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Who’s On Stage at MusicFest N Sugar Grove? Band Biographies on Friday’s Headliners

By Bailey Faulkner

The 19th annual Doc and Rosa Lee Watson MusicFest ‘N Sugar Grove kicks off on the afternoon of Friday, July 15.

Read below for band biographies on Friday’s headliners or click over to musicfestnsugargrove.org to see the full lineup for the weekend and get details on tickets, directions and more.

Gates will open at the Historic Cove Creek School at 1 p.m. on Friday for the first day of music.

Stay tuned for band biographies on Saturday’s headliners. Gates will open for the second day of the festival at 10 a.m. that day.

Ashley Heath

Friday on the Solar Stage: 4:15-5:15 p.m.

(also Saturday on the Main Stage: 12:15-1:15 p.m.)

Ashley Heath
Ashley Heath

Marshall, North Carolina’s Ashley Heath will take the stage at MusicFest ‘N Sugar Grove this year to show off her take on Americana music. She will perform a solo set on the Solar Stage on Friday and take the Main Stage with her band on Saturday.

The guitarist, vocalist and Appalachian State University graduate released her debut album, A Different Stream, on May 27. Although the album marked her first studio release, Heath is by no means new to the North Carolina music scene.

Heath began singing as a small child at church. Later in high school and college, she expanded her musical repertoire by joining rock bands.

While she has always been interested in music, Heath did not pick up songwriting until her sophomore year of college. Since then, Heath has developed a style that encompasses a “wide range of Americana music.”

“I would describe my music when playing solo as Americana music. I play a lot of blues and the blues is my favorite, along with songs that tell stories,” Heath said.

In addition to her songwriting, Heath’s vocals and guitar playing set her apart from others in the genre.

“You can hear influences from Eva Cassidy to Bonnie Raitt in her velvety vocals and bluesy guitar playing,” her Facebook page’s bio reads.

Since placing second and being voted crowd favorite in Asheville’s Brown Bag Songwriting Competition in 2014, Heath has pursued the life of the professional musician, joining three bands and recently recording her first solo album.

Heath recorded her debut album at Echo Mountain Recording Studio and Sedgwick Recording Studios in Asheville. The album was produced by Ryan Burns and engineered by Clay Miller.

Including appearances from other local musicians, the album showcases Heath’s thoughtful songwriting and striking vocals and guitar playing.

The Asheville Music Hall hosted Heath and her band for an album release show on Friday, May 27. Caine McDonald and Patrick Dodd kicked off the night of music.

“The full band can have more of a rocking element to it. I call them ‘Ashley Heath and Her Heathens,’ and the band brings a lot of heat to the songs,” Heath said.

Taking the stage with her full band, Heath brought her full Americana sound to an excited crowd at The Asheville Music Hall. With the help of Casey Cramer (guitar), Elijah Cramer (bass) and Patrick Thomas (drums), Heath proved that her exciting music career is only beginning.

If you want to learn more about Heath and her music, you can visit her Facebook page here. You can also click here to visit her website. She has a summer full of exciting events, so make sure you check out her schedule!

Heath has attended MusicFest each year since she completed her college internship at the site in 2011. While interning, Heath had the chance to meet Doc Watson, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, The Kruger Brothers and many other famous bands and artists.

While this will not be her first performance at MusicFest, this year will mark her first appearance on the Main Stage. In addition to having met legendary musicians at MusicFest, Heath loves to see local musicians perform at the festival.

“I love seeing the local family bands. Some of those kids get up there and are 9 or 10 years old and just shred on their instrument. It’s incredible to see,” Heath said.

She is also happy to know that MusicFest is doing a great job of preserving the music of Doc Watson and the High Country.

“I enjoy walking around the museum and looking at the legacy Doc has left for us and heading down to the pickin’ parlor where anyone can go jam. The music fest works really hard at keeping the culture alive,” Heath said.

Fortunately for MusicFest goers, Heath will play two sets at this year’s event. Her solo set will take place on the Solar Stage on Friday from 4:15 – 5:15 p.m. Heath and her band will play the Main Stage on Saturday from 12:15 – 1:15 p.m.

Make sure you check out Heath’s CDs, T-shirts and stickers while you’re at the show!

Strictly Strings

Friday on the Main Stage: 3:15-4 p.m.

