About 3,800 people attended the inaugural Blue Highway Fest last year in Big Stone Gap. Photo courtesy of the town of Big Stone Gap.

The Blue Highway Fest returns to Big Stone Gap this week for just its second year, but the music festival has already been honored with a major award: On Sept. 28, it won the 2023 International Bluegrass Music Association’s Industry Event of the Year Award.

Big Stone Gap Town Manager Stephen Lawson attributes the win to the respect that the festival’s namesake band, Blue Highway, has in the industry, the winning lineup of bands, and the hospitality of the town and its scenic beauty in autumn.

By the numbers: Roanoke MSA 

  • Population: 315,389
  • Median age: 43.5
  • Median Household Income: $64,596
  • Unemployment rate: 3%

Source: U.S. Census, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

This year’s festival has been expanded to four days and will run Wednesday through Saturday with stages again at Bullitt Park and downtown for the first time.

In addition to Blue Highway, the lineup includes the Sam Bush Band, the Steeldrivers, Scythian, the Dan Tyminski Band, Darrell Scott, the Tim O’Brien Band, Larry Sparks & the Lonesome Ramblers, Ralph Stanley II & the Clinch Mountain Boys, Beth Snapp, Ed Snodderly, Seldom Scene and more.

On Sept. 28, Lawson and others were in Raleigh, North Carolina, for the award ceremony, but when he went to pick up the tickets, it took the staff so long to find them that he missed the lunch before the big event. He said, “They had no idea we were even supposed to be there, so I thought there was no way we were going to win.”

He really was honored to be a finalist, he said, and so he was surprised when the event’s name was announced as the winner. The other finalists were Bluegrass in La Roche, La Roche-sur-Foron, France; Doc at 100, a Doc Watson tribute concert at several locations, including Galax, Emory, Roanoke and Blacksburg; Durango Bluegrass Meltdown, Durango, Colorado; and Pickin’ in the Pines, Flagstaff, Arizona.

According to the IBMA, the award recognizes live performance events for their “outstanding accomplishment and service to bluegrass music in the field of event production. … The event will be judged by its ability to further bluegrass music in its region or area of service; production quality in terms of presentation and organization; environment; and overall audience experience.”

About 3,800 people attended the inaugural event last year in the Wise County town, and more are expected this year. As of last week, ticket sales were up by 30%, Lawson said Tuesday during a break from setting up the stage.

Organizers are staging the music downtown so people can eat in the town’s restaurants and visit the shops, in addition to enjoying the music. Lawson said so many people fell in love with the town last year that the event resulted in the sale of three houses.

The idea for the event came just after the town’s Fourth of July celebration in 2021, when George Roat, who grew up in Big Stone Gap but now lives in Florida, asked Lawson if the town could put together a new, bigger festival. He had a friend, local resident Larry Roberts, who knew a lot of bluegrass acts and thought they might be able to put together an event celebrating bluegrass.

Lawson, Roat, Roberts and Tim Stafford, a songwriter and musician who co-founded Blue Highway, met and the festival began to come together. Blue Highway had no previous connection to the town, but the band was looking for the right place to stage a music festival, according to Lawson.

The festival opens at noon Wednesday with the Songwriters Workshop at the Southwest Virginia Museum. It will include performers and songwriters Darrell Scott, Tony Arata, Tim Stafford, Ed Snodderly and others.

The first two days will stage music in the center of the downtown area, and the action will shift to Bullitt Park on Friday and Saturday. The music will continue until the last performance by the Sam Bush Band set for 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

Lawson said he is most proud that the event is handled completely by the town and a number of volunteers.

He encouraged people to visit the town and enjoy some bluegrass over the next four days.

“It’s an all-star lineup of the best bands and fans and bluegrass,” he said. “It’s beautiful here in October. It just don’t get no better than being outside in Southwest Virginia in the fall of the year. The colors of the leaves are changing as we speak.”

Susan Cameron is a reporter for Cardinal News. She has been a newspaper journalist in Southwest Virginia...