PLATE 1. A seemingly bemused Sir Walter Raleigh — complete with banjo — presides over IBMA’s 2013 World of Bluegrass (September 24-28) in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina.
PLATE 2. A multi-story banner announces the World of Bluegrass to Raleigh. Many attendees were gratified to see IBMA signage all over town.
by Joshua Heston
A special kind of magic makes its way beneath a dark Carolina sky. Warm, Atlantic-tinged breezes flow through the canyon-like avenues of downtown Raleigh where streets like Fayetteville (pronounced Fay-ah-vill), Martin and Hargett are framed by towering 30-story skyscrapers. It is a genteel Deep South city of over 400,000, this Raleigh, North Carolina, where a history of colonial settlement, Civil War strife, segregation, Civil Rights, and a post-dot-com technology boom are framed by the “The Triangle” of North Carolina State University, Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Raleigh is a hometown downtown city hopped up on hope, diversity and a heaping helping of grits with red-eye gravy.
PLATE 3. Raleigh’s city plaza fills up with festival-goers as night falls.
PLATE 4. Breakout artists The Church Sisters perform at the Raleigh Convention Center’s open-air stage. Increasingly recognized for their pure harmonies and solid band, Sarah and Savannah Church of Galax, VA, share an optimistic future.
By more than a few, this warm Southern city was thought unlikely to host the International Bluegrass Music Association’s 2013 convention and festival. The IBMA, founded back in 1985, traveled from humble beginnings in Owensboro, Kentucky (where artists performed as the Ohio River rolled on just beyond the stage) to Louisville (the classy downtown Galt House hosted the convention in those days) and then to Nashville’s convention facilities. For the last eight years, this event — part trade show, part business convention, part bluegrass festival — resided in Nashville, competing with country music and never quite impacting the surrounding community or the music industry machine of that great neon-lit city on the Cumberland River.
And then, in the last week of September 2013, all that changed on North Carolina’s Piedmont Plateau, this rolling, hilly stretch of green framed by sandy, piney coast to the front and towering, jagged mountain to the back.
PLATE 5. Convention-goers gather for seminars and showcases.
PLATE 6. The exhibition hall includes bands, authors, luthiers and an informal rotation of bluegrass greats.
PLATE 7. A lone fiddle player walking the halls of the Marriott Hotel’s convention spaces. Many rooms were reserved for informal jams, 9AM to 2AM.
The IBMAs began innocently enough in the bustling confusion of the Raleigh Convention Center’s sunlit spaces, a three-level, 500,000 square-foot facility built in 2008 and connected to a shiny new 17-story Marriott Hotel by means of a beneath-the-street escalator system. The convention center is itself a work of art — the western wall overlooking the Red Hat Amphitheatre is a near-10,000-square-foot mural made of aluminum squares backlit by LED lights. Called the “Shimmer Wall,” its stylistic oak tree image moves in the wind and appears to flutter.
The IBMA registration desks were a flurry of activity and long lines as attendees attempted to get their bearings and volunteers tried to stay ahead of the curve. A long list of business and academic seminars were first on the roster and — with titles like “Grant Writing Workshop,” “Mind Your Business,” and “Recruiting & Maintaining Volunteers for Associations and Events” — the convention threatened a dreary week of dry lectures, squinty flourescent lighting and uncomfortable chairs.
PLATE 8. The venerable Lincoln Theatre served as an unexpected showcase venue only a block from City Plaza.
PLATE 9. The Steel Wheels take to the Lincoln Theatre’s stage early during the IBMA week. A number of breakout artists are discovered each year. By the end of the week, certain showcases will be packed with newfound fans.
PLATE 10. Statler & Waldorf watch the bands at King’s bar on Martin Street, another bluegrass venue.
By 6PM, however, all that changed as the first round of showcases began, not in the convention center but staged rather in six venues around downtown Raleigh. Each sponsored by a different organization, the showcase series was known simply as the Bluegrass Ramble. An innovative concept, the Ramble took bluegrass from a staid convention setting and placed it onto actual stages — many of them bars — in the historic underbelly beneath Raleigh’s gleaming skyscrapers.
