The Wide, Wide World of Bluegrass: IBMA 2017
It seems that while many of us have been focused on the rough and rowdy portion of roots music, there has been a revolution in bluegrass that is just as significant as the one in the early 1970s. Diversity is returning, glass ceilings are being cracked and broken, and a renewed sense of purpose is in the air. In other words, there is something happening here, and what it is is exactly clear, and it’s highlighted by Rhiannon Giddens’ “Community and Connection” keynote address, Molly Tuttle’s sigificant breakthrough, and the Ebony Hillbillies’ performances.
There have been several fine articles on this year’s IBMA’s World of Bluegrass, including by ND’s own Ted Lehmann and by our friends at The Bluegrass Situation. Here is another one by ND photographer Todd Gunsher, who was there with camera in one hand and a pen in the other. Here, in his own words, is his report, with a slideshow, below, of his photos:
Being the last week of September, the IBMA rolled into Raleigh, NC, for its annual World of Bluegrass. For five days the city was filled with the sights and sounds of bluegrass music, its practitioners, and its fans.
My first stop was Rhiannon Giddens’ keynote address. It was a beautiful speech recognizing the Southern African-American music that influenced and later existed alongside the early bluegrass, the key takeaway being that we need to bring diversity back into bluegrass. You can read the full text of her address here; it will be worth your time.
The kick-off party was hosted by Alison Brown and Jim Lauderdale with special guest Bobby Osborne joining in on a couple of songs. Other highlights from the four nights of the Ramble included two local acts, Jonathan Byrd, and Hank, Pattie and the Current. Byrd plays more of a honky-tonk style, with great songs, while Hank and Pattie have a classically infused sound full of instrumental complexity.
For more traditional sounds, I made sure to see Darin and Brooke Aldridge in the Vintage Church, which was the perfect setting for their set. Earlier that day, Darin won an award for mentoring, and their fiddle player, Carley Arrowood, won an instrumentalist Momentum award. Next up, at Lincoln Theatre, was Jenni Lyn Gardner, who continues to grow into her own as a bandleader. Then I walked to another club to catch Lindsay Lou and the Flatbellys, who played a joyous set. A special event on Tuesday night was the Shout and Shine showcase of diversity in bluegrass that featured a jam led by Front Country and a set by the immensely entertaining Ebony Hillbillies, who I made a point to catch again in the Dance Tent Friday night.
Thursday I got downtown early enough to see Sierra Hull put on a songwriting workshop with a group of young people; it’s always nice to see the top players in the business truly enjoying giving back. What was probably the unexpected highlight of the week was wandering around the vendor expo and seeing Ricky Skaggs at the Gibson booth. When a group of kids came up, he played a song with them and then spent time talking with them about music and mandolins. Among the great performances that are expected at an event like this, it’s these moments that really make World of Bluegrass special.
Friday and Saturday are reserved for the big amphitheater shows and the Wide Open Bluegrass street fair. Opening the show on Friday was guitar player of the year Molly Tuttle, followed by The Kruger Brothers with the Kontras Quartet. They are always a pleasure, and hearing “Carolina In The Fall” gets me every time. Closing out the first night was The Infamous Stringdusters. In between the amphitheater sets, I chose to wander around and catch some music on Fayetteville Street. A highlight out there was Front Country, who just keeps getting better.
The first set I caught on Saturday was Chatham County Line followed by Bluegrass 45 from Japan who are celebrating their 50th year. Mandolin player of the year Sierra Hull, The Traveling McCourys (with Del joining them for a couple songs), Hot Rize, and the festival-closing Steve Martin with the Steep Canyon Rangers were the other sets to see.
What is “Real” Bluegrass?
While some may grumble about what is and isn’t “real” bluegrass, I like that some of the acts over the course of the week, while definitely not pure bluegrass, are clearly “influenced by,” which I think is important in that it illustrates the reach and influence that bluegrass has. There’s definitely no shortage of traditional sounds, whether it’s official performances or random jams in the hotel or streets. Over the past five years, this event has quickly become ingrained into the fabric of the city and is a great way to welcome fall. Now that I’m rested, I’m already looking forward to next year!
Now, scroll through Todd’s wonderful photos of the IBMA. For more, check out his Flickr page here.