Bluegrass Raleigh

Opening day of 'World of Bluegrass' asks: What is bluegrass?

dmenconi@newsobserver.comSeptember 24, 2013 

— The International Bluegrass Music Association’s annual gathering is an industry convention as much as it is a festival. Tuesday’s opening day of the first-ever Raleigh sojourn featured a large helping of almost every musician’s least-favorite topic: business.

There have been times in the past when “business” should have been in quotes. But not these days, because bluegrass is as popular now as it’s been in decades – maybe ever.

Alan Jackson is the latest country superstar to make a back-to-the-roots move with “The Bluegrass Album,” which hit stores Tuesday. Thanks to Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons and other rustic groups, banjos are improbably fashionable atop the charts. And even the electronic dance hits of Swedish deejay Avicii have some bluegrass-leaning acoustic instrumentation, including singer Dan Tyminski (the voice behind the 2000 “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” hit “Man of Constant Sorrow”).

Not too many people convening at the Raleigh Convention Center on Tuesday seemed to be under the illusion that the pop charts were in their future. Plenty of attendees were happy just to be here as part of the wider bluegrass community. Participants have come from all over America and 30 nations overseas – and also right here in the Triangle.

“We just hope to be heard,” said Steve Celistini of the local bluegrass group Gravy Boys. “It’s not like we play out of town on tour, so we’re not looking to get signed to a record deal.”

But even if pop stardom isn’t in the cards for most, there’s still the sense that bluegrass doesn’t have to be a ghetto anymore. That made for a nice energy to Tuesday’s proceedings, including the requisite panels about how to run your band professionally enough to take advantage of any lightning strikes that come your way.

There was “Mind Your Business,” “All You Need to Know for World Domination in Music Publishing” and “Grant Writing Workshop.”

“I’m here to get some pointers on how to write grants,” said Louis Meyers, executive director of the Folk Alliance International conference. For all this newfound success, a lot of the bluegrass world remains nonprofit.

Is it or isn’t it?

Of course, there’s another undercurrent to the sudden and unexpected popularity of bluegrass: the nagging sense that a lot of what the wider mainstream thinks of as bluegrass actually ... well, isn’t bluegrass. That made for an especially lively keynote address by Noam Pikelny, banjo player of the Punch Brothers.

Punch Brothers are more of a classical ensemble playing traditional instruments than a conventional bluegrass band. Given that the IBMA’s focus tends to be more on the old-school traditional style, Pikelny was an unusual choice for keynote speaker. He was pretty well-received, though.

Keynote festivities were on the convention center mezzanine for a late-afternoon crowd of about 500 people, who munched on shrimp and grits while hobnobbing and trading business cards.

After a welcome by Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane, Pikelny disarmed the crowd right away by admitting, “I know I play in a band some of you don’t consider bluegrass.”

He went on to describe the contemporary landscape of bluegrass popularity, cautioning the crowd not to expect Del McCoury to turn into “the next Beyonce” or for Miley Cyrus to take up dobro.

But the reason bluegrass is on the rise, Pikelny said, is that it’s “overflowing with authenticity” compared to the pop mainstream. And while some acts passing for bluegrass nowadays might have given Bill Monroe pause, Pikelny argued that all this attention is still a net positive.

“I’m not asking you to embrace any music or musicians just because they’re wrapped in this flag of bluegrass that’s been so near and dear to us for so long,” he said. “I’m asking you to acknowledge that the definition of bluegrass has always been ethereal, and not to get bogged down in debates over what is bluegrass and what is not.”

The crowd applauded. Several seconds later, Pikelny’s microphone sputtered and rendered him briefly inaudible.

“I’ve been censored,” he quipped afterward, to laughter.

From Kyoto to Raleigh

Possibly the best answer to this traditional-versus-progressive question came from a group of four young attendees from very far away. They were students at Kobe University in Kyoto, part of at least 30 IBMA registrants who had come to Raleigh all the way from Japan. I came upon them walking through the convention center Tuesday afternoon, instruments in tow, seeking a gig (or at least a translator).

“We are friends, not a band,” said Kenji Ono, who had an “I (HEART) BLUEGRASS” sticker on his fiddle case and was the group’s best English-speaker. “But we have come here to play. We are in a bluegrass club at school. There are about 100 people in it.”

Ono and his friends were very interested to learn about the after-hours jamming floors of the downtown Marriott Hotel (the third and 17th). When I showed him a picture of the “Jamming Floor” sign I’d taken on my phone, one of them pulled out his phone and took a picture of my picture.

We continued talking as best we could. I asked what type of bluegrass they preferred, traditional or progressive. I tried asking several different ways, but their answer was always the same.

“We like bluegrass.”

Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat

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