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How Raleigh got its bluegrass festival, and how it intends to keep it

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The white flatbed truck speeding south on Dawson Street in downtown Raleigh appears to be headed straight for William Lewis. But he is mid-sentence, seated and with his back to the office window that opens onto incoming traffic. The director of the Piedmont Council of Traditional Music, or PineCone, Lewis is trotting out the list of bluegrass greats from North Carolina: Earl Scruggs and Curly Seckler, Doc Watson and George Shuffler, Red Smiley and Tony Rice. Surrounded by books on traditional music, rows of CDs and posters from PineCone presentations, he is oblivious to the sights and sounds outside.

But Lewis is in large part responsible for the truck now moving safely out of sight. Attached to its back, a large cerulean-and-goldenrod-colored sign reads "Wide Open Bluegrass" against a depiction of Raleigh's skyline.

Wide Open Bluegrass is one of the live-music components of World of Bluegrass, the weeklong conference and trade show produced by the International Bluegrass Music Association. For years, Lewis and a clutch of local arts presenters openly fantasized about a centralized event that would galvanize and broadcast the roots music scene of North Carolina. After they spent nearly a decade trying to lure such an event to Raleigh, World of Bluegrass arrives in the Capital City—its home for at least the next three years—this week.

"We saw this as the opportunity we'd been talking about," Lewis explains, "an event that can attract a new spotlight to the area and give us a shot at showing at least one piece of the larger puzzle of the great music that's being made here."

World of Bluegrass is a sprawling spectacle: There are seminars about the role of women in traditional music and the tribulations of starting a band, workshops for writing grants and playing the banjo or fiddle, a panoply of vendors and craftspeople, a town-hall discussion, a keynote speech and, of course, a proper red-carpet awards ceremony that will take over the cavernous Memorial Auditorium Thursday night.

More than 100 bands will play as many as eight stages for the ticketed portion of the conference. For most of the week, they'll scatter across the city's rock clubs in a "Bluegrass Ramble," modeled to some extent after the four-year-old Hopscotch Music Festival. (Note: The author is the co-director of Hopscotch, founded by but no longer owned by the INDY.) The week culminates with two sold-out nights at Red Hat Amphitheater, gathering some of the biggest stars in the genre for a series of sets and night-ending jams.

The crucial change for IBMA in Raleigh, though, has been the addition of a free street festival that puts dozens of bands on several outdoor stages. These shows have spent the last several years cloistered inside Nashville's convention center. Like the headlining gigs at Red Hat, which feature names such as Steve Martin, Jerry Douglas and former Nickel Creek member Chris Thile, these smaller settings are meant to reanimate the entire event. For Nancy Cardwell, who has served as the executive director of IBMA for a year, these free, public shows are part of the association's overall reinvigoration.

"There's something special about listening to great bluegrass music outside, with stars in the sky," she says. "In Raleigh, we have the luxury of offering stages inside and outside."

Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane says that the inner city was custom-built for moments like this: "What we have in Raleigh—the amphitheater and Memorial Auditorium and all the private venues that will connect together—I think we'll have a lot of people in the street. It'll be more than people who would just buy tickets."

For Lewis, finding ways to push the festival beyond short sets of bluegrass in stilted convention center ballrooms is essential to the success of Wide Open Bluegrass. He admits that the market of people who want to scout new acoustic talent 15 hours a day is limited.

"How can we introduce the local public, who are so used to supporting live music no matter what it is, to the richness of bluegrass?" Lewis says.

Wide Open Bluegrass seems poised to do just that: Organizers estimate that the conference has generated more than 200 separate events around the region, all fueled by the Raleigh spectacle. On the first night of this year's action, for instance, the state symphony linked with banjo pathfinder Béla Fleck to present a concerto he wrote. Wake County's libraries will host a series of musical conversations and film screenings to coincide with the influx of bluegrass scholars and students.

The North Carolina Pork Council relocated its state barbecue championship to Fayetteville Street to coincide with the final day of the festivities. Housed inside the Raleigh Convention Center, the North Carolina Bluegrass Pavilion will offer performances, story sharing and samples from Tar Heel artisans and attractions. Even Mayor McFarlane, who describes herself as a bluegrass fan, is getting in on the action: The Kruger Brothers, who perform several times throughout the week, will play a ticketed benefit for her re-election campaign on Wednesday night.

If this sounds like much ado for an event that recurs in Raleigh just five days a year for only the next three years and will presumably move to a different city after 2015, Lewis—with a sighing, smiling laugh—agrees. To wit, PineCone's seasonal slate of shows has been spare-to-nonexistent this year, in large part because the spartan group has devoted so much of its time to building and branding Wide Open Bluegrass in Raleigh; PineCone chose the talent for and will manage the free festival along Fayetteville Street on Friday and Saturday. Aside from its general regimen of workshops and sponsored jams, PineCone emptied its books for the months approaching the festival. They didn't want to compete with themselves for time, or force their longtime fans to choose against going to a PineCone presentation in order to afford Wide Open Bluegrass, or vice versa. Those shows will pick back up at the start of 2014.

There have been bonuses, though. For the first time in its three-decade history, PineCone has hired a third full-time employee: Courtney Worthen, who has previously worked with PineCone on a part-time basis, starts the week of the festival. The nonprofit hopes that its ground-level involvement with Wide Open Bluegrass will help sell its mission of yearlong arts engagement to North Carolina residents who otherwise might not see such roots music during the year's other 51 weeks.

For Jamie Katz, the communications and programs manager at PineCone, it's an opportunity to show the variety that both PineCone and music in North Carolina offer. "This higher profile helps make this interesting to a broader audience," she says. "It's a chance for us to say, 'If you're looking for more of this when World of Bluegrass is gone, it's right here.'"

"PineCone is a little like an ongoing festival all year-round, because we do so much that's free and in different places," Lewis continues. "If we can be present and very much involved in the local piece of Wide Open Bluegrass, it will be good for us. It's up to us now to say, 'If you like this stuff, we're here all year.'"

But the most immediate goal for both PineCone and the City of Raleigh is to show the IBMA that this is the right place for World of Bluegrass—a permanent partner rather than a temporary host. If the events were to head elsewhere after three years, there would be residual benefits, including increasingly mounting evidence that Raleigh can work as a canvas for such a multifaceted event. But Lewis flatly admits that the long-term goal is to keep IBMA in town, creating a new hub for American roots music.

Before the first conference in Raleigh has even started, IBMA director Cardwell can't say whether or not that will happen, of course. It's a board decision, anyway. But just as the association's early scouting report said that the city itself seems designed for World of Bluegrass, she says her experience thus far suggests the people in the city might be built for it, too.

"Everyone's been so interested in helping us organize things and coming up with great ideas," Cardwell says.

"It doesn't feel like we're a client that's just doing business with the city for a week," she says. "It feels like a true partnership."

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