Big Lick features an unusually enjoyable open mic program on Thursday evening for early arrivals and campers coming to the festival. Some of the bands appearing have been scheduled while others are an organic growth from the pickers who have assembled in the field to jam. Such open mic programs often represent the first live performance opportunity for newly formed bands or regular local jam groups. Occasionally, such a band begins its rise to greater prominence, first regionally, and, less often, to national status. As such, open mics represent the base line of the large, and real pyramid upon which bluegrass is built.
The Bethel University Bluegrass Band has been a popular feature at Big Lick for the past three or four years. They represent the Renaissance Program of the University, located in McKenzie, TN, which is an exciting performing arts program with strong scholarship support. It's hard to profile the band(s) because the personnel changes markedly from year to year as students graduate and newcomers join the program. Usually, there are two bands at Big Lick representing less and more experienced students from the program. Such performances give them good opportunities to perform while honing their skills.
A Deeper Shade of Blue has moved, during the time we've been watching them, from being an introductory band at the monthly meeting of a local bluegrass association (The Rivertown Bluegrass Society in Conway, SC) to beginning to reach toward national band status, with performances throughout the Southeast and on a cruise. They play traditional hard driving bluegrass, songs written from within the band, and gospel material. Some members of the band have touring experience, while others have turned down such opportunities to remain closer to home, family, and job.
Sideline was formed during the off season, when a group of veteran bluegrass musicians were looking for a side project to keep the sharp through the winter. Steve Dilling had just left the road for health reasons after twenty years with IIIrd Tyme Out. Skip Cherryholmes was settled in the Raleigh area and about to marry Dilling's daughter, and Jason Moore was always busy and ready to work. The band came together covering first and second generation bluegrass bands, and quickly had enough dates to justify purchasing a bus. There have been a few changes, with young Nathan Aldridge a standout on fiddle. The band, relying on experience and quality has quickly risen to national status.
The Malpass Brothers are not a bluegrass band, but they have found a home at bluegrass festivals across the country playing classic country music from the fifties through the eighties. They play electric instruments, have a drum on stage and a pedal steel. They have been welcomed, at least partly because a large proportion of the bluegrass audience has come to bluegrass because they can no longer find the country music they love on the radio. The brothers are very good on their own, and represent a welcome change of pace sound at the many bluegrass events where they perform.
Flatt Lonesome, one of the youngest major bands on the bluegrass stage today, has rocketed to prominence from their beginnings as a bluegrass gospel band playing churches and small festivals near their home in Callahan, Florida. Their close harmonies, youthful enthusiasm, and blend of bluegrass and country sounds have garnered numerous awards at both SPBGMA and IBMA in the past two or three years. They've risen fast in the bluegrass world, and show no signs of slowing down.