Several years back, the city of Raleigh was avidly courting the International Bluegrass Music Association, trying to get the IBMA to move its annual festival here. After the organizations board scrutinized bids from competing cities, word got out that Raleigh was among the finalists.
Thats when William Lewis got involved. As executive director of PineCone (Piedmont Council of Traditional Music), Lewis had been booking folk and bluegrass concerts in Raleigh for years, and this looked like a grand opportunity to take the music to the masses.
We sort of, um, invited ourselves to the table, Lewis, 38, said with a laugh. But we wanted IBMA to understand there was a supportive local organization with a long history of programming bluegrass. And it worked.
When the bluegrass associations search committee came to Raleigh to tour the citys facilities in March 2012, PineCone set the schedule and organized a reception with various luminaries from the local acoustic-music community. Two months later, the association announced Raleigh as its 2013 host city and Lewis as the organizations newest board member.
IBMAs World of Bluegrass festival gets underway Tuesday, drawing hundreds of performers and thousands of attendees from all over the world. PineCone is one of the events producers, booking the acts and putting on shows at venues including Red Hat Amphitheater. As host and local face of the event, Lewis will be scurrying around various downtown venues trying to keep everything running on time.
Weve all been very impressed with William, who has been a great addition to the team, said Nancy Cardwell, executive director of the bluegrass association. I dont know if he realized just how much work would be involved. Hes the man on the ground there, one of our go-to people.
Connecting through music
Depending on how you reckon it, Lewis career as a folklorist began during college, or during his childhood. Lewis grew up in rural Georgia 10 miles of dirt road every which way, he says and playing music together was a large part of his familys do-it-yourself entertainment. But Lewis didnt fully grasp how music could define people and places until he was taking folklore classes from Professor Cece Conway at Appalachian State University.
I went with her to a lot of house parties because she was always chasing down fiddlers and storytellers, Lewis said. That was my introduction to Appalachian music, not on stages so much as in peoples houses, and it helped me understand the significance of the cultural context Id grown up with. Peoples connection to place through music fascinated me.
Lewis continued on with graduate studies at UNC-Chapel Hill followed by work with the North Carolina Folklife Institute. Place-based cultural tourism became a specialty for Lewis while he worked on projects including the Blue Ridge Music Trails of North Carolina guidebook.
Working on things like that and seeing the impact in the communities made a real difference to me, Lewis said. It was tourism highlighting cultural assets, music and dance traditions tourists could experience, which was a new, viable economic model especially with the old furniture and textile industries moving overseas.
Lewis joined PineCone, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving, presenting and promoting all forms of traditional music, as a program associate in 2004. Formed in 1984, the organization has around 900 dues-paying members and an annual budget of $427,000 that it uses to put on workshops, educational events and several dozen concerts per year by the likes of Kris Kristofferson and Ralph Stanley.
After PineCone executive director Susan Spurlin Newberry retired in 2008, the board chose Lewis as her successor. He has continued the organizations work with evangelical zeal, energetically preaching about the potential value of music as a brand for North Carolina.
William is very knowledgeable and extremely adept at working with all sorts of different kinds of people, said Wayne Martin, executive director of the North Carolina Arts Council and one of PineCones original co-founders. Hes a wonderful connector who wants to do good for the community, which his work with PineCone shows. I think the potential is there to make North Carolina internationally known for music, and William has been a leader there.
A live-music city?
Once the bluegrass association announced Raleigh as its convention city for the next three years, the real work began. Lewis and PineCones staff and volunteers have been closely involved in the countless logistical issues involved in planning the big-name shows with Steve Martin at Red Hat Amphitheater; the Bluegrass Ramble showcases at Lincoln Theatre, Pour House and other downtown nightclubs; and the free street festival.
Its reaching a crescendo in these last few days running up to Tuesdays kickoff. One thing Lewis helped set up was bus transportation to and from a campground at the State Fairgrounds, where people can stay to make IBMA more of a traditional camping festival-type experience.
Part of bluegrass culture is camping and RVs, Lewis said. So well see how many people do that. And well be rolling out the red carpet to make sure IBMA here is a distinctive experience. They were in Nashville for years and youd never have known it. Raleigh has gone in the total opposite direction. Whether youre here for IBMA or not, youll know about it.
Lewis hasnt slept much for the past month, but he is one of the people committed to making the convention in Raleigh a success in hopes that the bluegrass association will stay longer than its initial three-year commitment.
There are still doubts out there, people saying that Raleighs not a bluegrass town, Lewis said. But its a warm place open to music of all sorts, and theres a lot of local support. Bluegrass is a key piece of Raleighs history and heritage. I hope the city can benefit, rebrand itself as a live-music city.
Know someone who should be Tar Heel of the Week? Contact us at email@example.com or find Tar Heel of the Week on Facebook.
Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat