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How to Ramble: a guide to World of Bluegrass

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Wednesday, Sept. 25

Perhaps you already went Bluegrass Rambling on Tuesday, the opening night of IBMA's World of Bluegrass celebration. So, are you ready for back-to-back eight-hour clubhops? One oddity of this year's first run of the World of Bluegrass festival in downtown Raleigh is that the musical marathons on Tuesday and Wednesday are incredibly long and ambitious, with a half-dozen venues hosting bands every hour on the hour from 6 p.m. to closing time at 2 a.m.

For those not able to venture out twice in the middle of the week, don't fret: Many of the acts simply rotate from one venue to the next during these first two nights—or, in many cases, even within the same night. Missed charming Charlottesville, Va., duo the HONEY DEWDROPS on Tuesday at the Long View Center? Catch them again on Wednesday at The Architect Bar (6 p.m.), or two hours later at nearby Tir Na Nog.

Wednesday's highest-profile show happens at the large Lincoln Theatre. PETER ROWAN—who played the room two months ago with an outfit that reached toward his folk/country/reggae/rock explorations—presumably will focus on his considerable contributions to bluegrass (10 p.m.). Next up is the duo of Blue Highway dobro player ROB ICKES and Claire Lynch Band guitarist JIM HURST, both frequent IBMA award-winning players. North Carolina heavy hitters the STEEP CANYON RANGERS follow; though they host Thursday's IBMA Awards show and are part of the big-ticket event at Red Hat Amphitheater on Saturday backing Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, the Rangers get to focus on their own material during the Ramble. They play twice on Wednesday, appearing at the Long View Center (11 p.m.) just before their midnight slot at the Lincoln.

Outside the Lincoln, perhaps the top pick of the night is extraordinary high lonesome singer JAMES KING, a former member of Ralph Stanley's Clinch Mountain Boys. King brings his band from Virginia to showcase his new record, Three Chords and the Truth, due next week on Rounder Records. They're at Tir Na Nog (11 p.m.) and The Architect Bar (1 a.m.).

Other Wednesday highlights include NORA JANES STRUTHERS & THE PARTY LINE, fresh from last week's Americana Music Association festival in their Nashville hometown, at the Lincoln (8 p.m.). Meanwhile, Asheville quintet TOWN MOUNTAIN, who record for renowned bluegrass label Pinecastle, play at Kings (11 p.m.) and two hours later at the Long View Center. Two local favorites—THE KICKIN GRASS BAND and THE GRAVY BOYS—get their chances with slots at The Pour House and Tir Na Nog, respectively (both 7 p.m.).

In addition to the club shows, there's also Bluegrass Ramble fare at the Raleigh Convention Center on Wednesday during the afternoon and early evening. Longstanding California outfit the KATHY KALLICK BAND kick off a 10-act slate in the afternoon (1 p.m.). Kallick also plays an evening show at the Long View Center (8 p.m.). —Peter Blackstock

Thursday, Sept. 26

With as many as six of the nation's top bluegrass bands playing simultaneous 45-minute sets in hourly slots, the Bluegrass Ramble necessitates constant tough choices. Because the IBMA Awards show starts at 7:30 p.m. in Memorial Auditorium, you won't need to make decisions until 10 p.m. on Thursday night. But then the conundrums come quick.

For domestic bluegrass fans, WOOD & WIRE, at The Architect Bar (10 p.m.), are a young Austin quartet calling their music "dirty Texas grass"—that is, blistering originals led by guitarist Tony Kamel's warp-speed runs alongside Matt Slusher's high-flying mandolin moving like Marty Stuart with a sugar rush.

If you like your bluegrass imported, try EARLYBIRD STRINGBAND at Kings (10 p.m.). Nominated for two Norwegian Grammys, the band likes to follow one of their original bluegrass compositions in English with a ditty sung in their native Norwegian. This is classic bluegrass with a Scandinavian twist and a dollop of soul.

Last year's IBMA Entertainer of the Year winners, THE GIBSON BROTHERS, are up next at the Lincoln Theatre (11 p.m.). They are this slot's must-see act. Even though their roots are in upstate New York, brothers Eric and Leigh recall the family harmonies of the Louvin Brothers and the Everly Brothers. No less an authority than Del McCoury endorsed their tight harmonies.

BLUE HIGHWAY, at Tir Na Nog (11 p.m.), run a close second. Led by resonator king Rob Ickes on dobro, the band blends classic and contemporary styles, with songs written by all five members. "That's the beauty of bluegrass," Ickes says. "It doesn't really care what the popular marketplace says—it's just driven by the music."

