There’s almost a sense of culture shock moving from IBMA week in Raleigh, North Carolina, to the Tennessee Fall Homecoming in Norris, Tennessee, about 30 miles north of Knoxville. IBMA provided an eye- and ear-popping musical feast. There, cutting edge bands explored the possibilities of what bluegrass music is becoming, where it’s going, and the very best of both traditional and progressive bluegrass. Bands were chosen to showcase on a competitive basis as the bluegrass community assembled to strut its best and brightest of musicians from proven greats to possible stars of the future, while its trade show provided educational experiences and plenty of networking.
The Tennessee Fall Homecoming is held on the grounds of the Museum of Appalachia, a living history museum founded by educator and historian John Rice Irwin in the 1960s. It contains one of the finest collections of artifacts and buildings brought together on a 63-acre campus to represent the life and arts of rural America from the early 19th century to the modern era.
Each year, the Museum of Appalachia hosts a four-day extravaganza of traditional, old-time, and bluegrass music ranging from the origins of bluegrass in the 1940s to some of today’s most popular bands. Many of the bands playing are family bands dressed in rustic clothing reminiscent of rural dress from the early part of the last century, backing up into the 19th century. Music includes the haunting sounds of the mountain dulcimer or the autoharp, drifting across the grounds in the early morning as the sun rises through the mist. There are performances from award-winning bluegrass bands like the Gibson Brothers, Flatt Lonesome, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, and Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out.
Meanwhile, around the grounds, artisans practice traditional arts and sell their wares. There’s a blacksmith shop where several smiths are making lamps and tools. A woman boils soap to mold fragrant modern bars. A horse walks in a perpetual circle, grinding sugar cane into a liquid which is transported to an open boiling pan, where local folks make fresh sorghum syrup, just right for serving on biscuits with lots of fresh butter. Among the food concessions, a vendor sells five different fruit cobblers cooked in large cast iron pots, stacked four high with charcoal in the flat, iron tops between – delicious with homemade ice cream.
The Tennessee Fall Homecoming celebrated its 37th iteration this year at the Museum of Appalachia. There’s plenty of old-time music there, often now played by people who originate more in the cities surrounding Appalachia than the hills and hollers. Nevertheless, the music has its saints, just as bluegrass does. Musicians like Uncle Dave Macon, who originated in the 19th century but became an early star of The Grand Ole Opry. His musical descendent was Granpa Jones of Hee Haw, the most widely watched country music television program of all time. Jones’ wife, Ramona, who died this year, was an annual performer there until last year. Granpa Jones was a transitional figure in country music with deep roots in mountains of Appalachia and seasoning on radio at the major Southern stations as well as in Boston.
Similarly, the Tennessee Fall Homecoming, which is as much a tourist attraction, drawing guests from nearly every state in the union every year, showcases old-time dance music as well as traditional and contemporary bluegrass. For music and culture tourism, the museum belongs beside Virginia’s Crooked Road as a central destination. A common line of collectors, archivists, and musical antecedents have tracked, recorded, written about, and celebrated the life and traditions that create these unique musical treasures preserved and celebrated in such institutions scattered around the region.
Meanwhile, the younger and more forward-focused IBMA serves up its annual meeting, now held in Raleigh, North Carolina, in late September, stretching into the first few days of October, as a professional trade show. It emphasizes the skills, knowledge, and music of a genre which has grown from both old-time music and country music, with their birth best celebrated by the 1927 coming together at the temporary RCA studio set of in Bristol, Virginia, by Ralph Peer to record both the Carter Family and country star Jimmy Rodgers. The Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol celebrates this key moment, which spawned an industry.
One of the complaints from some participants in IBMA continues to be that there’s no bluegrass at IBMA. This hearkens back to the music, now still played more than 70 years after Bill Monroe originated the fast-paced, banjo and mandolin-dominated acoustic format of bluegrass music. But the roots are still there, and celebrated, particularly this year in a remembrance of the late James King, in a hastily assembled after-hours tribute as well as by any number of bands performing in the Wide Open Bluegrass StreetFest and within the halls of the Raleigh Convention Center.
At the same time, new bands are trying on the forms and formats that have been handed down and bringing their own understanding and interpretations to it, as artists will. The creative process relies on both memory and innovation. Without both, the living line is lost. This requires scholars and contemporary performers to keep the traditions alive while adding new twists and turns to them. It’s worth remembering that few will truly stand the test of time. Many will drop by the wayside, either to be ignored or to flame up and burn out. The names of more artists, in any form, whether its fine art, music, architecture, or poetry are forgotten than remembered.
Both IBMA’s Bluegrass Ramble/Wide Open Bluegrass and the Tennessee Fall Homecoming highlight many of the glories that come together to create the deep and wide musical region inhabited by bluegrass music. As such, they embody preservation and progress, rural and urban, memory and hope, tradition and the future.