Strictly Strings
Strictly Strings

Boone-based string band Strictly Strings will take its old-time music to the main stage at MusicFest ‘N Sugar Grove on Friday, July 15. The band has made a name for itself at fiddler’s conventions, music festivals and concert venues around the High Country and beyond.

Originally an old-time fiddle class in Boone’s Junior Appalachian Musicians (JAM) program, the band is filled out by:

Kathleen Burnett (fiddle, vocals)

Anissa Burnett (bass, fiddle, vocals)

Willow Dillon (fiddle, cello, banjo, vocals)

Caleb Coatney (mandolin, guitar, banjo)

Cecil Gurganus (guitar, vocals)

Strictly Strings formed in January 2012 when JAM instructor Cecil Gurganus and his old-time fiddle students decided to begin playing outside of their weekly lessons. Although named “Strictly Strings,” the band adds lead vocals and harmonies to their old-time instrumentation.

In addition to the band’s old-time sound, Strictly Strings incorporates elements of bluegrass, folk, Celtic and blues in its music. While originally focusing on the fiddle during their JAM lessons, the members have formed a full string band by honing their skills on other old-time instruments.

Since forming, the band has consistently won awards in fiddler’s conventions and other competitions around the High Country. In 2014, the band placed first in the adult old-time band category at the Happy Valley Fiddler’s Convention. Strictly Strings also performed on the Dance Stage and Cabin Stage at MerleFest this year.

Having played at MusicFest ‘N Sugar Grove each year since 2013, Strictly Strings is excited to return to the stage and honor one of its greatest influences.

“Sugar Grove is full of encouraging people and people who love the old-time music that Doc Watson used to play. We love playing for them because they are so supportive of our music and our future with carrying on this tradition,” Dillon said.

As younger musicians, the members take pride in furthering Appalachian music traditions. Born in Boone, the band is especially thankful for the area’s musical history and encouraging sense of community.

“MusicFest ‘N Sugar Grove is the perfect place for Strictly Strings to honor the musicians who influence us because it gives us the chance to perform songs that these musicians used to perform and carry on,” Dillon said.

Although its upcoming performance at MusicFest will certainly be a highlight, Strictly Strings is looking forward to a summer filled with shows. If you want to keep track of where the band will perform next, check out Strictly Strings’ summer schedule here.

The band is also currently working on its first professionally recorded album. Set for release by the end of 2016, the album “has been a great learning experience and a humbling opportunity for all the members of Strictly Strings,” Dillon said.

The band is thankful for Tick-Knock Studio’s Patrick Crouch for his help on the album.

To keep up with the band, check out Strictly Strings’ website here. While on the site, you can check out a few videos of the band performing! The group’s Facebook page also stays up-to-date on all of the band’s exciting news.

If you want to find out more about the band, you can also directly email Strictly Strings at strictlystringsmusic@gmail.com. The band is available to perform at festivals, dances, concerts, weddings, birthday parties, banquets, restaurants and more.

In addition to their shared love of old-time music, the band also loves “spending time as best friends,” the group’s website reads.

Andy Ferrell

Friday on the Main Stage: 4:15-5:15 p.m.

Andy Ferrell
Andy Ferrell

Returning artist and country singer-songwriter Andy Ferrell will show off his Appalachian roots-inspired tunes at MusicFest ‘N Sugar Grove this year. He will perform on the Main Stage on Friday, July 15.

The Boone-born musician is backed up by:

Laura Smith (fiddle, vocal harmony)

Zach Smith (upright bass)

With a folk guitarist as a father, Ferrell was born to play the music of the Appalachian area. Growing up in community filled with Doc Watson and other mountain musicians, Ferrell has developed a unique style that his Facebook page describes as “traditional plus.”

Mixing elements of “old-time roots and folk songwriting with a more polished country sound that verges at times on Paul Simon-esque balladry,” Ferrell has carved out a unique niche in the High Country music scene.

While Appalachian roots certainly play a large role in Ferrell’s music, his new album, At Home and in Nashville, shows how the musician has expanded his musical repertoire.

The new album, half recorded in Nashville’s Quad Studios and half recorded from a live performance at the Jones House in Boone, “points to a long lineage of artists traveling between their homes in rural Appalachia and the neon lights of country music’s capitol, Nashville, Tennessee,” Ferrell’s website reads.

Reflecting on his time in Nashville, the Tennessee-recorded half of Ferrell’s album shows his transition into more of a country songwriting style than his previous work.

