“What was born in Kentucky / is living in Raleigh now.” — Chatham County Line
With eight stages and over 100 performing artists, this year's International Bluegrass Music Association's World of Bluegrass festivities, held in Raleigh, North Carolina, last week for the sixth consecutive year, followed through on the theme that headlined the IBMA homepage: Honoring Tradition. Encouraging Innovation.
Tuesday through Thursday of the week consisted of the business conference and Ramble, which showcased rising artists in five downtown venues. Rhonda Vincent hosted the Kick-Off Party, and notable newer groups included Che Apalache, Front Country, Barefoot Movement, Lonely Heartstring Band, Hawktail, Circus No. 9, and Raleigh’s own Hank, Pattie, and The Current. That lineup alone would have been enough for most any bluegrass festival. But it was just the tip of the iceberg for IBMA.
After the culmination of the business conference, and the awards show on Thursday night, the main music events began Friday at the Red Hat Amphitheater, featuring a who's who in the bluegrass world and a bit beyond. That portion of the week is called Wide Open Bluegrass, and a full lineup can be found here. On top of that, the city puts on a free street festival with five stages and a dance tent, and, it being North Carolina, a barbecue cook-off was also included. This is not your ordinary bluegrass fest.
To read about this year's winners and the awards night, please read ND Assistant Editor Stacy Chandler's article here.
Todd Gunsher and I collaborated on the narrative, and here now are our primary takeaways.
Collaborations ... and Friends
It seemed that over half of the artists listed had "and Friends" listed after their names. So it quickly became apparent that this year's gathering was going to be a collaborative one. One where artists who are constantly touring apart from one another get the opportunity to jam together, demonstrate their chops, and try to good naturedly one-up one another — all to the audience's delight.
The two most intriguing collaborations were perhaps at different ends of the spectrum. The one that "honored tradition" was The TRUST, whose name was taken from an album project that raised money for the Bluegrass Trust Fund, which assists professional bluegrassers in financial need. Included in that all-star jam were Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver and Balsam Range (both big winners at the awards show the night before), along with Lonesome River Band, Chris Jones, and many others.
At the "encouraging innovation" end was the very non-bluegrassy jam band Leftover Salmon, joined by Sam Bush (of course), John Cowan, Becky Buller, Laurie Lewis, and others. As evidenced by the photos below it was a jam to behold. The crowd was rolling and rocking.
First Ladies of Bluegrass
However, the collaboration that stole the week was the First Ladies of Bluegrass. It began as a hashtag, then quickly became the working title of the band. It's comprised of the first women to win IBMA awards for their respective instruments: Alison Brown (banjo), Sierra Hull (mandolin), Molly Tuttle (guitar), Becky Buller (fiddle), and Missy Raines (bass). Hull and Tuttle won again this year, Hull for the third consecutive time, and Tuttle for the second. They were joined by two other guests who are very familiar to ND readers: Gillian Welch and Rhiannon Giddens.
While Welch may be better known in the Americana world, having won Grammy awards and the Americana Music Association's Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting, she has long played with bluegrass musicians and appeared at Ralph Stanley's Hills of Home Bluegrass Festival for many years. Giddens, from nearby Greensboro, was the keynote speaker at last year’s IBMA conference and not long thereafter was awarded a Genius Grant from the MacArthur Foundation. As a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops she helped revive the African-American stringband tradition. In her 2017 IBMA address, she noted that black musicians have always been part of the tradition, observing that by many accounts half of the stringbands in 1900 were black bands. That speech, in full, can be found here. It bears repeating.
This collaboration should come as no surprise, as women have always been part of the tradition, even before Sally Ann Forrester, who notably played accordion and sang with Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys from 1943 to 1946, albeit in smaller numbers and with less of the spotlight. But that began to change in the tumultuous 1970s. While most of the focus then was on the hippie infiltration, women, perhaps spurred on by the women's movement, also began to sprout their wings and fly, notably Katie Laur and Betty Fisher, who to my recollection were the first women to be band leaders. Other women took the lead as well, including Laurie Lewis, Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, and Lorraine Duisit and Freyda Epstein, whose work in Trapezoid was decades ahead of its time. In short, they laid groundwork that enabled women in the next two generations to become household names.
This singular collaborative event simultaneously epitomized tradition and innovation. To some it signaled that women can hold their own on any stage. To me, it was more akin to an acknowledgement of reality: It makes no difference what sex you are are or the color of your skin, it's about the music. That said, whichever view you take, one thing rang true to everyone I spoke with: it was this year's singular highlight.
For another insight into that amazing performance, including videos, please read Stacy Chandler's article, "Together or apart, the First Ladies of Bluegrass are making a statement," for Raleigh's News & Observer.
For additional information on the history of women in bluegrass, Derek Hasley's 2002 article "O Sister Thou Hath Been There All Along - Women in Bluegrass" that was published by Swampland is a good place to start.
All photos are by Todd unless otherwise noted. Now, click through the photos below for a richer feeling of what the IBMA had to offer this year.