Thursday, April 13, 2017

Big Lick Bluegrass Festival 2017 - Review

The fourteenth annual Big Lick Bluegrass Festival ran at the Hinson in the spacious fields behind the Hinson Auction House in Oakboro, NC from April 7 - 9 this year. As the first outdoor festival of the North Carolina festival season, Big Lick can often be a bit chilly. But this year's chill could not freeze out the enthusiasm of the enthusiastic crowd which showed up to enjoy the finest lineup promoter Jeff Branch has put together yet. By assiduously recruiting sponsors and carefully building his event, Branch continues to make his festival an increasingly attractive choice to attend, regardless of the weather risk. Attendees were rewarded this year with a Saturday that turned out to be a climatic and artistic triumph!

Promoter Jeff Branch & his mother Joan Branch
Photo by Sandy Haley

Located in the country-side just beyond the far reaches of nearby Charlotte's suburban sprawl, Big Lick retains its country feel and informal quality. As usual, we like to arrive early to settle in, get our bearings, and enjoy watching as the rest of the regional bluegrass community, augmented by visitors from as far away as Vermont, rolls in.

By Thursday evening, the assembling audience is ready to hear some music. Despite the chill, six bands including some old favorites from the surrounding community and a delightful band from Davidson College showed up to entertain.

The Cold Didn't Seem To Affect the Parrot

The Catawba Riverkings

The surprise band of the weekend was the Catawba Riverkings, recently assembled at Davidson College. The band competed last month at RenoFest, achieving third place in the prestigious band contest. We look forward to seeing this promising band in the future.

The Horse Barn

Wood Family Tradition

The Wood Family Tradition is a third generation family band following in the footsteps of family patriarch Al Wood, who performed with his Smoky Mountain Boys, and now fronted by his son, Mike. Wilkesboro's Eric Ellis, one of North Carolina's finest Scruggs style banjoists, played with the band this weekend. Singer Mackenzie Wood shows that marrying into a bluegrass family helps add to the family band's quality.

Mike Wood

Jason Wood

Bobby Wood

Mackenzie Wood

Eric Ellis

Photographer Deb Miller at Work

Bethel University

The Bethel University Bluegrass Band returned to Big Lick for the fourth time this year. Located in McKenzie, TN, the college sponsors the unique Renaissance program, a fine arts division of great breadth. This band has shown consistent and impressive improvement over the past couple of years. It shows the benefits of performance and practice as well as effective recruitment by Director of Renaissance Bluegrass Stephen Mougin. Since the band's personnel changes each year, we were pleased to note its improvement as well as some new recruits. It's not difficult to imagine that in the near future some major bluegrass bands will be populated with graduates of this program. We've known guitarist Noah Williams since he was attending Pete Wernick's Jam Camp at Merlefest six or eight years ago. My apologies to Jake Riggins on bass for missing his photo.

James Heathcock

Aaron Holman

Sophie Chambers & Kelly Smith

Noah Williams

Mary Lagrone

Lagrone, Heathcock, Williams

 John Atwater

The Spinney Brothers

The Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia's gift to bluegrass, the Spinney Brothers were the host band at this year's Big Lick, making four performances. Their blend of traditional bluegrass and country music is pleasing to the ear, at the merch table they are personable and approachable, and they are popular at Big Lick. 

Rick Spinney

Allan Spinney

Gary Dalrymple

Terry Poirier

The Spinney Brothers

Deeper Shade of Blue 

A Deeper Shade of Blue is truly a local band for this festival, although, as their history has paralleled that of Big Lick, they have become a regional band reaching towards national status as the number and quality of their appearances continues to widen. They maintain a traditional bluegrass sound while selecting songs by well-known bluegrass writers that are not often heard performed by other bands. They also write from within the band. Instrumentally and vocally they are strong. They convey their skill and conviction with every number. 