For the midnight show, there's truly only one choice: THE DEL McCOURY BAND, at the Lincoln Theatre, is the gold standard for bluegrass today. Bill Monroe chose McCoury to play guitar and sing lead with him in 1963. The distinctive tenor of the 75-year-old sounds as clear, high and lonesome now as it did back then. It took several decades for McCoury to win his first Grammy (for 2005's The Company We Keep), but since then he's continued to plow forward, making new material sound like old-time bluegrass. He and the band have even given Richard Thompson's "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" a bluegrass makeover.

You might as well keep it in the family for the closing slot (1 a.m.), also at the Lincoln. Perhaps no one could follow Del but sons Ronnie on mandolin and Rob on banjo. As THE TRAVELIN' McCOURYS, the boys straddle the line between traditional and contemporary. They're equally at home sharing a bill with the Allmans or playing their dad's music with and without him. They're a link between the past and future of bluegrass, so let them be your arrow toward Friday. —Grant Britt

Friday, Sept. 27

Tuesday through Thursday, several of Raleigh's rock clubs have been overrun with bluegrass bands of all configurations and classifications. Maybe you've been out and maybe you've been exhausted, but let's hope not: Here, on Friday, is where Wide Open Bluegrass prepares for climax.

Beginning at noon, Fayetteville Street essentially turns into a runway of music, with bands stretched from a stage in City Plaza to four small stages dotting the march back to the State Capitol. More than a half-dozen bands will play each of these spaces until the law will allow (that is, in Raleigh, until 11 p.m.). But don't be confused or overwhelmed, because this is a low-pressure situation—all of this is free. Start early (12:15 p.m.) with OLD MAN LUEDECKE, a bright-eyed Nova Scotian whose 2012 album, Tender Is the Night, echoes the pop of Josh Ritter and the elegance of Ron Sexsmith. If you're a bluegrass neophyte, this is a good way to ease into the day. If you're up for wandering North Carolina's Main Street, elliptical and hard-picking bluesman JERRON "BLIND BOY" PAXTON plays the Hargett Street stage (2:45 p.m.), leaving you plenty of time to rest before graceful Asheville trio RED JUNE plays on the Martin Street stage (5:30 p.m.). If you like Mandolin Orange, the group's co-ed harmonies should be your early evening balm.

Meanwhile, bands get going as early as 10 a.m. in the Convention Center and the Red Hat Amphitheater: The Czech Republic's long-running DRUHÁ TRÁVA brings its harmonica-laced, bluegrass-based renditions of generally familiar rock and roots tunes to the outdoor space (12:45 p.m.); two acts later is DOYLE LAWSON & QUICKSILVER, one of the standard-bearers at the crossroads of gospel and bluegrass. Lawson is a fine mandolin player but an expert bandleader, having guided Quicksilver through love songs both sacred and secular for more than three decades.

Lawson's former bassist, LOU REID, brings his versatile band, CAROLINA, to the Martin Street stage at 8:15 p.m., but that's just after the competition gets serious on the paid side of things: Two of bluegrass' great modern torchbearers, the familial DEL MCCOURY BAND and the Chris Thile-led genre-transgressing PUNCH BROTHERS, play consecutive sets at Red Hat Amphitheater. (6:15 p.m. and 7:45 p.m., respectively) They set up the evening's finale—a fantasyland collaboration between a half-dozen of bluegrass' biggest names, from SAM BUSH and DEL MCCOURY to JERRY DOUGLAS and BÉLA FLECK. If you're a jawdropper, remember, that concrete can hurt.

Tonight's Bluegrass Ramble doesn't quite carry the strength or size (five clubs, as opposed to six or seven) of the previous nights, due in large part to the weight of the bills in the amphitheater. But there are still delights to be had: Wistful and romantic Irish songwriter NIALL TONER sidles closer to folk and even folk-rock than bluegrass, but his narrative tribute to Bill Monroe gives an old story some new jangle. If you have a second during his Lincoln Theatre slot (10 p.m.), request "Lock and Key," a perfect acquiescence to lifelong love. Blind fiddle player MICHAEL CLEVELAND brings his stellar FLAMEKEEPER band to Tir Na Nog (11 p.m.), leading them through kinetic takes on playful tunes. For Tennessee quartet THE RIGNEYS, Mama plays bass while Daddy plays banjo and sings. The teenagers skip between instruments, gilding the originals on their assured new LP, , with loping fiddle and steadfast guitar chords. Speaking of kids, THE MOORE BROTHERS BAND (1 a.m. at Long View Center) comprises three of them, all between the ages of 11 and 19. Their go-to single—a double entendre about sweet watermelon and beautiful women called "I Wanna Sugar Baby"—is the sort of snappy number that demands these three audition for America's Got Talent or the like. Their playing could use some work, but at that age, don't you reckon they have time? —Grayson Haver Currin

