"If you like bluegrass, it's just like a paradise."
That's Bluegrass First Class co-founder and producer Milton Harkey's take on the festival, now in its fourth year at Asheville's Great Smokies Holiday Inn Sunspree Resort.
"We wanted something that people could come to [at] this time of year, an indoor event where people could come to pick and play all night long," he explains of the festival's raison d'etre. And that's just the audience'spart. There's also the world-famous musicians in the hotel's Grand Ballroom, and the local favorites performing in the large, sunken lobby.
There's no room at the Inn for anything but live bluegrass -- and lots of it -- that weekend, Harkey maintains. "A lot of [festival-goers] jam all night long, in the halls and in the rooms," he notes. (A quiet wing is provided for less-vigorous attendees, but the inn is traditionally closed to the general public that weekend).
Last year's event drew music lovers from 16 states and four foreign countries, Harkey notes proudly. Besides offering premier bluegrass performers on the main stage -- "nobody who isn't nationally or internationally known" makes the cut -- he claims that the show's fancy venue is also a big draw:
"It's very charming and comfortable," he says. "If you want to rest, you can. Unlike an outdoor event, you can [enjoy the show] without having to walk two miles from your car."
What the resort-based festival may lack in down-home flavor, it gains in the generous exposure it gives to new artists. Valerie Smith, a relative unknown from Bell Buckle, Tenn., played in the Sunspree's lobby last year.
Now, says Harkey, "She's one of the hottest acts in bluegrass music."
The inimitable Del McCoury Band headlines this year's Bluegrass First Class festival. Collectively, the group's five members (who include McCoury's sons, Ronnie and Rob), have garnered no less than six prestigious International Bluegrass Music Awards (IBMAs) and several Grammy nominations. McCoury's glorious high tenor (often deemed the most powerful voice in bluegrass music) has carried him through four decades in the business -- including a stint with revered bluegrass legend Bill Monroe -- without a sign of faltering. And although the band has performed countless shows worldwide, McCoury concert's are still marked by genuine spontaneity and enthusiasm from performers and fans alike.
"I think it's good to be in touch with the audience," McCoury said recently, "to see what they're feeling, what they're wanting to hear."
The North Carolina-born McCoury currently reigns as IBMA's Male Vocalist and Entertainer of the Year.
Also gracing the grand ballroom on Friday will be WNC favorites The Freighthoppers (sure to bring in the younger crowd, says Harkey); Lou Reid and Carolina; and The Reno Brothers, a trio of siblings who host their own national cable show and whose late father, Don, co-wrote the theme to the movie Deliverance.
Saturday's lineup features the peerless songwriting of the Lonesome River Band; the McPeak Brothers; internationally acclaimed banjo master J.D. Crowe and his band, The New South; and The Seldom Scene, voted "America's greatest bluegrass band" (among other accolades) in more than one music poll.
A wide array of local and regional talent will play throughout the weekend in the Sunspree lobby.
The fourth-annual Blue Grass First Class festival takes place in Asheville's Great Smokies Holiday Inn Sunspree Resort on Friday, Feb. 19 and Saturday, Feb. 20. Doors open at 12:15 p.m. each day. Tickets are $60 for both days (room not included); one-day passes are available for $30. To reserve rooms and two-day tickets, contact the Holiday Inn directly at (800) 733-3211. For one-day tickets and other info, call Milton Harkey at 277-9199.
To get to the resort, take exit 3B off I-240 west and follow the signs.
The performance schedule is as follows:
Friday, Feb. 19:
1 p.m., The Freighthoppers
2 p.m., Lou Reid and Carolina
3 p.m., The Del McCoury Band
4 p.m., The Reno Brothers
8 p.m., The Freighthoppers
9 p.m., Lou Reid and Carolina
10 p.m., The Del McCoury Band
11 p.m., The Reno Brothers
Saturday, Feb. 20
1 p.m., The McPeak Brothers
2 p.m., J.D. Crowe and The New South