Troy Pope

Jason Fraley

Jim Fraley

Frank Poindexter

Scott Burgess

The Real Jason Fraley

Vamping in the Green Room
Skip Cherryholmes & Brad Hudson


Sideline is a perfect example of a group of fine musicians getting together for a few off-season gigs that quickly moves into the national spotlight because it's sound and the vibe are so clearly in the pocket. Though the band has had two important additions to the original band in Brad Hudson on Dobro and Troy Boone on mandolin and tenor vocals, other members who began this band have remained the same. Despite the fact that the experience of core members easily exceeds fifty years in the business, experienced musicians in important bands, Sideline should be a strong candidate for IBMA Emerging Band of the Year.

Steve Dilling

Jason Moore

Skip Cherryholmes

Nathan Aldridge

Brad Hudson

Troy Boone

Brad Hudson & Skip Cherryholmes

Three Amigos
Dilling, Moore, Boone

Bluegrass Essentials
Emcee - Sherry Boyd

Sound by BlueRidge Sound
Tim Echols

Jeffrey Keyes

Junior Sisk & Rambler's Choice

Junior Sisk is one of the major influences in bluegrass music keeping traditional music alive, both with older songs and new one with a traditional sound. He specializes in "she done him wrong" songs many of which include little smirk built in. His band, all of whom have been with him now for several years, has the advantage of having developed a tight, crisp sound fitting the genre to perfection. Junior was named the 2013 IBMA Male Vocalist of the Year. 

Junior Sisk

Jason Davis

Jonathan Dillon

Kameron Keller

Jamie Harper

Junior Sisk

Flatt Lonesome

Flatt Lonesome has been on a fast track to success since shortly after making one of their earliest festival appearances at the Newell Lodge Bluegrass Festival in the midst of a live oak grove in south Georgia, only a few miles north of their home in Callahan, FL. They have been propelled by their fine sibling harmonies with twins Charli and Buddy Robertson and their older sister Kelsi Robertson Harrigil along with increasingly fine instrumental work of the three principles along with Paul Harrigil on banjo, Mike Stockton on Dobro, and Dominic Illingworth on bass. Only six years from their stage debut at SPBGMA in Nashville, the band has been propelled by their own hard work, effective publicity, strong support from promoter Darrell Adkins (Musicians Against Childhood Cancer) and on-air showcases on Sirius/Xm radio. With this live, festival performance, they also showed improved pace and showmanship to go along with their improving social skills with their audience at the merch table and around the grounds. In 2016 Flatt Lonesome took home IBMA awards for Song of the Year and Album of the Year In 2014 they were named Emerging Artist of the Year, This young band has shown itself capable of hard work and continued growth. They have a promising future. 

Kelsi Robertson Harigill

Buddy Robertson

Charli Robertson

Paul Harigill

Michael Stockton

Dominic Illingworth

The Malpass Brothers

The Malpass Brothers, their mouths full of eastern Carolina cornmush accents and their souls filled with country music they are too  young to have known when it was being produced provide the change-of-pace sound of classic country music from the 1920's to the 1970's, filling a yearning among bluegrass fans for a form of music they feel has gone off, leaving them behind. They have honed their act with the sound of performers warmly remembered and frequently covered by bluegrass bands with less accuracy than they manage. Brothers Christopher and Taylor Malpass sound and look like they come from an almost forgotten and well-loved era of what's now called "classic country." Backed by an exceptional band, when they take the stage, few, if any, bluegrass fans object to their being plugged in or having drums on the stage. They just sit back and enjoy the show, as they should. 

Christopher Malpass

Taylor (Tater Bug) Malpass

Chris Malpass

Dennis Daniels

Johnny Ridge

 Clyde Mattox

Saturday at Big Lick proved to be a lovely day, warm during the day and cool, but not too chilly, well into the evening. Promoter Jeff Branch was rewarded by a large day-crowd. The festival, lovingly and carefully built with an always improving lineup proved again, good lineups and respect for the audience's good taste yield good results for smart and discriminating promoters. We continued heading north on Sunday morning with a good feeling about the enjoyable festival.

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