Bluegrass has, I think often unfairly, been seen as culturally and politically conservative. Folks forget that when it first began, it rocked the boat of traditional music, sorta like what bebop was to swing. That tradition continued a few weeks ago in Raleigh, North Carolina, with lots of young players taking center stage and dominating the IBMA awards. Moreover, artists -- and the IBMA itself -- made statements in the support of equality and diversity, obviously in reference to -- and in repudiation of -- North Carolina's HB2, the so-called "bathroom bill" that mandates that people, even those who are transgender, must use the bathroom that matches what's on their birth certificate. Music is a unifier, after all, not a divider.
We are fortunate to have two unique and personal perspectives on the IBMA World of Bluegrass: regular contributor Todd Gunsher and first-timer Stacy Dawn Battles. In their own words and photos, let us live vicarously in the wide, wide world of bluegrass.
This year's International Bluegrass Music Association World of Bluegrass rolled into Raleigh as North Carolina has been dealing with some pretty serious political issues. Artists such as Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam have cancelled concerts, business have halted expansions, and organizations like the NBA and NCAA have moved previously scheduled events to other states. Back in April, the IBMA made a statement that read, in part, "Diversity and inclusiveness have long been a part of our core values, and are encouraged in the expression of bluegrass by the IBMA.” In fact, diversity seemed to be the theme for the week. Rounder Records co-founder Marian Leighton Levy gave a wonderful keynote address that ended with the statement, “If music doesn’t discriminate, then I ask you: Why should we?”
Then, during a Friday night set on the stage in front of the state capitol building, Town Mountain wore T-shirts expressing their thoughts about recent legislation and even went so far as to make a statement from the stage, keeping the tradition of musical protest alive.
That said, this is about the music, right? Five days of conferences, workshops, ramble shows in local clubs, two days of a street festival and big acts in the amphitheater, along with seemingly endless spontaneous jams, make for a tiring but satisfying five days (and late nights)! There was even some music on the red carpet this year as Michael Cleveland was joined by a few other players for a fiddle tune.
One of my favorite discoveries last year was San Francisco’s Front Country, who returned after a year of touring the US and abroad, and they sounded better than ever. To top it off, they now have an award winner in the band -- lead singer Melody Walker won the IBMA Momentum award for vocals. If you haven’t seen seen them yet, put them on your list and look out for their new record later this year.
While fan favorite Della Mae wasn’t at this year's event, they were still represented by two of its members. Kimber Ludiker played fiddle with Jim Lauderdale & the Bluegrass Millennials, and Jenni Lyn Gardner had a band of her own that performed a few sets. Gardner definitely deserves to be in the spotlight as she showcased some great songs with a stellar band.
One new discovery for me this year was a young California band, Steep Ravine. I happened to run into a couple of the members as they were moving drums out of the hotel. That being an odd sight at a bluegrass festival, I asked where they were playing and later that night was treated to a great sound filling up an old church building.
Of many highlights, Jim Lauderdale’s ramble set in the cozy little Architect Bar is near the top of my list. He performed solo for the first half then was joined by the Virginia Luthiers, who presented him with a new guitar that he played for the rest of the set. They were joined by four more vocalists to close out with an uplifting take on “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
Saturday we were treated to the rare experience of the Kruger Brothers with Symphony of the Mountains performing "Spirit of the Rockies." Not exactly bluegrass but it was beautiful, and it was definitely appreciated by the afternoon amphitheater audience.
Closing out one of the street stages on Saturday night was young phenom Billy Strings, who plays bluegrass with the fire of a rocker. I was sort of familiar with him from some Youtube clips, but as always, catching an act live brought a completely different experience. After his set he went down the street to the Lincoln Theater to sit in with Greensky Bluegrass.
As for some of the other acts, if you’re reading this, I probably don’t need to tell you about Ricky Skaggs, the Earls of Leicester, Marty Stuart, Peter Rowan, Del McCoury, Flatt Lonesome, Sierra Hull, or John Cowan (who performed with Darin and Brooke Aldridge) but they were all there too, among many others. Four years since their relocation to Raleigh, the World of Bluegrass continues to get better. Here’s hopin' this event continues to fill the Carolina air with music and joy for many years to come.
