Mountain Bluegrass on Ocracoke Island

Zoe Howard
Cane Mill Road delights audiences at Ocrafolk Festival.
Mountain Bluegrass on Ocracoke Island
Courtesy of William Purcell

New to Ocrafolk this year was Cane Mill Road, a bluegrass band from Deep Gap, North Carolina, and what a talented group of young men they are! Ranging in age from fifteen to twenty, Liam Purcell, Eliot Smith, Tray Wellington, and Casey Lewis are incredible musicians; they are eclectic multi-instrumentalists and play vibrant and energetic bluegrass. It’s hard to believe this group has only been playing together for four years; they have the maturity, stage presence, and seamless chemistry of a group that has been together for twenty.

Cane Mill Road kicked off the Saturday festivities last weekend on the Live Oak Stage, and throughout the day they played a mix of original tunes and covers; they played several original songs on their upcoming album, including the title track “Gap to Gap.” Doc Watson’s “Walk On Boy” and a bluegrass version of “Eleanor Rigby” were also memorable covers. Citing Doc Watson as a major influence for the band, the group’s personal influences include Dave Grohl, Ethan Jodziewicz, Earl Scruggs, and Sam Bush. Cane Mill Road’s own music is fresh and invigorating. “We’re a lot less traditional than we used to be,” Eliot says, and while they enjoy performing covers, they want to focus primarily on their own material.

For half the group, attending the Ocrafolk Festival was their first visit to Ocracoke, and it did not disappoint! They said they really enjoyed their time here and definitely want to return for future festivals if they can. About the festival, Liam said, “It’s a good balance. Nice for the fans and really nice for the performers, too.” They were pleased with the green room that was Philip Howard’s house, saying, as many other artists did, that not many other festivals are as accommodating. A post on the group’s Instagram declared: “Beach hospitality is the best!”

Mountain Bluegrass on Ocracoke Island
Promo photo in Ocrafolk Festival program

Cane Mill Road charmed audiences onstage with both their talents as musicians and their friendly chat, and I kept overhearing festival-goers saying throughout the day: “Those boys are just so young to be so good!” Kind and personable, Liam, Eliot, Tray, and Casey always had a story to tell, whether it was recalling the first song the four of them played together—“1952 Vincent Black Lightning”—or laughing about something amusing that happened while exploring one of the many places they have traveled to. They even treat mistakes onstage with the same easy confidence they exude during their performances: “laugh about it, then make the same mistake next time,” Casey said.

Liam spoke to how the band operates for many of their songs, saying, “We’re a super improvisational band on some songs. Some songs are arranged, but so many of the songs we have a jumping-off point for, where we don’t know where we’re going, and a landing point from where we’re like, ‘okay, we’re back into the song now.’ So much of what we do in between that is just listening to each other and taking turns. If one person tries something out, we go for it.”

Outside their music, they say they do little else. Among the four of them, they teach lessons, build instruments, go to college for music, and write songs. As Tray said, “I get up at twelve, pick up the banjo, and that’s my day!”

Ocracoke was definitely delighted by Cane Mill Road during their visit, and we really hope they’ll be back!

For more information or to give them a listen, check out

Zoe Howard is the Current's newest contributor. She just graduated from Agnes Scott College with a degree in Creative Writing and History. She's spending the summer on Ocracoke and playing a pirate in her grandma's musical, "A Tale of Blackbeard," and working in her grandpa's shop, The Village Craftsmen. 

Comments powered by Disqus