Ferrell acknowledges that traveling helps greatly during the songwriting process.

“I almost always have to be traveling to write good songs,” Ferrell said.

In addition to the Nashville-inspired songs on the new album, some of Ferrell’s best songs have resulted from traveling cross-country and to Mexico.

The latter half of Ferrell’s album gives listeners a taste of live music from the Jones House in Boone. Ferrell’s performance more clearly displays his folky Appalachian roots. If you’d like to check out a Jones House show, you should mark your calendar for Ferrell’s performance at the venue on Friday, July 29!

The new album is available for purchase on iTunes, CD Baby, Amazon and other online music sites. You can also listen to his music on his website by clicking here.

Having already performed at MusicFest in 2014, Ferrell is looking forward to returning to the event this year.

“My music is totally influenced by growing up in the area where MusicFest is put on. I can remember going to the festival several times over the years as a kid, so it feels like being right at home performing at MusicFest,” Ferrell said.

Like the other artists performing at the festival this year, Ferrell especially enjoys attending MusicFest because of its ties to Doc Watson.

“I love playing at MusicFest because it takes place near my hometown of Boone and is in remembrance of my musical hero, Doc Watson, and his wife, Rosa Lee,” Ferrell said.

You don’t want to miss out on this “original southern roots music from North Carolina and beyond!” If you want to learn more about Ferrell and his music, click here to check out his website. You can also stay up-to-date on upcoming shows and music on Ferrell’s Facebook page here.

Clay Lunsford

Friday on the Main Stage: 5:30-6:30 p.m.

Clay Lunsford
Clay Lunsford

Guitar and banjo player Clay Lunsford will show off his thumbpicking skills at this year’s MusicFest ‘N Sugar Grove. Lunsford will take the Main Stage on Friday, July 15.

He will be joined by:

Billy Gee (bass)

Matthew Weaver (piano, vocals)

Lunsford was born to play the music of the High Country. As you may recognize by his last name, he is related to legendary traditional Appalachian musician Bascom Lamar Lunsford, perhaps better known by his nickname, “Minstrel of the Appalachians.”

Picking up where his relative left off, Lunsford has done his part in continuing the musical traditions of the Appalachian area. Wishing to “help preserve the heritage of thumb and fingerstyle guitar playing,” Lunsford became president of the North Carolina Thumb & Fingerstyle Guitar Players Association. You can check out the group’s website here.

Lunsford specializes in playing the style of Chet Atkins and Merle Travis. Unlike many Appalachian pickers such as Doc Watson, Lunsford focuses on thumbpicking rather than flatpicking.

With over 50 years of experience with the style, Lunsford has created his own distinct sound, meshing together styles that sound both recognizable and unique.

Lunsford and his band’s performances feature “Americana music ranging from fast banjo tunes to great vocals from female and male artists.” As the name suggests, the band also makes sure to include “great guitar instrumentals.”

“I do a little bit of all of it. I play some gospel, blues and jazz, but I usually just call it Americana,” Lunsford said.

In addition to the band’s guitar work, the group features drums, bass, piano and other instruments.

Like MusicFest ‘N Sugar Grove, the North Carolina Thumb Pickers Convention, which Lunsford helps host, aims to preserve the music of the Appalachian region.

This year’s convention will be hosted by Twisted Oaks American Bar & Grill in Statesville, North Carolina. The event is sponsored by The Iredell Arts Council and the North Carolina Arts Council.

Lunsford also fronts The Clay Lunsford Jazz Group. Providing “the best in jazz standards,” the group enjoys playing for both small and large audiences. Along with female and male vocals, the group’s instrumentation includes guitar, piano, upright bass, light percussion and wind instruments.

You can check out The Clay Lunsford Jazz Group here.

While not playing with the North Carolina Thumb & Fingerstyle Guitar Players or his jazz group, Lunsford performs with The Gospel Voices. The band plays a “unique blend of southern gospel, country gospel and Appalachian gospel.”

The group features a full band with string instruments, southern-style piano playing and a four-part male vocal section. Since the band’s first release in April of 2008, The Gospel Voices have released three EPs. You can check out the group’s website here.

Lunsford is excited about his first performance at MusicFest ‘N Sugar Grove.

“I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve heard about it for years,” Lunsford said.

The musician’s unique Americana style will surely fit in perfectly at MusicFest.

“I’ve seen and heard a lot of music. We know what folks will want to hear,” Lunsford said.

