It’s a Small (Bluegrass) World after All: International Bluegrass Music Festival Impacts Locals
Some may eye the maple and birch for their colors, but for over a decade in downtown Raleigh, the surest sign of fall has been Sir Walter Raleigh with a banjo slung across his shoulder. Inside the Raleigh Convention Center, an elaborate, multi-story sculpture made of banjo parts strung together like dinosaur bones hangs in suspended animation. The International Bluegrass Music Association has been holding their conference and World of Bluegrass festival the last week of September since 2013. This year the organization announced they would be looking for a new location in 2025, but that didn’t stop the Raleigh revelry. Music lovers seized the day, and the instrument, traveling from as far away as Italy and the Czech Republic to participate in the “most important week in bluegrass.” And they were in good company with eastern North Carolinians.
The early part of the week was reserved for conference attendees–those in the business–to learn all about recording, promotion, and even stress reduction. All week long, showcases were held to feature emerging artists. Even with an IBMA app to track the schedule, to attend everything would have required cloning technology.
IBMA awards show
On Thursday evening the IBMA awards show, hosted by Molly Tuttle and Ketch Secor, was held in the Martin Marietta Center for the Performing Arts. Fans were seated elbow to elbow with performers in the audience. Musicians arrived decked out in their finest sequins and satin for what is fondly called the “bluegrass prom.” While the popular Billy Strings won Entertainer of the Year (though he wasn’t present to accept), some artists won multiple awards, including co-host Tuttle (female vocalist of the year, song of the year, and album of the year). Steve Martin and Alison Brown were among the performers, playing their IBMA nominated “Foggy Mountain Breaking”
An all-star band performed “Ruby” in tribute to Bobby Osborne, who passed this year. While award winning Rob Ikes and Trey Hensley played a tender rendition of Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind,” the names of musicians important to the genre who passed in the last year displayed on a screen–Lightfoot was among those on the list.
Three musicians were inducted into the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame: Wilma Lee Cooper, David Grisman, and Sam Bush.
As multi-instrumentalist Sam Bush accepted his award he said, “To all the young bands…I appreciate you kicking me hard. We all need it.” Then he added, “Some of you remember I had a pretty good bout with cancer in 1982. It was the bluegrass community that saved me and my wife. Not just financially, but spiritually.”
A multi-cultural, gender, and generational experience
“We don’t want just a bunch of white men dressed in plaid.”
A chatty musician sitting in the back of a shuttle bus on the late night ride to the NC State Fairgrounds campground from the festival spoke openly about what he was told. As a card-carrying, plaid-wearing white man, he was likely taken aback by it. But it was clear from the workshops, sessions, and showcases offered that a concerted effort is being made to remove barriers and encourage young people, as well as all genders, races, orientations, and nationalities to engage in the genre.
The word “Welcome” was printed in many languages on a banner above the International Pavillion in the Exhibit hall at the Raleigh Convention Center. Performances with International connection were scheduled throughout the festival. One was by members of the Red Wine bluegrass band from Italy, joined by The Kruger Brothers. Martino Coppo and Silvio Ferretti accepted the band’s IBMA Distinguished Achievement Award.
“Keeping a bluegrass band going for 40 years is an accomplishment,” Coppo said, “but keeping one going for 40 years in Italy is like keeping an ice cube in the desert for 40 years.” Banjo player Silvio Ferretti said it’s actually been 45 years now, and they played an original song about it, including the lyric: “Here’s to the class of ’78 / Let’s keep making bluegrass great.”
While most attendees were happy to bring home memories of good music, a local man was feeling extra lucky. The Exhibit Hall was bursting with activity, a cacophony of bands playing on different stages, vendors demonstrating their musical wares, and a live broadcast being recorded. Friends were spotting one another and sharing their favorite bands of the day. In the midst of it all, Roy Batchelor accepted a guitar he won in a raffle from a flamboyant representative at the Bluegrass Standard booth. Batchelor and his wife just came to the festival for the day. Afterwards he said, “I told my wife we couldn’t leave before 3:30 because I was going to win that guitar.” Hopefully he bought a lottery ticket on the way home.
Street and Stage Performances
Ticketed main stage performances were held at the Red Hat amphitheater Friday and Saturday evening, but free general admission seats were offered in the back.When supergroup MightyPoplar took the stage, Noam Pikelny (banjo player and member of the Punch Brothers) said, “IBMA is a support group for all of us who have this bluegrass affliction.” Also completely free were the street performances spread across 5 stages plus jam tents in the shadow of the state’s capital building. Food trucks and vendors lined the streets in between stages. The atmosphere was like a county fair–with exceptional music.
IBMA veterans know that the place to go (and sometimes it seems you have to be “in the know” to realize it) is the Marriott hotel. Not only are musicians jamming in every nook and cranny, but official showcases are offered by record labels and such into the wee hours. It’s there that some of the most intimate performances by both established and up-and-coming bands are experienced. One unexpected standout was a band of brothers, plus one, called My Brother’s Keeper from Cincinnati, Ohio. Their bluegrass musicianship and gospel sibling harmony was capable of stunning even a shopworn audience that had been baptized in bluegrass for days
An old-fashioned guitar pull
A new addition to the World of Bluegrass was “an old fashioned guitar pull” so named after impromptu sessions where friends would have to pull the guitar out of someone’s hands to get their turn. A panel of singer/songwriters each took turns playing one of their originals, and then passing the guitar to the next. Tim Stafford, who won the 2023 IBMA Songwriter of the Year award, joked that he needed to see lyrics, saying, “If you know the words to all the songs you’ve written, you haven’t written enough songs.” Country and bluegrass musician Irene Kelley followed Joe Newberry, who did a remarkable job of making his guitar sound like a train. She said, “I always say I’d do anything to play guitar like that…except take lessons and practice.”
Before launching into his original, “I’m Only So Good at Being Good,” Jim Lauderdale may have summed up best the goal of IBMA and associated musicians. He said, “We’re bringing bluegrass into the future. Bringing the old into the new and the new into the old.”
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