The Future of Bluegrass is Assured

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After five stimulating, exciting, and exhausting days in Raleigh, NC at IBMA’s World of Bluegrass, we retreated to Hillsville Virginia, where we’ve been resting and exploring a different world of bluegrass for a little over a week. The contrast is both remarkable and enlightening. Here we are, along the Crooked Road about a dozen miles east of Galax, home of the Old-Time Fiddler’s convention held in July and the Rex Theater where’s there’s music just about every week. It’s quiet here. The leaves have been changing, but the season’s over and we’ve had plenty of quiet to read, write, catch up on the news we were pretty much isolated from for a week (and what a pleasure that’s been!), and visit a couple of local venues along the famed Crooked Road , which we’ve visited each year for the past four. So let’s look at the contrasts to see what we might find.

IBMA’s World of Bluegrass, held in Raleigh, NC, for the first time this year after eight years in Nashville, was truly an extravaganza. The Business Conference featured the best attended seminars I’ve seen since coming to IBMA for the first time in 2008. One of them even ignited some controversy which has spilled over into the forums and even the pages of Bluegrass Today. More important, people came to learn from each other, and there was lots of that going on. But perhaps most important, the showcases made a statement about where bluegrass is in 2013. It was the profusion of music and the results of the Awards Show that perhaps signal the state of bluegrass 2013 better than anything else. Held in North Carolina for the first time, the contribution of the Tar Heel State to the history of bluegrass and its current development was celebrated in music and in talk all over. Earl Scruggs was never far from the lips of musicians and banjos were everywhere. Yet a band composed entirely of women without a banjo was named Emerging Band, and a band from far upstate New York became Entertainer of the Year for the second time. A great guitar player nurtured in California and developed in Kentucky was inducted into the Hall of Fame, as Tony Rice spoke in his own voice for the first time in public in twenty years. Rhonda Vincent, from Missouri appeared as a performer for the first time since 2006 and laid to rest a controversy that should have been forgotten years ago. Bands from Italy and the Czech Republic were featured. The scope of bluegrass is clearly not just national, but truly international.

What used to be called Fan Fest has been re-imagined as Wide Open Bluegrass, and, indeed, it was wide open from several points of view. From the opening days, what once were called “after hours” showcases, were made official showcases, and the late evening performances were moved to six venues removed from the Raleigh Convention Center by several blocks geographically and a several generations in their locale and vibe. By placing the showcases in several bars and a former church location, a clear decision to invite in a non-conventional audience to see the bands was signaled. And a younger crowd came out to see what was going on and have a party along with the talent buyers for whom these showcases are held. Some less mobile people complained of not being able to get to the remote locations, but the general response of both bands and attendees appears to have been quite positive. For those wishing a more conventional approach to showcasing, official showcases were also held in the ballroom of the Raleigh Convention Center.

At the 6000 seat outdoor Red Hat Amphitheater offerings ranged from two classic collaborations playing classic bluegrass and featuring Del McCoury, Sam Bush Bela Fleck, Tony Rice, Jerry Douglas, Mark Schatz, and Jason Carter on Friday night, and Bela Fleck, Ron McCoury, Danny Paisley, Jason Carter, and Alan Bartram late on Saturday afternoon all playing classic covers of traditional bluegrass as well as they can be played and sung today. They were paired with The Punch Brothers on Friday and the Infamous Stringdusters on Saturday. In other words, different styles and eras of bluegrass music were represented at their very best, and happily accepted as members of the same big family. In the clubs, the same contrasts were seen and rewarded with cheers. And Kids on Bluegrass on Saturday afternoon at Center Stage, outdoors on Fayetteville Street was cheered on by the most diverse bluegrass audience I’ve ever seen, in terms of both age and diversity. The streets were filled by the curious who came to gawk and stayed to cheer. Some bluegrass fans were made this week, and many of them were young, urban, and itching for a sound abd feeling that they heard from bluegrass. The crowds in Raleigh brought out the best in every band we saw, and IBMA brought out the best in Raleigh, which welcomed us with open arms.

So here we are, recuperating in the center of the Crooked Road, nestled in the countryside from which Ralph Stanley came, where the first recordings and radio shows of country and bluegrass were made, where the Carter Family collected songs that are still sung everywhere, and where County Sales supplies bluegrass recordings to the world from. Also, it’s the land of Sammy Shelor, Junior Sisk, Alan Mills, and more. We have visited Judith Burnette, who plays bluegrass music at WBRF-FM (98.1 and streaming live) for five hours a night five days a week. And we went to hear 81 year old artist/musician Willard Gayheart and his son-in-law Scott Freeman open for Wayne Henderson and Helen White as they played the older tones for us sitting in an audience of other septuagenarians enjoying their music. There’s still plenty of music for the older generation to enjoy live, the future of bluegrass music is assured, at least as far as you could tell from the young people in Kids on Bluegrass. There’s new and exciting music on the horizon still standing on the very broad shoulders of Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs who always encouraged it to go where it would. There’s a huge appetite for authenticity and passion in the world of music, and bluegrass satisfies it for more people than you can imagine. The future of bluegrass music is assured, and guaranteed by its past.

Ted Lehmann
[email protected]

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