Has the International Bluegrass Music Association built Raleigh's signature cultural moment, creating in only a year the event that sets not only the city but also its suburbs into unified motion?
On the eve of the mandolin's second annual reign over the Capital City, most signs—or more than ever before, it seems—point to yes. The World of Bluegrass conference returns Tuesday through Thursday, followed by the larger Wide Open Bluegrass celebration over the weekend, but that's just the beginning.
In the formerly public-art-resistant city, an ornate and enormous wooden sculpture made of recycled banjos now engulfs a downtown statue of Sir Walter Raleigh, now just another hapless bluegrass conquest. All summer, in preparation for IBMA's late-September arrival, string bands played the nearby City Plaza and, a few miles away, the North Hills shopping complex. Curtis Media launched a new bluegrass station only last week, a reminder of the pivotal role their own AM station, WPTF, played in the development of the sound. The mayor is sponsoring a stage in the street, and art galleries are throwing their doors open during the city's ostensibly sacrosanct First Friday to small bands of pickers and grinners, not young DJs or sound-art installations. Even The News & Observer hung a long vertical vinyl banner from its flat McDowell Street roof, advertising its impressive bluegrass-dedicated microsite (bluegrass.nandoweb.net) and wielding a lengthy hashtag. Nothing in recent Raleigh memory—Hopscotch, SPARKcon, not even the skygazer-clotted Fourth of July or First Night—has produced the sustained enthusiasm of these five days of high, lonesome and, it would seem, very popular tunes.
It's not just downtown Raleigh, either: Recognizing the horde of eager listeners that flooded a rather cramped area last year, towns such as Cary, Apex and Holly Springs have added their own bluegrass components, many of which preceded or will run concurrently with World of Bluegrass. The festival has metastasized to outposts on Hillsborough Street and Glenwood Avenue and sent musical missionaries into a dozen area schools.
Perhaps this week proves it was all beginner's luck, that all this effort and organization is much ado for an event whose newness has already dulled. But that doesn't seem likely. World of Bluegrass, for better and worse, embodies the particular, precarious mix of historic preservation and modern development that's become the region's de rigueur discussion and potential flashpoint. It strives to maintain a balance, meaning you can pick a banjo yourself on the "PNC Porch," a quaint bit of bucolic nostalgia produced by the festival's anchor sponsor, or watch an acoustic duo perform in the city's first parklet, Raleigh's most recent attempt to fall in urban-design line with cities like San Francisco and Portland. You can rove the streets throughout Friday and Saturday to watch free sets of rural, regional music sponsored by Bud Light or Big Boss, a local radio station or Amtrak. Could there be a more endemic or fitting mix for a city currently struggling with how much control its past should have over its future?
World of Bluegrass will live in Raleigh at the start of every fall for at least the next four years, at which point a better city infrastructure or incentives elsewhere might lure it to a town that's topping new nationwide best-of lists. But going into only the second year, it's hard to imagine Raleigh without its sudden attachment to banjos and late-night jams in hotel rooms, to tenors and slow walks in closed streets.
Do you really think, after all, that Raleigh leaders would yield their statued Sir Walter to a sculpture of broken MPCs and electric guitars?