Last weekend was a special one for North Carolina bluegrass, as The Travelin’ McCourys brought The Bluegrass Ball to Isis Music Hall in West Asheville. They enlisted the help of Travis Book of the Infamous Stringdusters (bass), Andy Thorn of Leftover Salmon (banjo), and Jon Stickley of the Jon Stickley Trio (guitar).
The three guests, all from North Carolina, formed a tight-knit trio to open up both performances. Having known each other since youth, they made up half of the Broke Mountain Bluegrass Band over a decade ago. Stickley and Thorn told stories going back to their high school days, treating fans to a time-machine that gave us a look into the early careers of some of the biggest names in newgrass. Both of their sets had a friendly, easygoing flow to them, as they went through some of their favorite covers, with John Hartford getting more than one tribute. They even dug some early originals out of the vault, including Thorn’s hilariously lonesome “Tumbleweed,” sung with plenty of laughter from everyone in the room.
After all of that off-the-cuff fun to open up, The Travelin’ McCourys certainly brought the business on both nights. The band consists of brothers Ronnie (mandolin) and Robbie McCoury (banjo), with Jason Carter (fiddle), Cody Kilby (guitar) and Alan Bartram (double bass). They were especially on-point over these two performances, passing around breaks with impeccable timing and fluidity that resounded perfectly through the acoustically outstanding music hall. There was simply never a dull moment. As the boys tore through their established repertoire of bluegrass staples and a multitude of adaptations, we also heard covers of The Eagles’ “Midnight Flyer,” as well as “Cumberland Blues,” and “Loser,” from the Grateful Dead catalogue.
The second night came to a close with a pile of pickers on stage, as all of the openers plus more came out for a sing-a-long of John Hartford’s “Keep on Truckin’” followed by an encore of “Roll in my Sweet Baby’s Arms.”