These days, joining organizations – especially trade organizations – isn’t necessarily the most popular activity in the world, so why am I taking time to write about a trade organization that holds a conference, meeting, award show, and showcase in Raleigh, NC, at the end of September? The answer is simple for me, and it has been since we attended our first International Bluegrass Music Assocation (IBMA) World of Bluegrass in Nashville, in 2008. Whether you’re a fan, picker, professional musician, promoter, luthier, or just plain curious, it’s my experience that the IBMA puts on one of the most exciting and energizing weeks of being in and around music that you can imagine.
The structure of World of Bluegrass is a little complex, but basically consists of three events, and the ticket structure is such that you can arrange to attend one event or all of them at a range of prices.
The first event, the business conference, takes place during the first three days and culminates in the second event: the annual awards show. During the latter, the bluegrass music world recognizes its own achievements in a gala event which will, this year, be hosted by The Gibson Brothers. The third event is the two-day festival co-sponsored by the City of Raleigh and IBMA, called Wide Open Bluegrass. This event is filled with major acts in several venues. An outdoor show in the Red Hat Arena will, this year feature, Alison Krauss and Union Station featuring Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush Band, Earls of Leicester, The Gibson Brothers, Balsam Range, Steep Canyon Rangers, The Infamous Stringdusters, and many more bands over two days.
The Red Hat Amphitheater show is a ticketed event, but a free street fair down Fayetteville Street between the Duke Energy Center (home of the awards show) and the State Capitol contains six stages. Each of these stages features major national, regional, and local bands of varying kinds from about noon until late into the evening Friday and Saturday, as well as a wide variety of food, crafts, and other vendors. The street fair is a veritable musical and gustatory feast. The streets are filled with people discovering bluegrass for the first time, casual fans broadening their understanding and taste, and longtime hard-core bluegrass cognoscenti.
IBMA was founded in 1990 in Owensboro, KY, by a number of industry professionals who believed that bluegrass music should have a trade association. It soon outgrew Owensboro, moving to Louisville, KY, and then to Nashville, TN, where it remained for six years, accompanied by great yawns from Music City, which thought it had bigger fish to fry. Between the 2008 great recession and the lack of interest in IBMA from Nashville, the association languished and started seeking a new home for its signature event. When Raleigh came knocking, IBMA leadership was listening, and the event moved to North Carolina – a region with a rich tradition of bluegrass music in all its manifestations – for a three-year run. The impact on the organization and the city of Raleigh was immediate and gratifying to both. However, what’s important here is the impact this move has had on new and old fans. People coming to Raleigh for part or all of the week of World of Bluegrass report huge excitement, as they have the opportunity to immerse themselves in music they have known and loved. And the week is a blast. People carry instruments everywhere; the jamming alone is worth the price of admission. It’s little wonder that regular attendees say that IBMA stands for “I’ve Been Mostly Awake!”
Perhaps most importantly, the World of Bluegrass provides bands an opportunity to showcase themselves before others in their profession. Thirty bands are selected by a committee each year for “Official Showcases.” This means they are featured in a variety of performance venues attended by promoters, record companies, and others who might consider hiring them for small concerts, large festivals, or almost any other event featuring music.
In what’s called the Bluegrass Ramble, a number of clubs within easy walking distance (or accessible via the free bus that leaves the Raleigh Convention Center every 15 minutes) give us a chance to see the official showcase bands in a more informal setting. The Ramble runs from 7:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. throughout most of the week. A business conference ticket will get you in all the venues, or you can pay at the door in lieu of that.
Meanwhile, as I alluded to above, there’s jamming on street corners and in hallways as well as sponsored showcases in hotel rooms and throughout the convention center. You just can’t get enough bluegrass music, especially if you suspend your judgment enough to experience how bluegrass expresses itself to the range of people who hear it, love it, and reinterpret it. There is no other place where you can spot up-and-coming kids on the cusp of breaking out, bands struggling to make an impression, and the top groups in bluegrass, performing for the Red Hat Amphitheater audience in a wonderful outdoor setting.
Early in September I’ll be writing a more extensive “How-To” guide, describing IBMA’s World of Bluegrass in excruciating detail, complete with maps and suggestions about how to survive and thrive during this wonderful week. Each year, as the summer festival season winds down, I look forward to heading to IBMA. The move to Raleigh has proven to be beneficial to everyone involved, and is popular with fans, professionals, and those new to the genre. Think seriously about coming to Raleigh from Sept. 29 – Oct. 3, 2015, to experience it for yourself. You’ll never regret it. I haven’t!