Up on the corner of Blount and Hargett, trees shadowed the entrance to Tir Na nOg, an Irish pub, and The Pour House, an old brick storefront-converted to bar / dive. On Hargett, the upstairs bar Architect hosted a solid line-up, and Kings Upstairs on Martin Street was notable not only for its bluegrass but its life-size figures of Statler & Waldorf from The Muppets. Across the leafy Moore Square, the 1880’s-era Long View Center (built as the city’s second Baptist Church when the then-downtown Baptist church had reached attendance capacity) was all plush red carpets, echoing acoustics and brightly lit stained glass.
South near the Marriott and Clyde Cooper’s BBQ, the Lincoln Theatre — an old-time movie theater converted to dance club with a scrolling old-time automobile mural — was a riot of noise, crowd and alcohol (the ticket counter and popcorn stand is now a full bar). With many mid-American bluegrass festivals solidly alcohol-free, it was culture shock for some, a popular upgrade for others.
PLATE 11. City Plaza is framed by several towering structures, including the new Marriott, home base for many IBMA attendees and bands.
PLATE 12. The Mecca Restaurant, serving up Southern soul food since May 1, 1930, is a popular spot for breakfast, lunch, dinner and even late-night pie, coffee or cocktails.
PLATE 13. The 1880-era Long View Center is a Unitarian Church which opened its doors — and pie-laden church basement — to IBMA showcase bands.
This was true-bluegrass-meets-real-Raleigh. Locals bellied up to the bar, many of them exposed to live bluegrass for the first time in their lives. Here urban culture resonated with the sound of authentic American mountain music — a vibrant reminder of the very mountains rising from this plateau just a few hundred miles to the west.
Thursday saw two awards ceremonies. The lesser-attended Special Awards Luncheon gave out awards for bluegrass broadcaster of the year (Ronnie Reno), bluegrass event of the year (Bean Blossom), songwriter of the year (Eric Gibson) and many more while attendees applauded and sampled solid North Carolina cuisine like roasted pork loin with spices, collards with bacon, and breaded, fried sweet potato cakes. The McLain Family Band was honored with a distinguished achivement award (presented by none other than Sharon, Cheryl and Buck White while Ricky Skaggs sat in attendance) as was Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys banjo player, Vic Jordan.
“Bluegrass is a tremendous and unselfish family,” noted Jordan. “I came to Nashville in 1964. Who would have believed bluegrass would have grown to this? I am proud of IBMA, proud to be a banjo player. Proud to be part of this whole thing.”
Grammy award-winning North Carolina group Steep Canyon Rangers hosted the black-tie International Bluegrass Music Awards that night in the beautiful Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, conveniently located a block away from the convention center. Evening highlights included stunning performances by the Del McCoury Band, Dailey & Vincent, Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, Rhonda Vincent — in a stunning black gown — and The Rage while The Gibson Brothers (vocal group of the year), The Boxcars (instrumental group of the year), Balsam Range (album of the year, Papertown), Junior Sisk (male vocalist of the year), Claire Lynch (female vocalist of the year) and many more took home awards. The house was nearly brought down when Tony Rice (Virginia native recognized as one of the top acoustic guitar players in bluegrass and jazz) was inducted into the IBMA hall of fame. Introduced by musical luminaries Sam Bush and Peter Rowan, Rice has suffered with a loss of vocal abilities for some time. Stunning many in the audience, Rice demonstrated his voice is slowly returning.
PLATE 14. Beautiful stain-glass give the Long View Center a sense of hallowed space.
PLATE 15. Gritty, soulful Steel Wheels perform their final set on the Martin Street stage. The Steel Wheels were widely recognized as breakout artists at this year’s IBMA.
PLATE 16. Tim Lee explains more about his unique artwork, a popular feature in the Fayetteville Street Fair which accompanied Wide Open Bluegrass.
PLATE 17. Linda and Glenn Mace welcome visitors to another portion of the Fayetteville Street Fair. Linda creates beautiful mixed-media artwork, including the framed coneflower- and banjo-themed pieces at left.
