Six New Discoveries from IBMA 2014
It’s hard to imagine that the frenetic energy of bluegrass music wouldn’t filter into the vibe of the 2014 International Bluegrass Music Association Conference in Raleigh, North Carolina, and in truth the week felt a bit like a whirlwind. Panels bled into meet-and-greets, turned into concerts then into jams, then became late-night or all-night parties, and I don’t think the participants would have it any other way. It was my first year at IBMA and though bluegrass isn’t my primary musical genre, the conference and attendant festival gave me a lot of insight into the culture and community of bluegrass today, and also introduced me to some fiery new bands!
The first thing is that IBMA is a wickedly complex event. It encompasses multiple multi-day programs, from the conference itself early in the week to the late night professional showcases, a film festival, the all-star red-carpet awards show, and the staggeringly huge two-day free festival on the streets of Raleigh that caps off the week, each of which has its own schedule and in some cases ticketing. The second thing is that, happily, bluegrass is a relatively fluid term at IBMA, broad enough to encompass the Cajun swamp pop of The Revelers, the progressive bluegrass of our friends in Front Country, the older traditions of Appalachian old-time music (Tennessee fiddler Joseph Decosimo‘s street jam with The Stuart Brothers was a big highlight), hell even a cover of “Superfreak” by Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby was welcome. I went to IBMA wanting to try and understand how the conservative and progressive bluegrass communities interacted, and expected there to be tension between the two. While I think there is a kind of push and pull at work–Rolling Stone actually dropped a big article on this during the event–what I found more was both sides looking for common ground and finding it by centering on the traditions at the heart of bluegrass. One of the trends I’ve been noticing in bluegrass is the recent focus on old-time traditions and this was pretty evident at IBMA. From top-flight mainstage artists covering Appalachian gospel legends E.C.and Orna Ball and old-school Kentucky fiddler Luther Strong, to Noam Pikelny winning album of the year for his LP of Kenny Baker/Bill Monroe covers, to no less than two covers of Jimmy Martin’s “Freeborn Man” that I heard over the weekend, it seems like a lot of pickers are going back to their roots these days.
Thanks to IBMA for a grand time, and I hope to make it back next year. For now, here are a six new discoveries from this wild week of bluegrass:
ABIGAIL WASHBURN & BELA FLECK
While neither of these master banjo players is exactly a “new discovery”, they are however just debuting as a duo after having getting married and having a baby (an insanely cute baby who will grow up to rule the world as the greatest banjo player that ever lived). On stage at the main amphitheater at IBMA, they were the cutest couple, trading quips and stories and little jabs and generally having a great time. Musically, their new album is a fascinating blend of double banjo music, and while I usually steer clear of albums that feature two of the same instrument (unless it’s fiddle), I was intrigued by this album since Abigail and Bela have been quoted on how they chose banjos with very different tones and voicings to play together. It’s also true that they both play different styles of banjo (Abigail mainly clawhammer and Bela mainly bluegrass), but whatever the case the two instruments meshed together beautifully. Amidst all the fire picking and complex counterpoints, they both took time just to appreciate the beauty of a great song, digging deep for classics from E.C. and Orna Ball and Doc Watson and Gaither Carlton. Another highlight of the duo, of course, is Abigail Washburn’s drop-down gorgeous vocals, both on the traditional songs and original songs she wrote. My favorite was the newly written murder ballad “Shotgun Blues” in which the lead female character hunts down all those murderous men in the old ballads and gives them what for! This is music for deep listening and even in the context of a huge amphitheater, Abigail Washburn and Bela Fleck were still able to captivate.
Raleigh boys made good, Mipso bill themselves as “dark holler pop” (the title of their new album) and that’s not too far off in terms of their music. There’s a certain element of indie roots to their music, and a strong streak of youthful independence. They’ve got bluegrass in their DNA coming out of North Carolina, so you can recognize those elements, but the key to Mipso is the songwriting of lead singers Joseph Terrell and Jacob Sharp. They craft beautifully melodic songs with a keen eye to hard-on-your-luck songwriting that sounds country-inspired without being actually country. It’s a nice balance of different American roots idioms and really it’s the kind of balance that sounds easy but sinks any amateur band that tries it. Live, Mipso ruled the stage at IBMA with just four members. Plenty of folks in the audience were singing along, after all they are one of the most popular roots bands in the area, and it was clear that there’s a special charisma behind these guys. Catch them live or on record but catch them soon before they blow up!
