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Big Mouth Bluegrass Fest Opens Up July Fourth Weekend

Kimberly Williams
Michael Cleveland (center) will lead his band Flamekeeper at the upcoming Big Mouth Bluegrass Festival at The Caverns.

Historians mostly agree that bluegrass was born in Nashville, on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, when Bill Monroe reconfigured his band and sound around banjo player Earl Scruggs and guitarist Lester Flatt in late 1945. There’s a statue at the Ryman commemorating that momentous chapter of roots music. What the Nashville region has lacked, with a few short-lived exceptions, is a multi-day bluegrass festival to call its own. That may be about to change.

On July 1 and 2, The Caverns down the road in Pelham, TN will stage the first Big Mouth Bluegrass Festival, with a state-of-the-art lineup in a lovely Cumberland Plateau setting. Unlike this weekend’s ROMP Festival in Kentucky, Big Mouth (a play on Knoxville’s Big Ears?) isn’t mingling ultra-progressive or Americana acts with old-style bluegrass. Instead, it’s a roster of venerated veterans and mainstream stars of the genre.

The senior-most artist of the weekend will be Larry Sparks, leading his Lonesome Ramblers and singing beautifully at age 75. We know that from his super-intimate new album It’s Just Me featuring Larry on voice and acoustic guitar with scarcely any backing. The Ohio native got his first big job playing with the Stanley Brothers in 1964, and when Carter Stanley died, it was Larry who filled his shoes playing with brother Ralph. I watched his super-fan Alison Krauss induct him into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame in 2015.

Also of note will be Dan Tyminski, longtime singer for Alison Krauss and Union Station, in one of his occasional solo phases. His first DT album since 2017, God Fearing Heathen, is out this weekend, and it’s going to be one of the year’s more scintillating releases. With most of East Nash Grass as his band, he’s offering amusing turns like his picture of a master picker in “G.O.A.T.” and more serious material such as the PTSD song “Silence In The Brandy.” He also revisits that wild moment in his career when he was the voice on a 2013 worldwide hit by DJ Avicii with an all acoustic version of “Hey Brother.”

Pictured above is Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper, an absolutely thrilling band led by the dominant fiddler player in bluegrass today. He emerged as an improbable prodigy out of rural Indiana, overcoming blindness and hearing impairment to become a complete and technically amazing player. Besides his own releases and performances, I’ve enjoyed his playing with the Bela Fleck My Bluegrass Heart band as well, where he could get a little weird. When it comes to hearts-on-fire bluegrass though, there’s nobody better, and his new album Lovin’ Of The Game is a showpiece.

Speaking of reverting back to a traditional sound, bass player and singer Missy Raines will be making one of the first area performances with her newly reconfigured band Allegheny after years leading the jazz-influenced New Hip. Her hard-edged recent single “These Old Blues,” a duet with Danny Paisley, points to an upcoming album that will make us trad heads very happy. Scratching the same itch is Appalachian Road Show, whose 2023 album Jubilation is a triumph of songcraft and savvy musicianship.

Big Mouth brings The Caverns and its owner Todd Mayo back to the formative days of the cave vision that launched the national PBS series Bluegrass Underground, now renamed The Caverns Sessions. “Bluegrass music is the roots of everything that we're doing at the Caverns,” said Mayo in a phone call this week. “It all happened when I walked into that cave in 2008 with the SteelDrivers. And, you know, we programmed almost exclusively bluegrass or bluegrass-ish music for years, and (that’s) where the whole brand was built.”

Full disclosure, I worked for Mayo for years on the parallel series Music City Roots, and I have worked in various capacities on his cave-based productions. So I’m somewhat partisan about this, but you may consider my personal and historical sense that this is a special lineup that tells a story about bluegrass in 2023 and beyond. I love jamgrass, but it doesn’t need the jam to be great. I’ll be taking in every set of this choice roster with interest. And Amy Alvey and I have built this Saturday’s Old Fashioned around artists playing Big Mouth.

The shows will take place in the cool cavern venue, while the great outdoors in this rustic setting will be for camping, picking and fireworks.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org