IBMA 2017: Bluegrass For, and By, Everyone
This year’s IBMA World of Bluegrass was exciting and engaging from start to finish, with varied and exciting performances, wonderful vignettes, and changes galore. The success of World of Bluegrass and Wide Open bluegrass depends on the partnership between the City of Raleigh, including the help and encouragement of the city government, whose mayor is bluegrass enthusiast Nancy McFarlane; the hard work of regional arts council PineCone, under the able direction of William Lewis; and the forward looking vision of the International Bluegrass Music Association board of directors, which merged with the IBMA Foundation to reorganize IBMA into a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, which will allow IBMA to expand its educational and charitable outreach as well as to accept charitable donations. With those forces in play, this year’s World of Bluegrass featured a lively mix of the traditional and the new, seasoned age and enthusiastic youth, nostalgia and forward-looking seminars and workshops, the award shows, showcases, and performances in downtown bars, the Raleigh Convention Center, the sold-out Red Hat Amphitheater, and the free Streetfest. So let’s take a look.
From its inception, IBMA has steadfastly refused to define bluegrass. Bill Monroe named his string band Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys in reference to the bluegrass state of Kentucky. Bands that came later, growing out of the prolific and revolutionary spirit of Monroe, gave the music the name we call it today. Ralph Stanley, for instance, refused to call his music bluegrass, referring to it instead as mountain music. The music has been charged with change and development from its emergence as a recognizable subgenre of country music in the 1940s until today, always taking on changes while remaining, essentially, reminiscent of what Monroe, along with Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, the Stanley Brothers, and so many others put on the table. Those who maintain that there’s no longer any “real” bluegrass at IBMA simply haven’t looked around the event, listened to the music, or found the connections.
Rhiannon Giddens, the brilliant young founder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and a prolifically versatile performer, set the tone for the week with her moving and inspiring keynote address on Tuesday afternoon. She spoke lovingly as well as with scholarly authority about the banjo’s African origins and the degree of musical intermixture betweeen African-American banjo and stringband music and white mountain music, which became separated by the recording industry’s creation of “race” records and “hillbilly” records beginning in the late 1920s. Her ringing cry was for the reintegration of these integrally related musical traditions.
Walking through the hallways of the Raleigh Convention Center and the downtown Raleigh Marriott, no one could miss the proliferation of young people jamming together in every nook and cranny. Of note, too, was the mixture of age groups in many of the jams, with older pickers sometimes leading the way and at other times holding on for dear life. The mixture of generations was delightful to see and to hear, while the shared sounds and skills and the songs echoing in the memories of every bluegrasser continued to pass down through the generations in jams, which are the primary way to disseminate this ear-trained, traditional format. Here’s two-time IBMA mandolin player of the year Sierra Hull leading a jam in the room reserved throughout the conference for young pickers:
The Momentum Awards, established in 2012, recognize “artists and business people in the early years of their careers in bluegrass music.” The 2017 edition signaled, to me, an elevated seriousness to the awards, a maturity growing from becoming increasingly centered and focused on emerging artists and promoters. The awards were enthusiastically presented to the worthy, even noteworthy. The instrumentalist awards went to Carley Arrowood, Tristan Scroggins, and Casey Campbell, while Darin Aldridge received a Mentorship Award and Ernie and Deb Evans the Industry Involvement and Achievement Award. Jesse Smathers of the Lonesome River Band was recognized as a vocalist while Boston-based Mile Twelve received the Band Award. Carolina in the Fall, a festival held annually in Wilkesboro, NC, was recognized as an emerging festival. People who closely follow bluegrass music are well aware of all these contributions, while the larger music world soon will be. Keep a careful eye on these people and events. Here’s a look at a performance of youthful players on the cusp of emergence from the Youth Stage at IBMA, featuring teenagers Presley Barker (guitar), Joshua Horton (mandolin), Ivy Philips (fiddle), Jesse Personneni (banjo), and Jacob Gooding (bass).
Video by Carol McDuffie (Lovin’ Bluegrass)
Meanwhile, the Streetfest, hosted by IBMA and the City of Raleigh with a number of sponsors, provided music from six stages along a seven-block route running down Fayetteville Street from the Duke Energy Center to the State Capitol. Musical offerings ran from noon until 11 p.m. on both Friday and Saturday, featuring North Carolina bands as well as major national bands. Of course, many bands from the state fullfilled both criteria. The streets were crowded with exhibitors, purveyors of NC food products, food trucks, and a kid-oriented “experience” presented by the western NC mountain town of Boone. Whether you’re a longtime bluegrass fan or simply had an interest in seeing what all the fuss was about, you couldn’t miss learning a lot and having a joyful two days for relatively little financial outlay. Meanwhile, on Friday and Saturday the Red Hat Amphtheater, a ticketed event presented bluegrass royalty like The Kruger Brothers, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Del McCoury, and Steve Martin to both budget and high-dollar audience members.
For the second straight year the World of Bluegrass and Wide Open Bluegrass featured diversity as a major theme. A major showcase called “Shout and Shine: A Celebration of Diversity in Bluegrass,” sponsored by The Bluegrass Situation at the Pour House, featured diversity in all its manifestations and drew a crowd on opening night. On Thursday, Molly Tuttle became the first woman to capture the IBMA’s Guitar Player of the Year award. An inspirational LGBTQ workshop during the business conference was well attended.
In summation, IBMA spent its week positioning itself for further outreach to a larger, wider, and more diverse community of performers and fans, while celebrating its history and traditions. From hallway jams to sold-out performances and filled showcase rooms, the professional presenters of bluegrass music met and heard the range of fans eager to become involved in a community that values its musical traditions while reaching out to the world.
I’ll be writing more about IBMA’s World of Bluegrass and Wide Open Bluegrass over on my blog during the next few weeks. If you’re interested, you’re invited. Please leave a message.