By Friday afternoon, a heady festival atmosphere prevailed. “Fay-ah-vill” Street was closed off. Bluegrass stages sprouted from City Plaza (in the shadow of the Marriott), Martin Street (right next to the venerable Mecca Restaurant) and Hargett Street. Arts and crafts booths blossomed along the street, along with tents for jam sessions, tents for food vendors, space for beer trucks and much more. Even the Rotary Club got in on the action by handing out plates of watermelon for only a dollar. Wayne Taylor and Appaloosa kicked off the Wide Open Bluegrass Street Festival on Center Stage, followed by The Bankesters and The Spinney Brothers. As the afternoon wore on, crowds continued to grow. By evening, the whole of downtown was nearly impassable. This was uncompromised bluegrass with rock-star like crowds. Over at the 5,500-seat Red Hat Amphitheatre, the Punch Brothers, the Del McCoury Band, Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Tony Rice, Jerry Douglas and Mark Schatz took the stage. The crown royalty of bluegrass played, the crowds cheered, and the Raleigh Convention Center’s oak-tree shimmer wall glowed teal-green and blush-red in the partial darkness.
PLATE 18. The 1914-era City Market houses many shops and restaurants two blocks from Fayetteville Street.
PLATE 19. Raleigh’s City Plaza begins to fill up with early-afternoon festival goers as the Bankester Family takes the stage.
Unforgettable moments were uncountable. For me, more than a few rise to the top of the pan like Martha White Cornbread:
• Sitting in The Mecca Restaurant over two-dollar apple pie and strong black coffee as a damp midnight breeze blows straight through the old 1930’s-era diner and Sirius Radio belts out Rhonda Vincent’s Bluegrass Express.
• Soaking in performance after performance by breakout stars The Steel Wheels. This tight, gritty, soulful band left audiences spellbound. Lead Trent Wagler comes from southern Indiana’s Mennonite culture and, when joined by Eric Brubaker (fiddle), Brian Dickel (bass) and Jay Lapp (mandolin), they progressively layer bluegrass, roots, Americana, blues and folk with boundless energy and a touching sensitivity to loss, heartbreak, and the greater darknesses of life. Tune out the world, turn off the lights, put on Lay Down Lay Low (from their album of the same name) and you’ll see what I mean.
• Eating breakfast at Big Ed’s City Market Restaurant. Belying its “Big” “City” name, Big Ed’s is a spacious country cafe in the old-time, red-tile-roofed 1914-era marketplace on the south side of Moore Square. Between the specialty shops and the old brick streets, this unasuming cafe serves up salty country ham with red-eye gravy, grits, eggs-any-way-you-like-them, and big fluffy biscuits. The black-strap molasses is already on the table right next to the vinegar. You’d swear you were in a friendly town of only a few hundred people until you walk out and look up at the skyscrapers.
PLATE 20. On hallowed and sacred ground, the Kruger Brothers perform the spell-binding “Appalachian Concerto” before a late-night audience in the Long View Center.
• Squeezing into the standing-room-only California Bluegrass Association suite in the Marriott where newcomers Bradford Lee Folk & The Bluegrass Playboys showcased a musical style so light and nimble you’d swear they were defying gravity. Downstairs, an impromptu jam session took over the lobby Starbucks.
• Discovering the uniquely powerful artwork of Tim Lee, a longtime mandolin player and illustrator whose art resonates with traditional bluegrass steeped in the darker elements of folklore, Carolina swamp mystery, death, and the blues, all tightly wrapped in the twine of 1930s circus art.
• Leaning back — exhausted, exhilarated, and still hopped up on homemade pie and coffee — against the Long View’s old stained glass windows, shoes sinking deep in the plush red carpets, as, at midnight, the soaring vocals of Balsam Range’s Buddy Melton resonated in that old church with the song “Place No Wreath Upon My Door,” kicked off by Tim Surrett’s haunting dobro introduction:
Place no wreath upon my door / When I walk this earth no more / Don’t be sad / Be not afraid / I’ll be on my way / I’ll be on my way…
Loss. Hope. Heaven. Comfort. Death.
Words, melodies and instrumentals that speak to our hearts, regardless of age or status or background. It was in that moment, the church at midnight, the damp Carolina wind, the rustle of oak leaves, the city lights, and the abutment of life and history, mountains, plains, and music, that it all became obvious:
IBMA’s World of Bluegrass 2013 was an epic step forward, perhaps moving bluegrass from a niche music genre to a greater audience, a youthful population ready for virtuosic, heartfelt talents in acoustic music. History made in Raleigh, North Carolina, a 21st century bluegrass town.
first published OCTOBER 7, 2013
All photos by Joshua Heston.