Bluegrass music has come a long way from its roots in the hills and hollers of the South. Today, given enough enthusiasm for the music and a sufficiently fat wallet, aficionados can fill their summers with outdoor festivals where banjos cluck and fiddles saw incessantly over a period of days.
They can join the International Bluegrass Music Association, which is 5,000 members strong and devoted solely to the musical form given birth to by Bill Monroe. And the most adventurous of them can even embark on a growing number of bluegrass cruises, where, in exchange for a couple thousand dollars, they can share a bunk in steerage with a fellow banjo player, or salve their seasickness with the gentle zings of a dobro.
But for all its hard-won commercial success, bluegrass today remains one of the most intimate forms of music going. It’s that rare genre in which fans can nuzzle up to the greats and sometimes trade licks with them, transactions that are often as not carried off in honeyed Southern accents and “aw, shucks” shrugs of deference.
They’ll have the chance to do that and more this weekend, when the annual Bluegrass First Class festival returns to Asheville. In its 13th year, the three-day event, hosted by the Crowne Plaza Resort, is designed to get bluegrass fans out of the elements and a good deal closer to their idols. The performance roster this year includes Tony Rice, Doc Watson, J.D. Crowe and The New South, IIIrd Tyme Out, Rhonda Vincent & The Rage, Dry Branch Fire Squad and local group Balsam Range. In addition, Haywood County fiddler Bobby Hicks will lead a workshop on the instrument with Jan Johansson.
Getting all this talent here hasn’t been easy, says festival organizer Milton Harkey. In fact, it’s consumed most of his adult life. For 17 years, he organized and ran a summertime bluegrass festival in Denton, N.C. In 1985, along with several other movers, Harkey helped establish the International Bluegrass Music Association, which has grown into the industry’s chief agent and talent-groomer.
“Seven of us met in the BMI boardroom in Nashville, Tenn., and we said ‘We have a chance here to do something big for the music,’” he recalls. Three years on the IBMA board followed, and eight years as the organizer for the Pizza Hut International Bluegrass Showdown, a multistate competition designed to winnow local bands and send the strongest talent into multirecord deals.
“I know almost everybody in the music,” Harkey notes. And he has put those connections to work, securing acts for this year’s festival well before last year’s festival even began.
Harkey is hard-put to mention any favorites at this year’s festival, but says he’ll be certain to be in the room when guitarist Tony Rice plays. “He’s just unbelievably talented as far as this music goes,” he says. “He’s just up in the stratosphere somewhere.”
Festivalgoers will also have the rare opportunity to see Doc Watson and Tony Rice share the stage, a tidy lesson in where bluegrass flat-picking came from and where it’s going. At 84 years old, Watson’s guitar playing remains deft and sure, and his warm baritone and gracious stage presence are unflagging.
“That’s going to be a phenomenal thing,” Harkey predicts.
As well as a full slate of featured acts taking place in the Crowne’s Grand Ballroom, festivalgoers can retire to the hotel’s sunken lounge, where amateur pickers can get stage time with the vigilant help of professional sound technicians. And attendees, the bulk of whom are expected to be musicians themselves, can pick their instruments well into the night without fear of being thrown out into the mountain cold.
“I had one guy call me for tickets this year and he said, ‘Aw man, it’s the only festival I know of where you can walk around at four in the morning and find someone to pick with,’” Harkey relates with a chuckle. For those whose love of the banjo sets with the sun, Harkey has reserved a “quiet wing” of the hotel, where guests will be insulated from even the most insistent plinking. So far, bluegrass fans from 17 states and three foreign countries have already reserved tickets for the event.
The festival’s modest size of 800 means that there may not be much seating left by the time you read this. But if you’re determined, Harkey has some advice:
“I would suggest that people call me directly,” he says.
who: Bluegrass First Class
what: A banjo-friendly bonding experience
where: Crowne Plaza Resort (1 Resort Drive)
when: Friday, Feb. 22, through Sunday, Feb. 24 (Friday, $40; Saturday, $50; two-day pass, $90. www.bluegrassfirstclass.com. Milton Harkey may be reached directly at 275-8650)