Cory Hemilright didn’t know much about festival promotion when he created the Outer Banks Bluegrass Island Festival. But his grassroots approach is selling out shows and earning him accolades in the music industry.
story by Laura Martier
Every year Cory Hemilright packs up his 2009 Ford Ranger and hits the road, traveling to bluegrass festivals up and down the East Coast.
Under the camper shell on the back of his truck are tens of thousands of fliers detailing the festival he created in 2012, the Outer Banks Bluegrass Island Festival. On busy weekends his father and friends help out, and throughout the year they hit about 40 festivals and distribute 50,000 fliers — all in the name of spreading the word about great music in a great location.
Bringing bluegrass to the Outer Banks was a longtime dream for Hemilright, who grew up in Manns Harbor. It started back with his grandfather, Delbert Ambrose, who was born and raised in East Lake on the mainland. Hemilright was always by his grandfather’s side and grew up listening to him play banjo at home, around town and at festivals.
Like many Outer Banks natives, Hemilright left after high school to seek adventure off the islands. He moved to Tennessee for a few years, working at a law firm and living in a rustic, riverfront cabin in the woods. He cultivated friendships with several bluegrass musicians who would come out to his cabin and play music. Hemilright would joke about one day bringing them to his old neck of the woods to play bluegrass on the beach.
When his mother was diagnosed with cancer and the law firm closed, Hemilright decided to return to the Outer Banks. But he missed the music. Walking around Manteo, he noticed there was not much going on at Roanoke Island Festival Park, a state historic site with a stunning waterfront amphitheater.
“I would look at that venue and think, ‘Wow, people travel here to go to the beach … add bluegrass and they will come,’” he says.
But planning and promoting a music festival is a tough business, and Hemilright had no experience. With scores of large-scale music festivals and countless smaller ones taking place across the country, would the musicians and their fans come here? Would anybody in their right mind mount a full-scale musical extravaganza in the netherlands of northeastern North Carolina?
Ignoring the doubts, Hemilright forged ahead.
The first year, 2012, Hemilright landed Rhonda Vincent and Doyle Lawson as headliners, and sold 3,000 tickets. By the third year, ticket sales had jumped to 12,000, the festival’s maximum capacity. VIP tickets for 2015 sold out the second day of the 2014 festival.
“It’s gotten so big so fast,” Hemilright says. “It is the talk of the bluegrass festival circuit. Every band wants to play Bluegrass Island.”
Hemilright credits Vincent for some of the festival’s success. She has helped promote the festival on the bluegrass circuit and even wrote a song about the event, he says: “Nobody paid her to do that; she just did it of her own accord.”
Vincent says she is impressed with the location — “The setting is extraordinary. … We are thankful to be included in such an amazing setting” — and with Hemilright — “Cory pays special attention to every detail. From the moment you see a brochure to the time you arrive at the festival, every aspect is well thought out and presented in a professional manner.”
Most bluegrass festivals take place on a farm or at a campground in the mountains, but the Outer Banks Bluegrass Festival is the only one that takes place on a coastal island.
“The name Bluegrass Island really sparks people’s interest,” he says. “And once people see the venue, they come back every year.”
Roanoke Island Festival Park provides one of the most stunning settings of any festival anywhere. The 3,800-square-foot main stage is surrounded by the waters of the Roanoke Sound, which provides a natural backdrop for the performers. There is plenty of lush grass for the spectators to sit on, and the quaint town of Manteo just a short walk across a small bridge.
And the quality of musicians is escalating. Over the course of four days in September 2015, the festival will host almost 20 bands, including Sam Bush, Steep Canyon Rangers, Lorrie Morgan, Rhonda Vincent, Pam Tillis and a reunion performance by Cherryholmes.
Location and musical quality aside, Hemilright’s grassroots approach to marketing and promotion and the on-the-ground, real-time efforts by his family and friends make Bluegrass Island work.
Along with Hemilright, his father, uncle and a friend or two from Manns Harbor take to the road at least once a month, traveling to bluegrass festivals to promote Bluegrass Island. Their Facebook page — Ted, Fred and Buster’s Excellent Adventure — details their lives as “Promoters of the Outer Banks Bluegrass Festival.”
“The family … it’s pretty comical,” says Hemilright. “My dad has always been a very reserved, easygoing, quiet guy who doesn’t speak too much. The festival has really changed his life. They get so much enjoyment out of it. Everywhere they go, people know them. They just got smartphones and are trying to learn how to use them, taking pictures of each other making jokes. They fell in love with it. This festival has turned them into hard-core bluegrass fans.”
Hemilright’s grandmother still lives in East Lake and comes to the festival every year. Joining her is an entourage of family members who have all been bitten by the bluegrass bug. Aunt Nancy greets everyone who crosses the bridge. Hemilright’s mother works the ticket booth, and his dad and uncles lead security. About 150 friends and family members show up each year to volunteer and support the festival.
This year Hemilright took some of his volunteers to the Bluegrass Awards in Nashville. He had been nominated for Promoter of the Year by the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America. The first year of his festival Hemilright was nominated for Best New Festival, and he’s been nominated as Best Promoter for the past two years. He hasn’t yet won, but his group, outfitted in Bluegrass Island festival T-shirts, have had fun passing out fliers.
“We love it and we have a lot of fun with it. We definitely stay busy,” says Hemilright, who had to quit his regular job to work on the festival full time. “You have to; that’s what it takes. You’ve got to get these fliers in the hands of the people because a lot of them are not on the Internet. It takes a lot of volunteers, but everyone is having fun. Everyone is just enjoying the ride.”
And every year, Hemilright honors his grandfather with a dedication in the festival program.
“He’s pretty much the reason behind it,” Hemilright says. “He’s the one who got me into the music, so we dedicate the festival to him.”
The Outer Banks Bluegrass Island Festival will be held Sept. 23 to 26 at Roanoke Island Festival Park in Manteo. Go to BluegrassIsland.com.
Music and a View
Stunning waterfront locations and stellar musical lineups equal winning combinations on the Outer Banks. A few of the music festivals that lure big-name talent:
Live at the Waterside Concert Series – Summer 2015. Waterside Theatre, Roanoke Island. TheLostColony.org/Concert-Series
Outer Banks Bluegrass Island Festival – Sept. 23-26, 2015. Roanoke Island Festival Park, Manteo. BluegrassIsland.com
Mustang Music Festival – Oct. 9-10, 2015. Whalehead in Historic Corolla. MustangMusicFestival.com
Duck Jazz Festival – Oct. 11, 2015. Duck Town Park, Duck. DuckJazz.com
Mustang Spring Jam – May 2016. Corolla. MustangMusicFestival.com
Buck’s Beach Blast – May 2016. Whalehead in Historic Corolla. BucksBeachBlastOBX.com
Shallowbag Shag Beach Music Festival – May 2016. Roanoke Island Festival Park, Manteo. OBXShag.com
OBX Brewfest – May 2016. Outer Banks Event Site, Nags Head. OBXBeerFests.com