The Earl Scruggs Music Festival: Bringing the Music Home
Earl Eugene Scruggs grew up in Cleveland County, NC, near the town of Shelby. His influence on American music would require an entire book or two (one great book exploring his impact was reviewed here). With the support of the Shelby-based Earl Scruggs Center, a music festival celebrating his music was planned three years ago in 2019, but because of the pandemic, it was canceled twice. Finally, over Labor Day weekend, the festival took place with a monster group of musicians, all of whom were influenced by Scruggs and his three-finger banjo style. Held at the massive Tryon Equestrian Center with two outdoor stages just thirty minutes from Shelby, it was a great opportunity to celebrate this humble man and his influence on American music.
Friday and Saturday mornings before the music started, there were discussions about the impact of his music and his early years hosted by author Thomas Goldsmith. Local musicians who grew up with the Scruggs family, along with stars including Béla Fleck, Jerry Douglas and Darin Aldridge, shared stories about the man and his legacy.
The festival opened on a Friday that was packed with talent. Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley kicked it off with blazing versions of ‘’I Went to Georgia on a Fast Train,” “World Full of Blues,” and “Way Downtown.” Hensley is one of the fastest flatpickers alive, and his jaw-dropping breaks defy belief at times.
One of the highlights of my year was seeing Molly Tuttle and Golden Highway in April, and I was looking forward to seeing them again. They did not disappoint. Starting their set with the screamingly fast “She’ll Change,” they moved through their recent album Crooked Tree, throwing in a cover of The Rolling Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow,” John Hartford’s “Up on the Hill Where They Do the Boogie,” and Molly’s signature searing version of Townes Van Zandt’s “White Freightliner.” Playing double banjos with Kyle Tuttle, Molly provided a hot take of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and then great versions of “Side Saddle,” the moving “Grass Valley,” and their usual closer, the masterful “Big Backyard.” In my humble opinion, this group is the best bluegrass touring band today. Animated, playful, and master-level musicianship set this band apart, and having one of the best flatpickers alive lead the band helps, too. Bronwyn Keith-Hynes, Dom Leslie, Kyle Tuttle and Shelby Means clearly love playing with Molly, and it shows. Do not miss them. I’ll be seeing them in a few weeks at the IBMA festival, and I’m already looking forward to it.
Next up was banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck and his My Bluegrass Heart band. This version featured two young guns, fiddle player Billy Contreras and mandolinist Jacob Joliff (formerly in Yonder Mountain String Band), multi-instrumentalist Justin Moses, flat-picking master Bryan Sutton, and legend of the bass Mark Schatz. Kicking things off with “Blue Mountain Hop,” they ran through “Vertigo” and “Bound to Ride” and then started inviting guests on stage, starting with Sam Bush, then adding all of Golden Highway. It was a remarkable amount of talent on stage, at one point playing triple banjos and later quad fiddles with Bush, Moses, Keith-Hynes, and Contreras.
Jerry Douglas hosted the event and was everywhere, participating in workshops, doing guest appearances with multiple bands, and his Earls of Leicester had the task of following Fleck. As a Flatt and Scruggs tribute band, they were in the right place. Shawn Camp nails Lester’s vocals, Charlie Cushman’s banjo is as close to Earl’s sound as you can get, Paul Warren’s fiddle from Flatt and Scruggs records is echoed by his son Johnny, Jerry nails and surpasses Josh Graves’ breaks, and their vocals are classic. They ran through memorable Flatt and Scruggs numbers, including “Salty Dog Blues,” “I’ll Go Steppin’ Too,” and “Dig a Hole in the Meadow,” and the crowd loved every note.
Sam Bush closed out the night, pulling out a few old New Grass Revival songs (including “Crooked Smile” and “All Night Train”) and generally turning in a stage-burning performance including a great version of “Take a Little Time.” There isn’t another person in bluegrass that puts out pure intensity like Bush, and his energy level got the crowd up and cheering by the end of the set.
A variety of young bands on the rise played on the smaller Foggy Mountain stage, including Fireside Collective, Chatham Rabbits, Unspoken Tradition, the much heralded Jon Stickley Trio, and The Barefoot Movement. The well-known Acoustic Syndicate, who are from Cleveland County, closed out the night with a late-night special with lots of jams.
Saturday’s lineup wasn’t quite at the level as Friday’s, but there was some fine music on both stages. Darin and Brooke Aldridge kicked things off on the big stage with a number of songs from their new album This Life We’re Livin’. While Darin is a fantastic musician and flatpicker, their strength is their vocals; Brooke has been voted the IBMA vocalist of the year four times and is nominated again this year. They’re also big favorites at the Grand Old Opry, having appeared over 40 times. Their harmonies are perfectly blended, and the purity of Brooke’s voice on classic songs like the Ian and Sylvia classic “Someday Soon” stops you in your tracks. New band members Samantha Snyder on fiddle and Jacob Metz on banjo and dobro are fine additions. Snyder, who teaches fiddle on Patreon in addition to being a mathematician, is an excellent fiddler and has one of the few voices that can add to the two of the finest vocalists in any genre. And they closed out their set with one of my favorite Nanci Griffith songs, “Outbound Plane,” and just nailed it.
