Oh, what a night

The quintessential Friday-through-Sunday music festival traditionally peaks the second night — but organizers at the eighth edition of Flat Rock Music Festival apparently see no reason to wait that long.

Sure, bluegrass’ premier elder statesman, Dr. Ralph Stanley, has respectfully been given the headlining Saturday-night slot. But the opening-night show — Friday, April 23 — might be the event’s most memorable evening to date, according to intelligence gathered online and on the streets.

Flat-picking guitar guru Larry Keel, Dobro master Curtis Burch, Acoustic Syndicate front man Steve McMurry, bluegrass busybody (and Merlefest songwriting champ) David Via (with Corn Tornado), and the always-amusingly-unpredictable Snake Oil Medicine Show all play that night. They’re individually scheduled for stage time — at first.

But stick around late enough and you may be treated to the mother of all jams.

Says FRMF Entertainment Director Charlie Tucker: “We’re so thrilled to get all these acts together on one stage, at one time. There hasn’t been anything like this around here.”

Except that Snake Oil, of course, has long been a festival favorite — their irreverence for genre purity and aversion to negative vibes being just the thing to get people of various generations dancing together.

Perennially bubbly lead singer/fiddler Caroline Pond has described the festival as “a giant family gathering.”

She enthuses: “When the positive energy flows and surrounds us like a giant, positive glow-ball manifestation, I groove out triple-fold. Warm fuzzies for all.”

But there’s enough warped humor going on to please the big kids, too. Band member Phil Cheney paints scenes of Peter Max-esque psychedelia on stage while Snake Oil plays — and the performance-art band’s founder, George Pond, surreally dressed as a bumblebee at last fall’s FRMF. (His “normal” alter ego is Warpextor Cosmoverse.)

Speaking of buzz, the recent release of a new documentary should infuse even more mystique into Flat Rock’s opening night. Beautiful Thing: A Year in the Life of the Greatest Musician You’ve Never Heard Of chronicles the Larry Keel Experience’s 2002 tour.

The work’s a bit of a misnomer, at least title-wise, when it comes to Asheville audiences, who are hardly unfamiliar with the champion newgrass guitarist. Still, even Keel-heads have acknowledged that the gravel-throated vocal stylist encounters a somewhat spotty following — he’s worshipped in circles as far away as Colorado but relatively unknown in other traditional-music-leaning corners, even near his home base of Virginia.

But such is the fickle path roots warriors must sometimes follow. Flat Rock headliner Ralph Stanley, also a Virginia native, capped a three-year roll last year when he won a Best Bluegrass Album Grammy for Lost in the Lonesome Pines (Dualtone Records), recorded with Jim Lauderdale. The 77-year-old banjo player blessed with the world’s most otherworldly voice only got “noticed” outside bluegrass circles when the Coen Brothers visited O Brother and its attendant brouhaha upon us three years ago. In 2002, Stanley received a Vocal Performance Grammy for “Oh Death,” from that movie’s ubiquitous soundtrack. The same year, he was finally awarded name recognition, as well — releasing, for the first time, a self-titled record (Ralph Stanley, on DMZ/Sony).

And just think — he’s only been playing since the 1940s.

[Pete Zamplas is a freelance writer based in Hendersonville. (Additional reporting by Melanie McGee)]

Flat Rock Music Festival happens Friday, April 23 through Sunday, April 25 at 365-acre Camp Ton-a-Wandah in Flat Rock. Featured are four live-music venues; open-mic forums, including the Hank Williams Songwriters Competition; jams and drum circles; dance, music and soccer workshops; a Kids Village with age-appropriate crafts, a parade and vendors; and camping, boating and swimming (for all ages). Weekend passes including camping cost $70 ($60/advance). Daily tickets cost $25/Friday, $35/Saturday, $15/Sunday for adults and $10/$12.50/$7.50 for youths 11-17. Children 10 and younger get in free. Proceeds partly benefit Camp Merry Times for cancer-stricken children, and the Environmental and Conservation Organization of Hendersonville. Call (828) 692-2005 for more information, or visit www.flatrockmusicfestival.com.

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