An Impressionists View of the 2014 World of Bluegrass Conference; Color My World Bluegrass

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I was so excited when I learned that World of Bluegrass would be held in early October this year. It seems like forever since I’ve gotten to go as the conference dates conflicted with the Park Slope Jamboree that I’ve promoted for 15 years now. But underlying the excitement, was the memory that the last time I went was back when Tina was still alive. She would have absolutely LOVED all the hype in Raleigh. It seemed like the very air was charged with anticipation when I arrived on Monday.

Raleigh had gone all out to embrace this international event. City blocks were closed and banners were hung pretty much everywhere. Even the Governor made an appearance and gave some good-natured ribbing when he mentioned that bluegrass really got started after a young North Carolinian by the name of Earl Scruggs joined a struggling band led by some guy from Kentucky called Bill somebody or other. Yes, I’d have to say that the decision to move the World of Bluegrass to Raleigh was, in a word, brilliant! While it was always a thrill to be in Nashville, the conference was just one of many such events held there. In Raleigh, I got the sense that this is THE signature event of the year and I just couldn’t have been prouder.

With all that talent piled into one town, it’s no wonder that bluegrass music was coming at me from every direction. If I’d had time to go in a grocery store, I wouldn’t have been surprised a bit to hear a familiar fiddle tune playing over their sound system! It was definitely an immersion experience. I can only imagine how overwhelming all this might have felt to a new bluegrasser. There’s just so much to see and do that it’s hard to even decide. Someday, I’d like to attend this event and just roll along with the river of music and let it deposit me on whatever shore it wants!

As a former school teacher, it always interests me to check in with the youngest generation of bluegrassers. Many of these youngsters were getting their first taste of the “big” time by performing at showcase events that went on long into the night. Snaking my way around lobby couches and chairs that served as makeshift beds for these worn out kids became a morning ritual. There wasn’t a parent in sight hovering over these pre-teens, there was no need for babysitters…the bluegrass “village” looked after them and made sure their instruments were neatly stacked in a corner somewhere nearby.

And speaking of instruments, funny story…seems that the elevator doors opened up on the lobby floor and these two guitar cases walked out and one said to the other, “Did you forget to bring your picker again?” Hey, it really happened! Well, except for the bit about the guitar case walking and talking. I’m sure there was a frazzled musician somewhere on the 10th floor frantically looking for his instrument case and wondering where on earth he had put it! BTW, no guitars were harmed…the cases were turned in to the lost and found and claimed by a much relieved owner later. Just one more example of the bluegrass village at work.

As I moved through the crowds, it seemed like homecoming to me. Spotting familiar faces and getting a chance to talk with some of them reminded me how much I missed the “hometown” feel of this event. Grabbing a cup of coffee with a DJ friend, walking corridors talking with festival promoters, and hanging out with many long-time musician buddies really made me realize how much I had missed these past few years. I always wish I had more time to visit with folks but I’m telling you, there’s a lot going on over these 5 days and it keeps you hopping just to attend a few each day.

Let me give you a rundown of what were major highlights for me. On Tuesday, I attended the Grey Fox special reception for Bill Keith as Bill’s guest. Bill received the IBMA Distinguished Achievement Award at the award presentation on Thursday. (Which I’m sure in no way outshined the Brown Jug Award that he had just taken home from the Park Slope Jamboree a few days earlier!) It was great to talk with some of the banjo greats like Bela Fleck and Alan Munde as well as Bill Keith’s long time collaborator, Jim Rooney. Alan shared a copy of his newest project “Bright Munde” with me and I encourage all you banjo fans to get your hands on your own copy right away! Seeing Bill Keith celebrated after all these years of dedication to the bluegrass community was one of those “tears in my eyes” moments that seemed to keep cropping up all week long. As Bela gave the keynote speech, it was heartwarming to hear this incomparable musician (winner of more Grammys than any other musical artist in any genre) give the credit for his success to Bill. But even more special was the opportunity to see Bill take the stage later on Thursday and say a few words to those of us gathered there in his honor. Too often it seems that these awards occur after the honoree is gone, that’s when we notice the hole they left behind. I’m glad that Bill got a chance to know just how much his contribution to our bluegrass village means to all of us.