Balsam Range was up next on the main stage; there’s a reason they’ve won Entertainers of the Year twice at the IBMA, along with Vocal Group of the Year, Album of the Year, and Song of the Year in the past. They’ve recorded with the Atlanta Pops Orchestra, who backed them up on two of their previous albums. It’s unusual for a band to stay together for 15 years with the same members, but they have done exactly that. Darrin Nicholson is one of the country’s best mandolin players, having won multiple annual awards, and Marc Pruett and banjo toured with Ricky Skaggs for a number of years. They’re a fun band to watch; they mix up gospel and popular songs with fine vocals and instrumentation; starting off with The Beatles’ “If I Needed Someone”, they also threw in Jim Croce’s “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim” and their own “Moon Over Memphis.” It was a great set by one of the veteran bands in bluegrass.
In the afternoon on the smaller stage, Asheville’s Fireside Collective hosted a tribute to the Earl Scruggs Review, the band Earl started with his sons Gary and Randy after Flatt and Scruggs broke up. The tribute included Darin and Brooke Aldridge, Jerry Douglas, and members of Unspoken Tradition and Chatham County Line.
Alison Brown’s set was an eye-opener for me, as I’ve never seen her with a band. The Grammy-winning artist is also the co-owner of Compass Records with her husband, bass player Garry West. The Harvard-educated Brown began playing the banjo at age 10 and expanded the traditional banjo sound into folk and pop music; she’s been compared to Béla Fleck in terms of her creativity on the instrument. She was joined by master fiddle player and David Grisman alum Darol Anger. She offered an eye-popping set of a variety of songs, including a wonderful medley of “Here Comes the Sun” and “Aquas de Marco,” some fine swing numbers, and a great version of the traditional “Sally Ann.” It was a family affair as well when her daughter Hannah West joined her for a few songs, singing several songs with her parents.
Headliners the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band opened with Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” which they covered on their most recent album Dirt Does Dylan. They also included “Forever Young” and “Girl From The North Country,” which included a heartfelt duet between founding member Jeff Hanna and his son Jaime, who joined the Dirt Band after playing with the Mavericks. The younger Hanna is a fine vocalist and guitar player, joining up with original member Jimmie Fadden (drums and harmonica) and long-time members keyboardist Bob Carpenter and bass player Jim Photoglo; their vocals are tight. The most recent addition is long-term Cadillac Sky fiddle and mandolin player Ross Holmes, who provides at least a touch of the bluegrass/folk combination that made the band famous. Given the setting, it made good sense to include Alison Brown and Jerry Douglas for much of the set, which included the traditional (“My Walking Shoes Don’t Fit Me Any More”) to their classics like “Mr. Bojangles” and “Fishing in the Dark” to the expected closer “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” combined with “The Weight.”
Closing things out on Saturday night was another band that’s also been around for a long time but couldn’t be more different than the Dirt Band: Leftover Salmon. The band have been pushing progressive bluegrass for thirty years now and serve as the elders of that specific genre. Front man Vince Herman, mandolinist Drew Emmitt, banjoist Andy Thorn, jazz-trained bass player Greg Garrison, and drummer Alwyn Robinson provided the late-night partying music for those that stuck around, and if they did, they got to see the amazing Casey Driessen sitting in and tearing up his fiddle. It was a fine way to end the night.
Sunday’s limited lineup included the Becky Buller Band, with her great banjo player Ned Luberecki and Dan Hardin, Wes Lee, and Jake Eddy. Their beautiful cover of James Taylor’s “Millworker” was a highlight, as was Jerry Douglas joining them onstage to cover “Woodstock.” Multi-instrumentalist and music historian Dom Flemons and Chatham County Line closed out the festival on Sunday.
For an inaugural effort, this was a spectacular weekend. The venue is an amazing location, with multiple restaurants and lots of space; despite a great attendance, it never felt overly crowded. The heat was a challenge, but most of the attendees were in the covered grandstand seats. The staff and volunteers were particularly helpful, multiple shuttles ran between parking and the main entrance, and there are large numbers of cabins and RV sites available for camping. With a great choice of acts ranging from traditional straight-ahead bluegrass to Americana acts and progressive bluegrass bands and a great setting, I suspect this will be one of the nation’s premier festivals within a year or two. I’m counting on returning next year.