Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper, burning in Chatham County
Turning off North Carolina Highway 87 and navigating the winding roads of rural Chatham County brought me, during Memorial Day weekend, to what might be the most relaxed music festival. Past green pastures and grazing cattle, I found the Cane Creek Campground and RV Park. For the 37th year, the grounds hosted the Lil' John's Mountain Music Festival.
I parked a short distance away, but a volunteer in a golf cart soon asked "Would you like to park closer?"—a first in festival-going experience for me. Stepping out of the car for the second time, I met the smell of hickory-smoked barbecue. The pungent scent hung over the campgrounds, already packed with RVs.
Arriving at the tail end of the designated "dinner break" on the third day allowed for an easy setup of camp chairs. Festival goers slowly reemerged full and ready to lounge. As the endearing sounds of Al Batten & The Bluegrass Reunion started up the evening program, I began to mill about the vendors. I was surprised to see the same screen-printing T-shirt rig that I normally see at the Spirit of Suwannee Music Park in Florida, where the owner often has a long line of patrons. Here, he emerged from his wagon-like booth with a pipe in hand, saying hello like an old friend. Other vendors attempted to lure me in to their troves of jewelry or guitar stands with thick Southern accents. Everyone was so personable, treating me as through I had attended the festival for many years and was a familiar face.
To match the personality, of course, there was the music. Highlights from the Saturday evening lineup included two groups the Triangle should be familiar with via the International Bluegrass Music Association's annual festival in Raleigh—Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper and Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out. Both acts tout a string of IBMA honors, including best vocalist, best instrumental band and best fiddler several times over.
With a thick cover of oak trees overhead, Cleveland and his band stepped on stage for their 45-minute set. The group packs a strong bluegrass punch. As their name suggests, fast picking that borders on the frantic and a solid song selection help showcase their instrumental prowess. After Cleveland closed the set with a song that's becoming his trademark, "Orange Blossom Special," Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out arrived to end the festival. Despite being slightly under the weather, Moore delivered a hit-heavy set, pleasing the then—rowdy crowd.
As Moore and company's set wound down, the faint sounds of several campsite jam sessions could be heard bouncing off the hills of the campgrounds. With the early-bird pricing of $60 for three days of music, the festival remains an extremely affordable and welcoming getaway for Memorial Day weekend.
Check some clips below.
Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper, "Two O'Clock" & "Fisher's Hornpipe"
Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper, "Johnny Thompson" & "That Old Train"
Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out, "Brown County Red"