News/Thoughts

Mountain Music By The Sea

By Greg Tutwiler
Cory Hemilright was your typical bluegrass music fan. After college, he moved from Dare Country, North Carolina to Bristol, Tennessee to go to work for a local law firm. “I had a cabin on the river,” he told me recently, “And a lot of my bluegrass buddies would come out and play music. We often joked about bringing something back to the beach.” The beach for Cory is the Outer Banks in North Carolina, commonly known as OBX for anyone who’s been there. Quite frankly, it’s my personal favorite beach to visit.
A few years ago, I heard about a bluegrass music festival taking place at the beach. What a ‘novel idea,’ I thought. Cory thought so too, although the local input was less than supportive.
“It just so happened I ended up moving back here,” Cory told me. “And when I got here I started missing those bluegrass get togethers. I started talking to my friends about it, and decided I needed to try this and see want happens. The locals thought I was crazy – they definitely think different now,” he quipped.
Making It Happen
In 2012, Cory formed Hemiliright Entertainment Inc. and launched the Outer Banks Bluegrass Festival in Manteo, North Carolina. The festival park is located on Roanoke Island (Now dubbed Bluegrass Island), a 27 acre island park owned by the state of North Carolina.
The first year the festival sold 3,000 tickets. Not bad. Last year, however (the third installment of the festival), the number topped 12,000. “The island can only hold so many people,” he said. “Eventually it will be a situation where it just sells out. People say ‘would you move it to another venue,’ but to me that’s what makes it special. Part of the success was just luck, but I also think it was the combination of the location, the venue, and the line-up.”
Of course, line-up does make a difference, and Cory has consistently top performing acts, and this year’s event even features a reunion performance of the popular Cherryholmes Family Band. And next year’s event already has a special appearance scheduled from the Soggy Bottom Boys.
Shag Music And More
Ironically, the local folks didn’t embrace the bluegrass festival. Cory told me that out of the 12,000 folks at last years festival only about 400 came from Dare County. “The locals came to me and said, ‘we don’t like bluegrass, we like beach music, do a beach music festival,’ He recalled. “I said, ‘well, let’s give it a whirl.’ And it’s turned into a good time. It’s not as big as the bluegrass festival, but the event still draws 800 to 1,000 predominately local attendees who truly love Carolina style (Shag) beach music.”
In 2016 Cory plans a series of one day Island Opry events that feature a mixture of older country and bluegrass. “It will be kind of like the Grand Ol Opry, our version of it at least,” he said. “Each show will feature four to five acts like Collin Ray, John Michael Montgomery, Rhonda Vincent, and The Roys.”
Two years ago he added a mainland festival, but so far the attendance numbers haven’t quite been where they needed to be, and Cory says that event for 2016 is tentative. But the adventure expands with the adding of a Christmas bluegrass festival, A Bluegrass Kind Of Christmas, planned for the Hilton Hotel in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina the week before Christmas, 2016.
Keeping Track
Cory has been running the business and keeping up with ticket and merchandise sales from a room in his house. “We sell merchandise year round and we sell tickets everyday for the Outer Banks Bluegrass Festival,” he said. “We have people calling all the time looking for tickets, our t-shirts, hoodies … and I thought, ‘man, I need to get an office.”
“When we started looking around it began to make sense to set up a multi-functional office/retail space where we could facilitate everything from one place, he said. “So they scouted around the area landing on a vacant 800 sq. ft. store front location facing the bridge to Roanoke Island. “I can see it from my office window,” Cory said. “It has a nice porch with rocking chairs, and about 50 feet from the store there is a local pavilion where we’ll eventually host small free mini-concerts throughout the season next year. You’ll be able to come into the store, buy your ticket, pick up a t-shirt, make accommodations on the island, and then go listen to a free bluegrass concert.”
Who would have thought five years ago when Cory started planning a festival that was born out of missing back porch jams, it would turn into a multi-event, multi-venue enterprise. Cory would tell you it wasn’t really as much of a plan as was just responding to the love of the music and bring a bunch of friends and fans along for the ride. And in acknowledgement of the quality and uniqueness of the festival, The IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) has nominated the Outer Banks Bluegrass Festival this year Event/Venue Momentum Award. Congratulations Cory!
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