his one and half year old son, John Reynolds, between songs, and Chris’ three month old daughter was in the audience.

The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys were an added treat, filling in for another band that was unable to attend. Fiddler, Laura Orshaw, had the crowd tapping their toes, and the band flowed flawlessly from one rousing tune to another for the first half of their set without saying a single word.

North Carolina’s Drive Time had another special moment for the music community in their set. Banjoist, Tyler Jackson, is back hammering the five after suffering a brain aneurysm last fall. With only deafness in his right ear, the twenty-five-year-old was happy to be on stage at what he called “his hometown festival.”

“It would be an understatement to say we are thankful to be here,” he shared with the audience.

Another thankful participant was Hometown Festival radio personality, Buddy Michaels. After suffering two heart attacks and a stroke, the DJ and festival emcee took to the stage briefly and expressed his gratitude for all the support he has received from the bluegrass community.

Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out, who are celebrating 30 years in the music industry, featured songs from all three decades of their music that included bookend twins, Keith and Kevin McKinnon, on banjo and bass, respectively.

“It’s been a long dry spell, but it’s great to be back,” Moore related.

Saturday’s guest band was Caroline & Company. Lead vocalist, Caroline Owens, concluded her set by saying, “2020 was a rough year for all of us, especially the musicians. I believe we’re on the backside of it now.”

She closed with It is Well with My Soul. Truly, with the perfect weather, beautiful setting, amazing music, and freedom to congregate with those we haven’t seen in more than a year – plus all the festival’s special moments – made it well with all our souls.

Wilson and Jordan are looking to collaborate for even bigger and better moments next year at Willow Oak Bluegrass Festival, on Father’s Day weekend 2022.

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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.