The Honey Chasers

Friday on the Main Stage: 6:45-7:45 p.m.

The Honey Chasers
The Honey Chasers

Johnson City’s “modern Appalachian and progressive bluegrass” quartet The Honey Chasers is excited to return to MusicFest this year. The band will take the Main Stage on Friday, July 15.

The Honey Chasers are filled out by:

Cameron Owens (mandolin, vocals)

Meade Richter (fiddle, electric fiddle, guitar)

Zach Smith (bass)

Jeff Ingersoll (guitar, vocal harmony)

The Johnson City group focuses on “taking the eastern bluegrass drive and flavor and combining it with original songs and ideas to create a modern Appalachian sound.”

“I’ve definitely never tried to restrict this group to ‘traditional grass,’ not because we don’t like it (heck, that’s what we grew up on and how we learned how to play!), but simply because we would prefer to play more original music, using traditional bluegrass as a sort of influence and mold in the overall creation of our sound,” Owens said.

Featuring graduates of East Tennessee State University’s Bluegrass, Old-Time and Country Music Studies program, The Honey Chasers are very familiar with the music of the Appalachian region. Using innovative sounds and song structures, the band injects a modern flair to its old-time-, bluegrass- and Appalachian-rooted music.

“The Honey Chasers are an awesome group of young musicians that are taking acoustic music to its next logical step,” Grammy Award-winning mandolin player Adam Steffey said.

With a style that calls to mind tunes from Old and in the Way, David Grisman Quintet, the Steve Miller Band and the Punch Brothers, The Honey Chasers have successfully meshed outside influences with their High Country musical center.

The Honey Chasers’ unique sound is largely due to each member’s wide-ranging musical interests and talents.

Cameron Owens

Before attending ETSU, Owens graduated from Watauga High School. Having played extensively with the Owens Family Band during his childhood, Owens has had a life full of music.

After studying classical music as a teenager, Owens began to focus on writing and performing Appalachian-rooted music. Now the mandolin player for The Honey Chasers, Owens also contributes as the band’s songwriter.

Meade Richter

In addition to his work in The Honey Chasers, Richter is an award-winning Master Fiddler. He officially joined the Fiddler’s Grove Master Fiddlers in 2014 after winning the Fiddler of the Festival Award for the third time.

Also a Watauga High School graduate, Richter “brings his unique improvisational fiddle style to the table,” using his five-string electric fiddle to access sounds not typically used in a bluegrass or old-time setting.

Jeff Ingersoll

Formerly the guitarist for progressive bluegrass groups Sons of Bluegrass and The Ingersoll Brothers, Ingersoll “brings flavors of modern jazz, bluegrass and blues and world music to The Honey Chaser’s unique sound.”

In addition to his guitar playing, Ingersoll helps fill out the vocal section by harmonizing with Owens.

Zach Smith

Having played in a variety of musical settings, Smith holds down the low end for The Honey Chasers. Using his experience with various genres and styles, Smith fills out the band’s bass role both rhythmically and as a soloist.

Helping to blend the band’s Appalachian-rooted and progressive styles, Smith thrives as an ever-steady bassist.

Like each of the returning groups at MusicFest this year, The Honey Chasers are excited to take the stage in Sugar Grove.

“I have either played with my band or with friends at MusicFest every year for the past 4 or 5 years. I love playing this festival in remembrance of Doc Watson,” Owens said.

Like most of the other musicians at MusicFest this year, Owens had the chance to meet Doc Watson before his passing.

“The first place I ever saw Doc play was at MusicFest when my family first arrived in North Carolina. I actually grew up right down the road from Doc in Deep Gap, and I used to see him at the post office,” Owens said.

Growing up around MusicFest and performing at the festival has had a significant impact on Owens’ musical interests.

“MusicFest ‘N Sugar Grove has hosted so many of my favorite artists — many of the artists that have played here have had a great influence on my music. I hope The Honey Chasers’ music can help showcase these influences in a youthful sort of way,” Owens said.

The Honey Chasers will take the Main Stage on Friday, July 15 from 6:45 – 7:45 p.m. If you caught the band last year, you know you don’t want to miss out on The Honey Chasers’ set at MusicFest this year!

Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley

Friday on the Main Stage: 8-9:30 p.m.


Unique collaborative duo Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley will show off some of Nashville’s hottest new music at MusicFest this year. The duo will perform on Friday, July 15.

