Almost 28 years ago, Milton Harkey was struck with an idea for a bluegrass festival unmatched anywhere in the state of North Carolina — the finest pickers and singers in the industry gathered in one place for a true representation of one of America’s original musical genres. “It was 1995 and I was sitting in my house in Asheville. I walked out on my back porch, and I looked over the city and I said, ‘there ought to be a way we could have bluegrass here.’ There wasn't any back then,” Harkey said. From that simple concept, Bluegrass First Class was born. Conceived as an exclusive event featuring the world’s best bluegrass musicians, the show hit the ground running in 1996. “I sat down in my den, picked up the phone and called enough people to fill the Crowne Plaza that first year,” he said. “The idea was to have no filler bands. We’d just have the national acts, the biggest and the best. That way, if someone wanted to see a tremendous show, you would come to Asheville for Bluegrass First Class. ”That simple guiding principle has remained unchanged even today, as Harkey prepares for his annual festival. The lineup is as jam-packed with talent as ever, with some of the biggest names in bluegrass young and old appearing on the bill. Not much has changed over the years, aside from a jump to a larger portion of the Crowne Plaza Resort a few years ago. “Right now it’s just one of those things where if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he said. “There’s not a lot we want to change. We have different bands every year, and there’s a showcase stage with different bands, and there are always incredible pickers. ”The event’s Main Stage is full from late morning until around midnight through the weekend with top-tier national bands, and the smaller Showcase Stage features regional up-and-comers who have proven themselves in smaller venues already. The festival also features a band workshop organized by Harkey himself, offering pointers to aspiring pickers and those who have already put in some time on the bluegrass circuit. The stages and workshops are just part of the spectacle, though. While many bluegrass festivals take place in the summer on sprawling plots of farmland or parks, the wintertime means close quarters for bluegrass die-hards. Festivals like Bluegrass First Class offer an up-close-and-personal bluegrass experience, with hotel room doors flung open to fellow festival-goers and impromptu jam sessions spilling out of hallways, stairwells and even some of the elevators. “The idea is for people to be able to pick in the rooms, up and down the halls, in every crevice and corner,” Harkey said. “If people want to listen to a jam, they can just walk down from the stages and listen to them. ”What sets a festival like Bluegrass First Class apart from others like it, Harkey said, is his dedication to recognizing bluegrass its distilled, unadulterated form. While many acoustic groups embrace the bluegrass label, Harkey hones in on those that eat, sleep and breathe the music as it was meant to be played. “Bluegrass is its own genre — it’s not just somebody playing acoustic somewhere. There’s a lot of that,” he said. “Bluegrass is beautiful music, and if you want to hear what it really sounds like within the pillars of Bluegrass, this is the show to come to.”
A native of Western North Carolina, Milton Harkey's lifelong love of bluegrass music often finds him traveling down the road... promoting, producing or just plain listening to the sounds of music he loves so well. He developed a good ear for bluegrass music and as a producer of several bluegrass music events today, his audiences get the benefit of hearing exactly what Milton likes to listen to. He grew up in Asheville, NC - where Bill Monroe began his radio career on WWNC Radio. His earliest influences were Flatt & Scruggs, Porter Wagoner and the Wilburn Brothers every Saturday afternoon on TV. He and his Mother sang gospel together at home, sitting on the piano bench as she played. He got "hooked" and these bluegrass roots set the stage for the rest of us. In addition to producing his own events, Harkey has been instrumental in helping to establish other forums for the preservation and continued support of bluegrass music. Here's the short list of his accomplishments and what is year to come:
Harkey continues to spend his spare time working with young bluegrass artists by providing the opportunity to showcase their talents and achieve the recognition of seasoned bluegrass audiences nationwide.
Stay tuned: The Upcoming Bluegrass Concert Series is being produced several times each year at venues such as the Old Rock School in Valdese, NC, Paramount Center for the Arts in Bristol, TN, and JE Broyhill Civic Center in Lenoir, NC, along with some other collaborative endeavors that feature major artistic performances. When it comes to Milton Harkey and bluegrass music, you can expect the best and you'll never be disappointed. Everything he does is First Class!