JEFF SCROGGINS & COLORADO
Ace banjo player Jeff Scroggins is well known in bluegrass music circles, having dominated many banjo contests over the years and played with major artists like Peter Rowan, Sam Bush, Stuart Duncan, The Dixie Chicks and more, but the discoveries in the band were his young son, Tristan Scroggins, an amazing mandolin player, and W. Virginia singer Greg Blake, whose soaring tenor cut through the dirty brick walls of The Pour House in Raleigh. Greg Blake has a new solo album coming out which I got a sneak peek of and it’s just beautiful. Powerful Appalachian vocals and masterful bluegrass combine in his music and I can’t wait for it to be out officially. Meanwhile, Jeff Scroggins’ son Tristan Scroggins was another revelation at IBMA. The kid can pick; man, can he pick! Not just lightning fast, which he does love to do, but also super precise. He’s also a great tune composer; check out his tune “Lonesome George” on Jeff Scroggins & Colorado’s new album, Western Branches. There’s a real family feel to this band, and it’s great to see that the elder Scroggins is mentoring his son to become another bluegrass master picker!
DANNY PAISLEY & THE SOUTHERN GRASS
AH, that voice! THAT VOICE! Danny Paisley may hail from Pennsylvania, but he’s heir to a rich tradition of Appalachian music, from the holler bluegrass of his father Bob Paisley, to the old-time fiddle tunes of the Lundy family, long-time members of Bob Paisley’s band. With a thick Southern accent and the kind of razor-sharp song diction that gives his vocals the drive of a square dance fiddler, Paisley is the real-deal in bluegrass. So real that he almost didn’t fit at IBMA. He seemed like a man out of time, playing mountain music so deeply Southern that he steamrolled over all the imitators of this great sound. His band was tight as could be and bass player/harmony vocalist Eric Troutman was a perfect foil for Paisley’s cutting vocals. Paisley’s young son Ryan Paisley on mandolin has gotten even better in the few years since I last saw him at the Pickathon festival outside Portland. He shredded like the teenage prodigy he is, ripping into tunes with a wild ferocity. I also loved banjo player Mark Delaney who brought a lot of outside jazz sensibilities to his hardcore picking. The band played hard and everyone on stage was amazing, but there’s nothing like Danny Paisley’s voice. It’s the kind of voice that kickstarted bluegrass in the first place and it’s great that true Southern music is still at the very heart of the tradition.
THE DAVIDSON BROTHERS
The Davidson Brothers were the first band in IBMA’s Bluegrass Ramble (the evening festival that takes place around downtown Raleigh during the conference), and they sure set the mood right for the week. Burning bluegrass with strong roots and interesting songwriting and all from two brothers that hail from the mighty continent of Australia! Brother Hamish Davidson plays banjo and fiddle and brother Lachlan Davidson plays mandolin, though they had a band at IBMA. Together they have that great brother sound not only in the harmony vocals but also in the way they seem to egg each other on with their solos and breaks. You can tell there’s a lot of love between the two and on stage they were constantly cracking wise and having a great time. The opening song on their new album, Wanderlust, was my favorite song, with the great line “You can take your trouble, wash it down the drain/I ain’t falling for your crap again”. I think this line rhymes better in an Australian accent, but that sentiment sure is universal! On their album, racing instrumentals with the dueling brothers swap out with songs about life on the Australian road. I loved the chorus for “It’s Time To Go”: “Pack my bags, I’m bound to wander/Put me on a plane, it’s time to go!” I think a lot of bands at IBMA could run this up their banner pole as their motto! Though the album is full-on bluegrass, there are hints of other influences as well. “Lost in Amsterdam” reminded me for all the world of early Iron Maiden and then sure enough they included a hard rock remix of the song at the very end of the album. There’s a lot of fun to be found in the music of the Davidson Brothers, so I suggest you get in step!
Before heading out to IBMA, I previewed all the official showcasing bands to get a feel for what to expect. Most of it was solid bluegrass in the modern vein: superbly polished instrumentals, songs that are more Nashville country than Ralph Stanley, and cleanly starched shirts. Right then and there Newtown jumped out from all the rest. Their songs on their new album, Time Machine, were just so well written and interesting. While many bluegrass bands today seem to be looking to remix country songwriting in a bluegrass model, Newtown have an old-school belief that songs should tell a story. These stories draw the listener in and provide a really compelling listening experience. “A Thin Red Line” is a brutal song about war, and “The Widow’s Ghost,” a cutting Civil War song, is a masterclass in country songwriting. Both songs come from the pen of Newtown’s guitarist C.J. Cain who contributes most of the original songs on the album. “The Widow’s Ghost” is sung by fiddler Kati Penn and it’s honestly one of the best bluegrass songs I’ve heard in a very long time. It paints a picture that includes landscape, characters, cinematics, and emotional response. Newtown also include some very well chosen covers with this album, namely Guy Clark’s “Dublin Blues” and bluesman Sleepy John Estes’ “Floating Bridge,” and though they turn in really cool versions of these, CJ Cain’s original songs are the star here. This is the old-school songwriting that made county music great and it’s so great that this young bluegrass band is here to hold the banner high!