The International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) is having its annual World of Bluegrass gathering in Raleigh, North Carolina this week. As I write this, we’ve had two days of business meetings. The TV tells me we may see as much as ten inches of rain in the next two or three days, a deluge stuck right over the Carolinas that has disrupted the activities beyond belief. The large Red Hat Amphitheater, adjacent to the Raleigh Convention Center is, as I write, being moved into a vast underground space in the Convention Center, where the seating plan will be replicated so that each ticketed person is in the same seat that they would have been outdoors. It’s really a pretty big deal, and the call had to be made 48 hours before festivities were set to begin on Friday. Meanwhile, a huge StreetFest, hosted by the city of Raleigh is, apparently, also being moved into the Convention Center. Six stages with all-day music will be held inside, too. I don’t have any idea how this mass of people will be fed, or what the food and craft vendors will do. That remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, we’ve been convening.
Last night, I sat for a brief time next to an executive of a major roots music record label as he dropped into the room to listen to two bands. He listened carefully, bringing 40 years of experience, a good ear, and what seemed to be open-ended criteria for assessing the appeal of the bands he heard. He and his partner have shown judgment that has turned their label into one of the best in the business. At the same time that he was listening to the music, he was teaching, and I benefited hugely from listening to what he had to say.
The five bands my wife and I heard over a couple of hours ranged from very traditional bluegrass to a more progressive, airy band whose music must appeal to someone, just not me. We also heard a band with a country sound and vibe, filled with energy but lacking the characteristic trio singing of the best bluegrass. There was something for everyone. The futures of each of these bands were being assessed, weighed, and, often, held in the balance.
As Wednesday rushed into the evening, the hallways filled with people playing instruments with relish and enthusiasm. Ask a festival veteran and they’ll tell you the acronym IBMA actually stands for I’ve Been Mostly Awake.
We took the underground passageway from the Convention Center to the Marriott Hotel, which is the conference headquarters. We headed up to the third floor suite of a major festival promoter. It’s an invitation-only refuge for many musicians who regularly appear at his festival along with his staff of many years and others lucky enough to be welcome there.
Across the hall, the California Bluegrass Association (CBA) is holding a private (in the argot of IBMA, after hours and unofficial) showcase of bands that have been invited, on a rigid schedule, to perform in their suite. The hallway is crowded as one band moves out and another moves in. It’s nearly impossible to get into the CBA suite, but their festival – held each year on Father’s Day – is one of the most important bluegrass events held on the West Coast, and people are eager to perform there. The hallway had a musty, sweaty odor of ambition, promise, enthusiasm … and anxiety.
After some time, we headed downstairs, running into Ryan Paisley on the way. Paisley, at age 16, has become the mandolinist in this father’s band, Danny Paisley & Southern Grass. He is the third generation of his family to be a touring bluegrass musician. I remember little Ryan standing behind his father, chopping away on his mandolin with enthusiasm. Now he’s eaten up by the instrument – a monster player who also manages social media for the band. He’s also the ambassador to the bluegrass world for this family, which migrated to Southeastern Pennsylvania from Ashe County, North Carolina, in the 1930’s to find work in the mushroom factories. That kind of migration, too, is a part of the bluegrass story.
Emerging from the elevator, we found the lobby filled with young musicians, kids we’ve watched and come to know for several years, joyfully greeting each other. Groups of accomplished and semi-fine musicians are everywhere, in tight circles, playing this fast-paced, infectious music. Each jam group attracts an admiring crowd of listeners. These jams will continue, with pickers moving from group to group, looking for the right fit.
Viewed from some place high and away, it must look much like a group of amoebas through a microscope, but the jamming culture is the red meat of IBMA’s – and bluegrass music’s – appeal. It’s hugely exciting as older musicians find quiet niches where they can sit, while the young-guns will be at it until 2:00 in the morning, or later.
After a while in that fray, we walked over the parking deck to drive back to our camper in the State Fairgrounds, to sleep for a few hours before starting over again.
Oh … and I was nominated for an award, too.