It seemed like a good idea at the time, when I was offered a spot on a couple of panels at the annual International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) conference. After all, Raleigh is only four hours from where I live in Asheville, NC, and I'd get a couple of days down home between a week at the Americana conference and this one. But now, on the tail end of that questionable decision, I am hanging on by a hair and a shot of espresso.
In the good way, of course.
I've only been to the IBMA conference once before, several years ago, when it was in Nashville. The conference and festival has since moved to Raleigh, NC and has transitioned from a tightly-contained entity - all the showcases and seminars were in the same hotel - to an about-town festival-style production. There are pros and cons to both formats. The one-hotel approach allowed folks to disappear into a sort of bluegrass wonderland. Wandering the floors of the hotel at night, you could catch guerrilla showcases in people's rooms. If things started to slow down, you'd just hop on an elevator and head downstairs to catch the official showcases. It enabled a more tightly-knit community to interact like it was living in the capitol of Bluegrass City for a week. Then again, it was insular and discouraging for curious locals who may want to check out one or two acts, but would stay away for fear of feeling like an outsider crashing someone else's summer camp.
By spreading the festivities out across a few city blocks, in various bars and clubs, the event feels more like a bluegrass version of SXSW. Shows are more accessible to the greater community, looping Raleigh locals who might not be privy to an industry event, into the folds. Though some of the insularity and bluegrass community-centricity is compromised, the music and the people who make it can only benefit from opening up to whoever wants to join in the fun. Discussion in all facets of the roots music community - from folk and bluegrass to Americana and beyond - always turns to how best to court new audiences and get younger folks interested in traditionally-informed music. Stepping outside the hotel and convention center and opening the door to a looser definition of "bluegrass" is a great place to start.
Last night, I was able to catch the Stray Birds, Nora Jane Struthers & the Party Line, Peter Rowan, and the Steep Canyon Rangers all within a few hours, all doing completely different things with their acoustic instruments, in the name of bluegrass music. Purists might scoff, but at their own peril. After all, in this life, change is the one constant. Locking out the innovators because they don't stick to a hardline tradition does nothing to serve the way that tradition lives and breathes, and influences contemporary performers to pick up a banjo. Likewise, keeping a community inside four walls for the duration of a conference and festival discourages the curious from popping by just to see what's happening.
Those curious poppers can, for $10, camp out at a single venue and watch five hours of incredible bluegrass music night after night.
This is a tactic the IBMA now shares with the folks at the Americana Music Association, who have apparently perfected the music-conference-and-festival-taking-over-the-town thing. Indeed, the best thing about AMA week is the opportunity to get up close with the music itself. Whether you choose to park at One Cannery Row, where you get three venues in one, or venue-hop from the Station Inn to the Basement to the Rutledge, and so on, there is quite literally something for everyone.
The main difference between these two events - and now the two towns in which they operate - is what goes down during the day. Americana panels are heavy on radio and artist-aimed info sessions. As a reporter, I found a limited list of panels that sparked my interest. AMA panels are more like presentations and, as such, are interesting in a what-people-are-thinking-about way, but the IBMA panels (they call them seminars) seem more tailored toward engendering discussion. People come with questions and ideas, and panelists seem more keen on creating an atmosphere of collaboration. Personally, this method of disseminating information speaks to me better than the former, but everyone learns differently. No doubt there are people at the IBMA seminars who wish the panelists would just present information, just as I found myself wishing AMA panels were more aimed at discussion and collaboration among everyone who was in the room. To each, their own.
The parts of the AMA daytime conference toward which I found myself gravitating were the artists discussions. An interviewer climbed onstage with a famous artist - this year Dr. John, Rosanne Cash, Billy Bragg, Rodney Crowell - and grilled them for 90 minutes. The interviews were interspersed with performances, and those of us in attendance were able to gain a deeper grip on what the artist was thinking in the making of the music. For an organization so heavily focused on the artists themselves, it was a perfect way to learn more about the music, the job, the industry, and the person all in one intimate presentation.
The fact that IBMA is in Raleigh, NC, now allows the festival to separate a bit from the industry machine. Where the AMA benefits from holding its gathering in Music City, bluegrass is a less insider-aimed style of music, and it makes better sense for the organization to gather away from the polished production of Nashville, Tenn. What's more, with North Carolina bands dominating the bluegrass and acoustic music scene these days, it makes sense to take the event to the heart of NC music. Bands like Steep Canyon Rangers (who are hosting the IBMA awards tonight), Town Mountain (who took home two well-deserved momentum awards), Mipso, Chatham County Line, Carolina Chocolate Drops, and even Band of Horses and the Avett Brothers, are making big strides toward steering the direction of contemporary acoustic music. I would make the argument that most of those people spend more time in Asheville - either because they live there or make their records at Echo Mountain Studio - but, of course, I'm biased.
At any rate, the moral of this story is that both the AMA and the IBMA have grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, and the mark they're making on the modern music scene (yes, even the mainstream) is undeniable. Anyone - whether artist, critic, label rep, publicist, radio personality, festival promoter, or music fan - would benefit from attending either of these conferences and their corresponding festivals. But, if you decide to do them both, back to back, just make sure you pack enough coffee money.