Dave Adkins recalled a festival in Ohio a few summers ago where he and Edgar Loudermilk initiated an alliance.
Both players had been active in bluegrass circles for years. Elkhorn City native Adkins established himself through the group Republik Steele while Loudermilk had worked extensively with string band stalwarts Rhonda Vincent, Marty Raybon and IIIrd Tyme Out. But it took some free time before their separate Columbus gigs to hit on the idea of a partnership.
"I had always known who Ed was over the last few years but we never really got to hang out and talk," says Adkins who performs with Loudermilk Friday night at the Festival of the Bluegrass. "That summer, we were both playing the same night and we just struck up a friendship that day. The next Monday, we wrote a song and just started spending a lot of time hanging out and fishing and writing. One day, we just looked at each other and said, 'Hey man, do you want to try this and see how it goes?' And here we are. Nothing was planned or pre-meditated. It just came natural. A lot of times, that's the best way to do things."
As Adkins & Loudermilk, the duo leans heavily to bluegrass and gospel tradition. But Adkins admitted that a love of traditional country, plus a vocal style that doesn't always lend itself to traditional music, helped forge a different sound.
"I love traditional bluegrass music. I am a huge fan of the Stanley Brothers and Jimmy Martin and all those folks. I love that stuff. But I just wasn't blessed with that high lonesome voice. I just didn't have it.
"Edgar is from the same school. His grandfather played fiddle for 50 years and taught Ed several instruments. He played with a family band before he even played with Rhonda. We've wanted to do some really straight down the middle traditional stuff. But I also love singing the old country classics. We love doing gospel, too, and on the record we do a few things that are really different."
Especially conspicuous among the latter on the duo's self-titled debut album, which was released in March, is a cover of Hoyt Axton's Never Been to Spain. The tune was cut by such disparate artists as Elvis Presley, Ike and Tina Turner, Cher and Waylon Jennings, all in 1972, but was best known that winter as a radio hit for Three Dog Night.
"A lot of folks just do not expect to hear that at a festival," Adkins says with a laugh. "So far, they have really enjoyed it. It's just something different."
Being a Kentucky native, however, brought Adkins a full roster of regional inspirations to draw upon. He cited a trio of artists — Ricky Skaggs, Larry Cordle and Keith Whitley — as his "big three." All are rooted in bluegrass but have travelled distinct roads in, around and through country music as their careers progressed. But a lesser known, though no less vital player served as a towering presence in Adkins' musical upbringing: Pike County born Bobby Slone, longtime bassist and fiddler for J.D. Crowe and the New South.
"Being an Eastern Kentucky boy, I just loved Bobby Slone, He played bass on one of the best bluegrass records ever made (Crowe's self-titled 1975 debut album with the New South) and was a great left handed fiddler. He passed a couple of years ago, but will always be a hero."
Curiously, for all of his Kentucky connections and touring adventures, Adkins has never performed at the Festival of the Bluegrass (Loudermilk has several times). But that only intensifies the excitement he senses for his debut Friday night.
"It's just one of those festivals that you hear nothing but great things about. I mean if there is a bucket list of bluegrass festivals for players, the Festival of the Bluegrass is on it."