Saturday, Sept. 28

For those with proper World of Bluegrass tickets, get to the Convention Center early to see five-time female vocalist of the year DALE ANN BRADLEY (11:20 a.m.), who sings with classic country style. Raleigh institution the KICKIN GRASS BAND brings a diverse set of styles to Red Hat in the morning (11:45 a.m.), though they'll also play a free set at 3:45 p.m. with the APPLE CHILL CLOGGERS in the Dance Tent. Stick around for THE GIBSON BROTHERS (12:45 p.m. at Red Hat). They build from a base of traditional bluegrass with standout songwriting and have rightfully become one of the most celebrated acts in the genre.

GRASSTOWNE (1:15 p.m. at City Plaza) features veteran mandolinist Alan Bibey, whose pedigree includes stints in IIIrd Tyme Out and The New Quicksilver. He's joined here by a quartet of young guns who inject youthful energy into the group's underrated contemporary blend. There's a tough choice at 2 p.m. between THE TRAVELIN' MCCOURYS (Convention Center)—basically Del's band, minus the patriarch—and DELLA MAE (Red Hat), who match their fine female harmonies with instrumental skills. The best option may be to catch a little of both, chased by legendary guitarist and singer PETER ROWAN in the Convention Center. His memberships in Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys and Old & In The Way speak for themselves.

Carolina-via-Switzerland trio THE KRUGER BROTHERS—bluegrass brethren with a classical bent—performs its "Appalachian Concerto" with the Kontras Quartet at the Convention Center (3:20), while the relatively new Johnson City, Tenn., quartet THE BAREFOOT MOVEMENT (2:45) offers fresh, genre-bending acoustic tunes at the Hargett Street Stage. BÉLA FLECK leads his second supergroup of the weekend at 5 p.m. at Red Hat. He's joined by singer-guitarist Danny Paisley and members of the Del McCoury band for a traditionally minded set. If you're looking for free, eclectic roots singer-songwriter JIM LAUDERDALE (City Plaza) performs at 5 p.m. also.

At 6:30 p.m., one of the entire fest's most unique acts, MISSY RAINES & THE NEW HIP, play the first of their three sets at Hargett Street Stage. They pair jazzy, Fleck-like hybrids with strong vocals. Locals MIPSO, who fit Nickel Creek's pop-inflected newgrass format, follow at 8 p.m. Try to catch some of songwriter-for-the-stars LARRY CORDLE, who plays with his LONESOME STANDARD TIME on the Martin Street Stage at 6:45 p.m.

The top draw for many at the inaugural Wide Open Bluegrass is STEVE MARTIN AND THE STEEP CANYON RANGERS, who headline Red Hat at 9:15 p.m. Martin is a surprisingly good banjo picker who unsurprisingly starts with his sometimes-campy songwriting. There are plenty of sharp instrumentals and straightforward contemporary bluegrass tunes, too, played with polished professionalism by the Rangers, an Asheville-area quintet that has backed Martin for a few years (see "How North Carolina's Steep Canyon Rangers have become one of bluegrass' great emissaries"). They're joined by singer-songwriter Edie Brickell, who lent her voice and lyrics to Martin's music on a collaborative album of gentle roots music earlier this year.

Locals CHATHAM COUNTY LINE provide worthy (and free) competition on the City Plaza stage at 9:30 p.m., plying bluegrass instrumentation to craft brilliant Americana amalgams that include rowdy acoustic rockers and delicate folk ballads.

Plenty of encore opportunities for acts you may have missed throughout the week highlight the final late-night Bluegrass Ramble: RAINES (10 p.m. at Long View and 1 a.m. at The Pour House), BRADLEY (10 p.m. at The Pour House), THE KRUGER BROTHERS (11 p.m. at The Pour House), GRASSTOWNE (midnight at Long View) and CORDLE (1 a.m. at Kings).

Get in your last bits of listening: Raleigh won't be the bluegrass capital of the world again for another year. —Spencer Griffith


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