Performing Arts

Bascom Lamar Lunsford Festival Turns 50

Brandon Johnson, Roger Howell and Carol Rifkin perform. Photo courtesy of Mars Hill University

This year the Bascom Lamar Lunsford Minstrel of Appalachia Festival celebrates its 50th anniversary with special events to honor Lunsford’s legacy and impact on musical heritage and preservation. A ticketed concert on Friday, October 6, at 7 p.m. in Moore Auditorium on the Mars Hill University campus will host the region’s best ballad singers, dancers and string bands. On Saturday, October 7, all festival events are free to the public and will take place on the upper quadrangle of the Mars Hill campus.

“It’s really hard for me to believe that it’s been 50 years since the Minstrel of Appalachia festival began,” says Roger Howell, Lunsford Award winner and Madison County master fiddler. “We had all of the ‘greats’ playing those early festivals, including Tommy Hunter, Obray Ramsey, Byard Ray, Dellie Norton, Luke Smathers and, of course, Bascom Lamar Lunsford himself. Music was a way of life back then, and I guess we didn’t think about it much at the time, but everybody knew the festival was something special when it started.”

The festival’s roots run deep, and the story began with Ed Howard, a pharmacist in Mars Hill who organized the first festival in 1967. Lunsford himself was instrumental in founding two large events, including the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in 1928, but this festival was the first and only that Lunsford allowed to carry his name.

“There is a whole new generation of local, supertalented musicians carrying on the festival’s legacy,” Howell says, “the tradition of mountain music, dance and storytelling that is such a big part of the history of this region. I’m proud to say I was there when it all started, and I’m looking forward to celebrating this important milestone in the festival’s history come October in Mars Hill.”

This year, the Lunsford festival stage welcomes the Midnight Plowboys. “The 2012 Lunsford festival was instrumental in reuniting our band,” says Brian Hunter, “as we were asked to close the show with a Midnight Plowboys reunion. I’ll never forget the fun, excitement and energy of that night’s performance in Mars Hill. This reunion show created a demand for personal appearances and now we perform dozens of shows each year, thanks to the Bascom Lamar Lunsford festival.”

Several other musicians, storytellers and speakers will take the stage to share their stories and honor the great tradition of minstrel music in Appalachia.

Mars Hill University is located 20 minutes north of Asheville in the mountains of Western North Carolina. For tickets to Friday’s concert or to learn more, visit

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