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Country music’s John Morgan and band joining musicians for hometown concert


H&H Farmstand is hosting a concert May 24 featuring country music rising star John Morgan, who is from Sylva, and his band members, Caleb Bates and Rob Ricotta, who are from Franklin. Also on tap for the May 24 concert are country music musicians David Nail, who headlines, as well as J.D. Huggins and Kat Velasco, who will follow John Morgan and his band in the lineup for the evening. 

Macon County native and Franklin High School graduate Evan Vilardo, owner of Mountain Echo Entertainment, is the promoter and organizer of the concert. He grew up knowing not only Adam Huscusson, owner with his wife, Katy, of H&H Farmstand, but also Morgan, Bates, and Ricotta. 

Securing H&H Farmstand’s “great site” and booking John Morgan and his band were key to offering what will be Morgan, Bates, and Ricotta’s first “hometown show,” according to Vilardo. 

Tickets for the concert are $25, and Vilardo is donating 10% of proceeds to a 4-year-old and a teacher battling cancer. 

“Both my parents passed away from cancer,” said Vilardo, “so I wanted to make sure some of the proceeds from this concert would go towards helping individuals battling cancer or a major illness. Every show I put on, I plan for some portion of proceeds to go towards people battling cancer.”  

“The past three years have been a whirlwind [for John Morgan and the band],” said Marilyn Betts, Morgan’s cousin and sometime driver for the band. “They have opened for Jason Aldean, Hardy, Chase Rice, and Ernest, just to mention a few. And, Jason recently joined John in a duet on a song John wrote. The song is a crowd favorite, “Friends Like That.” Morgan and the band have also performed at the Grand Ole Opry a few times. 

In the past few years, the Western North Carolina friends have found such burgeoning success in country music that they gravitated to where the action is: Nashville. Yet, Morgan, Bates, and Ricotta have held fast to their roots – remembering family and friends as much as their increasingly busy schedules allow, and giving back to their communities when they can.

From Bluegrass to Country

Morgan grew up in Sylva in a musically talented extended family. He learned to play the mandolin, bass, banjo, and guitar as a kid, and by age 10 was playing with his cousins in the nationally recognized bluegrass-genre Mountain Faith Band (which evolved into Summer and Bray). For eight years, he played locally, nationally, and even in Canada – until he went off to college. It was while he was in college, in 2015, that Mountain Faith Band competed in “America’s Got Talent.” 

“I was always a country music fan, but bluegrass gave me my musical roots,” he said. “Bluegrass is one of the best genres to plant your roots because it stems to so many different kinds of music; blues, jazz, rock, bluegrass, and country have some of the same chord structures. And bluegrass enabled me to become a strong picker and player.” 

His “biggest influence” in country music was Keith Whitley, who died in 1989, but who had “a similar transition” from bluegrass to country as Morgan has experienced. Morgan explained that his musical talent led him, like Whitley, into writing music and singing. A few years ago, he moved from Sylva to Nashville, Tenn., to become entrenched in the country music scene. 

“Being an artist has always been my dream – my end goal. Song writing is a huge step in getting in that direction. I take it seriously. I love performing [singing and primarily playing the guitar] and songwriting equally.”

Musical bonding

It was in the Myriad Media Studios (which became Backlot Cinema) in the Franklin Plaza, that Morgan and Ricotta solidified their friendship. They had known each other since middle school, but working together to record music in the studio resulted in them becoming “good friends.” Morgan and Bates had been acquainted even longer, since elementary school. 

Ricotta, the band’s drummer, said he realized from a young age that music was his calling. “I had fairly good rhythm,” he said, “and both of my parents, Bob and Nancy Ricotta, can sing and play instruments. They were aware there might be the musical bug in me also. So, my mother started me on piano from 7 years old until I was 12 years of age.” While he quit piano lessons because he said “I was tired of practicing,” he approached his parents at age 14 and told them his true desire was to play the drums. “My father came home with an old jazz drum kit one day, and I never looked back.” 

Ricotta added,“John Morgan spurred the musical gifting in me. And, Robert Browning with Sheets to the Wind Music Publishing made sure John succeeded in starting demos at Myriad Media. I also have to thank the churches and youth groups in which I was a small part. Individuals such as Kevin Ford, Patrick Moore, Andrew Gouge were so helpful in spurring me on in music with a Biblical foundation.”

Ricotta said that before joining Morgan as a band member, “I would play for events, ceremonies, and in (various) bands. There were gatherings when I played for free, simply for the love of making music. Whatever scale of playing, whether it has been for four people or for thousands, I count it all as the ebbs and flows of being a ‘professional’ musician.”

Bates, the band’s bass guitarist, explained that “the key to music enjoyment for me is to be doing it with friends. I guess I never really thought about it, but all the music I’ve ever played has been with friends. It’s awesome to travel with friends and experience this with people with so many common backgrounds and experiences.”

He began playing mandolin in 2007, when he was 15.

 “I played a little guitar and bass back then, but through the years, I just kind of picked bass up here and there. I played bass in bands for a few years, but it wasn’t until I began playing bass with John that I really took it seriously. He told me I had a knack for it. When he asked me to play for him in 2020, I began actually focusing on bass instead of mandolin and guitar.”

Like Morgan and Ricotta, Bates said he has always loved music. And, once he began playing, he said, “All other hobbies took a back seat. I went to college for music ministry, but it wasn’t until John gave me this opportunity that I legitimately saw it as a career.” 

Besides music, faith in God is another factor the three friends have in common. Morgan and Bates’ parents were friends at church before the two were born. Morgan and Bates attended Victory Christian School in Sylva and Ricotta, Trimont Christian Academy in Franklin. And, Betts, when she has driven the tour bus, said it is heartening to see the band members “start every tour with prayer. And I could hear them discussing the Bible when I was driving.” 

Pointed out Ricotta: “Being a believer and child of God does inform, inspire, and motivate my music personally. Music is my therapy, whether playing it, writing it, or making it with other people. I also believe that scripture says God ‘sings over us,’ and that’s always been an amazing thought to me – that music is a massive part of how God communicates with us.”

Bringing music home

Although Nashville has become the city where the three friends’ music careers are escalating, Western North Carolina is still their home. “Growing up in such a beautiful place in the mountains and with true country heritage has always given me the opportunity to write about how I truly grew up ‘country,’” said Ricotta.

Vilardo said the concert he has titled Mountain Echo Festival will draw many local and regional people who know Morgan, Ricotta, and Bates – and individuals who have been tuning into their music. He said the other musicians scheduled to perform are either well-known or are gaining a following.

Concertgoers should bring a blanket or chair to the May 24, 6 p.m., concert. H&H Farmstand is located at 4402 Murphy Road. Live music and dancing, and food and beverage vendors will be available. All ticket sales for the concert are final. For tickets, visit: https://mechoent.ticketspice.com/ mountain-echo-festival.