Steel Magnolias offered a pleasant and interesting contrast to your everyday bluegrass band. Until quite recently, with the exception of the notable Coon Creek Girls, bands featuring a full (or almost full) set of women have been rare. Steel Magnolias does a creditable job playing and singing their own singer/songwriter compositions as well as strong covers. Their cover of "Snow Bird" was excellent, with fine harmonies. Judy Arquette's meditation on her "starter marriage" was a moving piece.
Damascus Ridge followed with a rather too long gospel set.
Al Batten & the Bluegrass Reunion returned to the Saturday stage with another rousing set of excellent covers. This band exemplifies the best in local/regional bands. All its members have maintained day jobs throughout their thirty-six year history. By making this choice, they opted for security and a fine local reputation. Had they chosen to seek to go national, I'm convinced they would have had a long and storied history. Musically and for entertainment value, they equal or surpass many national touring bands, while always staying close to their North Carolina roots.
Code Blue provided a very solid set of traditional bluegrass. Good instrumentals, plenty of high energy pace, and enjoyable stage presence make this band a good choice for promoters seeking to fill the middle of their lineups.
After an afternoon performance by Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road (more about them later) the afternoon was brought to a conclusion by Danny Paisley & the Southern Grass. Paisley had a few difficult years while making the transition from playing in his late father's band to making Southern Grass his own. That transition has now successfully concluded and, aided by a new recording contract with Rounder Records, Paisley's band has emerged on the national scene with award nominations and lots of air play on satellite radio. Paisley's strong, rugged, emotion-filled voice is not one that everyone takes to immediately. My respect for his work has increased steadily with familiarity. His sound is unique and makes a significant contribution to bluegrass music in this age of sweet voices and smooth playing. The addition of Travers Chandler on mandolin has added his strong mandolin and voice to the group. Danny's brother Michael on bass is very strong, providing a wonderful beat and exciting play. Brothers Bob Lundy on banjo and T.J. Lundy on fiddle are among the best. In the end, though, it's Danny Paisley's voice and personality that dominate this band.
It's worth putting in a word about emcees at festivals. This event featured four experienced and able emcees. Brenda Lawson and Dennis Cash managed the event on Friday, while Sherry Boyd and Buddy Michael took on the job on Saturday. The position requires much more than merely announcing bands. A good emcee keeps the entire event on schedule, highlights vendors and moves the audience towards them, and keeps the focus on the bands. Sherry Boyd, familiar to festival goers as the voice for the many Adams & Anderson festivals is simply the best. She doesn't hesitate to control the audience by suggesting listening over talking and leaving the performance area to smoke, and she always keeps it pleasant. She does her homework and never makes herself the center of attention. For Sherry, it's all about the music and never about her.
Supper break provided us just enough time to join some friends for dinner at The Cutting Board, a good steak house adjacent to the Burlington Ramada Inn. Boasting excellent steaks and, from the looks of it, a great Jambalaya as well as one of the tastiest and freshest salad bars I've seen in years, this moderately priced restaurant offers good food and service. We returned to the Ramada's convention hall to the traditional bluegrass music of Roby Huffman & the Bluegrass Cut-ups. Huffman has been performing since the mid-fifties. Well into his seventies, his big smile and strong, high lonesome voice work for bluegrass audiences. His son, Jeff, is a fine flatpicker who plays beside his Dad, sings goof family harmonies, and can pick the tar out of guitar. We've also heard him substitute with Al Batten.
Meanwhile, back in another room in the convention center, the jamming and socializing continued.
Don Dilling and Irene Lehmann