STACY DAWN BATTLES
Thursday, September 29
I arrived at the Raleigh Convention Center just before noon and quickly ran into the following folks at registration, all along the main entrance and on the lower level: Phyllis Rice (booking agent for Larry Sparks), Josh Trivett (Moonstruck Management), Andrea Mullins Roberts (Andrea Roberts Agency), Kimberly East Williams (East Public Relations), Ronnie Bowman (Band of Ruhks), Don Rigsby (Band of Ruhks), members of Newtown, Shelby Gold (Gold Sisters), Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers, Del McCoury, The Wooks, Jerry Douglas, Flatt Lonesome, Balsam Range, Trinity River Band, Shawn Camp (Earls of Leicester), and Chris Jones (Chris Jones & the Night Drivers & Sirius XM Bluegrass Junction personality).
Over the next two hours, I witnessed the following groups perform on the Masters Workshop Stage in the Raleigh Convention Center: Carolina Blue, the Unseen Strangers, Hackensaw Boys, Joe K. Walsh & Sweet Loam, and Town Mountain.
I headed back to the hotel room to change and prepare for the pre-reception and awards show at the Duke Energy Center. Upon arrival, I saw the following groups make their way down the red carpet: Earls of Leicester, Flatt Lonesome, Balsam Range, Band of Ruhks, and the Travelin' McCourys with Michael Cleveland.
Mingling on the main reception floor the the outdoor area were: Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers, Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out, the Del McCoury Band, Flatt Lonesome, Special Consensus, and the Earls of Leicester.
We were called to our seats just before showtime. I was seated near the Band of Ruhks (Ronnie Bowman, Don Rigsby, Kenny Smith, and John Meyer), Amanda Smith, Danny Paisley, Carl Jackson, and members of both Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers and Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out.
Award show highlights included: Soggy Bottom Boys opening performance, the Earls of Leicester performance and Entertainer of the Year win, Balsam Range performance, Becky Buller's multiple wins, Flatt Lonesome's multiple wins and Charlie Cushman's (Earls of Leicester) win for Banjo. My favorite moment of the evening was seeing Duane Sparks of Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers dance a little jig onstage just before Joe accepted the Gospel Recorded Performance of the Year award on behalf of the band. The entire room erupted in laughter and applause.
My friend Cheryl Cox and I returned to the hotel and checked out a few of the jams in the lobby, hallways, and suites before calling it a day. We also met Del McCoury, which was a definite highlight of the day.
Friday, September 30
My friend Cheryl and I were up early to catch the Earls of Leicester on the Today Show with Al Roker. They performed on the Capitol Stage at the far end of the IBMA Street Fair. I filmed a Live Facebook feed of the event and their performance that now has over 6,000 views and climbing. We chatted with the Earls for a bit and then headed back down to the Raleigh Convention Center. We caught the following workshop performances at the Masters Workshop Stage: Banjo (Steve Dilling, Patton Wages, Gena Britt, and Paul Harrigill), Mandolin (Emory Lester, Darren Nicholson, and Mike Compton) and Songwriting (Becky Buller, Jeanette Williams, Donna Hughes, and Kelsi Harrigill). We then checked out the Exhibit Hall on the lower level of the convention center for an hour or so.
The vendors were mainly instrument companies and various musician-related accessories makers. We visited with Jesse McReynolds at his booth before heading back outside for the Street Fair performances. I attended & photographed the following Street Fair performances: Flashback (City Plaza Stage), Clay Hess Band (Davie Street Stage), Chris Jones & the Night Drivers (Davie Street Stage), Volume Five (Hargett Street Stage), the Travelin' McCourys (City Plaza Stage) and Balsam Range (City Plaza Stage).
Just before calling it a night, Cheryl and I briefly chatted with several members of Alison Krauss and Union Station's band members in the lobby of the Marriott, including Jerry Douglas, Barry Bales, Dan Tyminski, and Ron Block.
Saturday, October 1
After catching a few more hours of sleep than the previous nights, I headed out to check out the scene around the Marriott and Raleigh Convention Center. I attended and photographed the following Street Fair performances: Kenny and Amanda Smith (City Plaza Stage), Flatt Lonesome (City Plaza Stage), NewTown (Capitol Stage), Mark Kuykendall, Bobby Hicks and Asheville Bluegrass with special guest Michael Cleveland (Davie Street Stage), Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley (City Plaza Stage), and the Band of Ruhks (City Plaza Stage).
After the last performance, we called it an evening and prepared for our departures early Sunday morning.
Now, sit back on your comfy sofa with a spot of tea and a plate of biscotti and biscuits with a dab of sourwood honey, and leisurely leaf though their photographs. It's a nice mix of familiar faces and the new, just as it should be as the tradition continues. More of Todd's photos can be found here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tgu