Cory Hemilright has been stringing people along for years.
But in a good way.
The 40-year-old concert promoter and business owner has been bringing top-tier talent to town for the Outer Banks Bluegrass Island Festival, which has quietly become the biggest music event on the Outer Banks.
Hemilright started the festival in 2012 as a two-day event but expanded it to four days the following year.
Recognition has come quickly; the little festival that could is a three-time nominee for the International Bluegrass Association’s “bluegrass event of the year.”
“It’s been a success right on,” Hemilright says. “I thought it was going to be a little side thing.”
Attendance has grown from 3,000 the first year to more than 8,000 last year.
Mandolinist-vocalist Ricky Scaggs holds the single-day Bluegrass Island record, playing to a capacity crowd on the lawn at Roanoke Island Festival Park in Manteo.
This year’s event, which features two dozen performers, runs Wednesday-Saturday, Oct. 4-7, at the park.
“The location is one of the reasons it’s so successful,” he says of Festival Park, which sits on Shallowbag Bay.
“Once people, including musicians, see it, they want to come back.”
Cases in point: Grammy award-winning artists Rhonda Vincent and Doyle Lawson have played every year.
Hemilright, who owns a gift and music shop in downtown Manteo, spends about two years in advance booking the festival —and that involves a lot of traveling.
“I won’t book an artist until I hear them live,” he says. “I want to see what makes them unique. I want to see the audience’s reaction.”
The festival attracts bluegrass fans from far and wide, including the western United States and Europe.
“People come for the music, but they find plenty of other things to do,” he says. “We have the beach and the ocean. Most bluegrass festivals are held at fairgrounds and in big fields.”
Hemilright says many people turn festival week into a yearly vacation because “it’s that important to them.”
Perhaps the biggest reason for the festival’s success is Hemilright’s personal business philosophy: Over the years, he has presented all types of bluegrass, ranging from traditional to gospel to old-timey country and progressive.
Big names have included Scaggs, Pam Tillis, Steep Canyon Rangers, Laurie Morgan and the Soggy Bottom Boys, which included most of Alison Krauss’ backing band.
This year’s lineup is no different. It ranges from former Statler Brother Jimmy Fortune and gospel legends the Isaacs to speed guitarist Bill Strings and traditionalists Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers, not to mention progressive bluegrass masters The Grascals.
Hemilright is particularly excited about Luke Canon, a group that specializes in bluegrass treatments of ‘80s songs (“Whip It,” “Danger Zone” and “Africa,” among others).
“I try to bring in all types of bluegrass, so it’s not all your grandfather’s music.”
And what makes bluegrass so enduringly popular?
“It’s raw and pure,” he says. “It touches people.”