“Bound to be a revelation to traditional music fans on several counts,” Ickes and Hensley’s collaborative effort is beginning to rise to the top of the Nashville and Americana music scenes.

“We do a mix of material — we play bluegrass, blues and Americana. You could call us a high-energy roots duo,” Ickes said.

Although relatively new to the scene as a duo, Ickes and Hensley have developed a musical bond that enables them to stand out in Music City’s talent-rich scene. Both versed in bluegrass and Appalachian traditions, Ickes and Hensley have formed a unique duo that simultaneously emphasizes both youthful excitement and musical maturity.

First singing and playing the guitar at age 10, Hensley — a Jonesborough, Tennessee native — has established his name in Nashville despite his relatively young age.

“Bursting at the seams with freshness and musical excitement,” youthful Hensley immediately began to assert himself as one of Music City’s most promising musicians. Invited by Marty Stuart and joined by Earl Scruggs, Hensley landed a spot at the Grand Ole Opry when he was only 11 years old.

Since then, he has performed with Johnny and June Carter Cash, Charlie Daniels, Ricky Skaggs, Steve Wariner, The Oak Ridge Boys and Janie Fricke.

He has also shared bills with Sara Evans, Charlie Daniels, Peter Frampton, Randy Owen, Steve Wariner and Marty Stuart. Hensley also had the opportunity to perform for former President George W. Bush, former First Lady Laura Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney.

“Longtime, well-established instrumental giant” Ickes is the senior member of the duo, bringing decades of experience and bluegrass knowledge to the mix.

Before performing with Hensley, Ickes played with bluegrass supergroup Blue Highway for over 20 years. During that time, he won the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Bluegrass Dobro Player of the Year Award 15 times.

In addition to winning awards at music festivals, Ickes has recorded with some of the biggest names in bluegrass and country music, including Merle Haggard, Dierks Bentley, Patty Loveless and Alison Kraus.

Ickes first met Hensley during a Blue Highway recording session in 2012. Asking Hensley to lay down a vocal scratch track for their album, The Game, the members of Blue Highway — especially Ickes — were taken away by Hensley’s natural vocal abilities.

While Hensley was only 22 at the time, Ickes knew that the young musician possessed a unique set of guitar and vocal abilities that sets him apart from average musicians in the Nashville scene.

For its debut album, Before the Sun Goes Down, the duo enlisted the help of some of the best and most accomplished musicians in Nashville to fill in as a backing band. Recorded mostly live with minimal overdubs, the album showcases both Ickes’ and Hensley’s individual talents as well as the duo’s natural musical connection.

One particular music legend had a few words to say about the duo’s album.

“I’m sure I don’t make a true ‘critic’ since I’m already such a fan, but this album from Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley is a wonderful piece of work. And my songwriting side is truly overwhelmed,” Merle Haggard said.

In addition to Haggard’s recommendation, Before the Sun Goes Down received a Grammy nomination for Best Bluegrass Album.

On July 8, the duo released its most recent album, The Country Blues. In the short time since its release, the album has already risen to #1 on the iTunes Top Americana Country Albums & EPs chart.

Although this year will mark the duo’s first performance at the event, Ickes and Hensley are sure to fit in with the crowd at MusicFest.

“I’ve heard only good things about MusicFest. It’s a great festival with a great lineup,” Ickes said.

Given their background in bluegrass and country music, Ickes and Hensley are sure to play tunes that will fit in with MusicFest.

“The Trey Hensley/Rob Ickes collaboration…features both electrified honky tonk and Doc Watson-style acoustic bluegrass boogie with some killer flatpicking,” Craig Havighurst from Music City Roots said.

The duo’s MusicFest set is another stop in the musicians’ busy year of touring. After the festival, the duo will begin a 10-day run of the East Coast. The duo will also be performing on NPR’s Mountain Stage in Charleston, West Virginia on July 24.

After their NPR performance, Ickes and Hensley will travel to the Tønder Festival, Denmark’s leading folk music festival. After the Tønder Festival, the duo will perform in Ireland and England before heading to Australia in November.

If you want to learn more about Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley, you can check out the duo’s website here. They already have around 100 shows booked this year, so don’t miss out on another chance to see this exciting duo.

Make sure you don’t miss out Friday’s headlining performance! Ickes and Hensley will take the Main Stage on Friday from 8 – 9:30 p.m.