The DJ Taping Session was a whirlwind of activity on Wednesday as I sat down with some of my colleagues and hobnobbed about recent projects and “what’s new with you” topics. Catching up with Lee Michael Dempsey of WAMU, Jim Fisher from GLOBE in Indiana, Larry Nixon (WQDR – Raleigh), and Wayne Rice (KSON – San Diego) was just like old times. So much has happened since I saw them last, I about talked myself hoarse!

Later that day I attended the showcase “Ramble” organized by my friend, Si Kahn, in support of protecting the pristine wilderness of Bristol Bay, Alaska from mining interests. Musicians sported “Protect Bristol Bay” t-shirts and folks like Jeff Scroggins and Claire Lynch lent their voices in support of this cause. Si even performed a few songs from his album inspired by his time in Alaska and his deep conviction that we need to protect the few remaining “wild places” in our country. I’m always encouraged by the support that these causes receive from fellow musicians; often their involvement truly helps raise awareness about these issues.

Thursday was the big day with receptions all day and the awards show that evening. I attended the Special Awards Luncheon and had the pleasure of sitting at the table with Marshall Wilborn and his wife, Lynn Morris. “Cousin” Lynn Joiner, host of the Hillbilly at Harvard radio program (and another winner of the Distinguished Achievement Award) was seated near me and it was great to reminisce with him about my appearance on his show a few years back. Lynn is such an amazing character but even more amazing is that this show has been going on nonstop since 1948. Talk about staying power!

Nancy Cardwell had invited me to attend the Nominees Press Reception before the awards show. Hanging around with the likes of Fred Bartenstein and talking about pioneers of bluegrass was a highlight for me. I also got to have a nice visit with Doyle Lawson and had a chance to chat with Ronnie McCoury. It was a real pleasure to run into Gary B. Reid (former head of Copper Creek Records) and talk with him about his one-man show “A Life of Sorrow: The Life and Times of Carter Stanley” which was first performed in early September this year. Gary and I go way back and I was especially intrigued by this tribute to his long time hero. It’s just Gary and his guitar bringing to life the many aspects that made Carter Stanley such an icon in bluegrass history. Now that’s what I call a gutsy performance!

The Award Show was rife with special moments. Seeing Flatt Lonesome take home the award for Emerging Artist of the Year brought back memories of my nomination for that award 12 years ago. It’s no wonder they won this year, their harmonies are pristine and perfect and their performance is excitement personified. Particularly moving was Phil Leadbetter walking away with the award for Dobro Performer of the Year. And seeing Bobby Hicks nominated for Fiddle Performer of the Year at 81 kind of choked me up a bit as I realized how some of those performers I have admired for years have aged. I do hope they will all be with us for a long time to come. It was wonderful to listen to those who were honored by awards at this conference but I have to confess that Bill Keith’s speech was my favorite. To hear him talking about setting up a teepee at the Grey Fox festival each year just brought all kinds of hilarious pictures to mind! I hope he gets to set it up again next year!

I had to head on back home before my buddy Rick Bowman’s film (Herschel Sizemore: Mandolin in B) was shown on Friday. But I was certainly excited to learn that the film screenings were well attended. This film festival is a welcome addition to the conference activities. What was amazing to me was that there were 22 films submitted for the event. Wow! Only 8 made the cut and, from the trailers, it looked like it was a great selection. I sure hope this will be a recurring event. What really energizes me about the IBMA supporting these films is that it will encourage other filmmakers to consider bluegrass as a topic and, hopefully, more bluegrass-themed film festivals will start popping up across the country to complement Mark Hogan’s Bluegrass on Broadway Festival that started it all! Already we’ve added an AZ Bluegrass Film Festival and November will kick off the Point Music and Film Festival in San Diego. It’s a great way to get your bluegrass fix during the off-season!

Overwhelming, heart-warming, family reunion style hugging with a side of face-splitting smiles to go around, that about sums up my experience at the 2014 World of Bluegrass. It sure was hard leaving Raleigh.

Send me an email [email protected] and let me know what you thought about the 2014 World of Bluegrass. I’d like to hear your story!

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