RALEIGH — Friday evening’s sunset served as backdrop to an almost unimaginably bucolic scene in downtown Raleigh. After an ominous overcast stretch, the clouds parted as bluegrass music coursed on every corner for “Wide Open Bluegrass,” the aptly named outdoor portion of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s annual festival.
Tens of thousands of people packed the Fayetteville Street strip Friday and Saturday, listening to bands pick and sing on five stages. Both nights brought sellout crowds of 6,000 filling Red Hat Amphitheater for headline acts. Friday’s show culminated with an “Epic Collaboration” featuring Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, Del McCoury and other A-list bluegrass acts.
“Raleigh’s sure made us feel welcome,” McCoury said onstage, as the adjoining convention center’s shimmer wall glistened in the twilight. The crowd roared, and it was hard not to wonder:
Can next year’s IBMA convention possibly top this?
Last year, some skepticism greeted the IBMA’s announcement that its annual convention was moving to Raleigh. That was especially the case in Nashville, the country music capital, which IBMA abandoned after an eight-year run.
Peter Cooper, music columnist for the Nashville Tennessean, wrote a witheringly condescending column in which he called Raleigh “a fine city,” noted its basketball virtues and concluded, “What does that have to do with bluegrass? Well, nothing at all.”
Maybe the naysayers stayed away, because everyone from out of town seemed thrilled to be here. Everyone I talked to raved unequivocally about the way Raleigh embraced the event. It was a stark contrast to the indifference the IBMA encountered in Nashville, where it was just one of many niche-oriented music festivals.
Montie Elston, a board member of the California Bluegrass Association, has been going to the IBMA convention for years in Nashville (and Louisville, Ky., before that). He pronounced Raleigh the IBMA’s best host city ever.
“I like it a lot better here,” Elston said. “It’s a friendlier atmosphere than Nashville, and also economically more advantageous. Hotels and restaurants are cheaper here; you can walk to things. It’s been great here this week.”
Roy Moore, who does a bluegrass show on Greensboro radio station WQFS, said, “It’s been great to be in a place for this where we’re wanted. Nashville never did anything.”
Raleigh’s embrace of the IBMA event was more than reciprocated. Final numbers won’t be available until later this week at the earliest, but all the statistics are coming back overwhelmingly positive so far.
The IBMA conference had about 1,500 registrants, up from 1,118 in Nashville last year, and they filled all the downtown hotels. Thursday’s awards show at Memorial Auditorium drew a sellout crowd of around 2,200 – up from just over 2,000 in Nashville last year. And the 12,000 people attending the two Red Hat shows dwarfed the 8,000 that the IBMA’s “Fan Festival” drew in Nashville last year.
Another key statistic is IBMA membership, which got a bump from the buzz of this year’s convention. Membership is up 25 percent this year, according to IBMA executive director Nancy Cardwell.
“We’re signing up a lot of new people this week, too,” Cardwell said. “It feels like we have a lot more people here this year. In the history of the event, people are always curious when we go to a new city. We have one year to sell everyone on it and hope they’ll come back next year.”
This is the first year of a three-year contract IBMA has with Raleigh.
Expect plenty of return visits next year, as well as new faces drawn from positive word of mouth. One person singing IBMA Raleigh’s praises was Lee Ann Womack, the platinum-selling country singer, who came to town as a fan.
“It’s been great that the music is literally on every corner,” Womack said. “To hear real music like this again, it’s been great. I’ve not been around music this rootsy in quite awhile. This has probably been the two greatest days of my adult life.”
It all came together
Raleigh turned out to be the perfect IBMA city for a confluence of factors, all of which have been hiding in plain sight – but which haven’t been tied together this effectively by a single event until now.
First, there’s the plush new convention center, which is more open and naturally lit than the old Nashville convention facility. With hotels in close proximity, Red Hat Amphitheater right across McDowell Street and Duke Energy Center’s performance halls nearby, Raleigh’s main event complex is far more concentrated and walker-friendly than the setup in Nashville.
Then there are the city’s downtown nightclubs, a half-dozen live-music nightspots all within several blocks. Where most of Nashville’s IBMA live showcases happened in the fluorescent-lit confines of the convention center, Raleigh had the multivenue “Bluegrass Ramble.”
PineCone director William Lewis, an IBMA board member who was one of the festival’s Raleigh planners, described the club part of the program as a “bluegrass Hopscotch,” referring to the alternative-rock Hopscotch Music Festival. From Tuesday through Saturday nights, festival attendees hopped from club to club across downtown until closing time – and then jammed the rest of the night away in hotel rooms, hallways and lobbies.
Most major of all, Raleigh offered its usual very cool street-festival atmosphere. Bluegrass is an inherently outdoor music, and it’s traditionally heard at festivals in rural environs. That made Nashville’s indoor convention-center setting a less-than-ideal fit for IBMA.
But Raleigh solved that with “Wide Open Bluegrass,” a free street festival up and down Fayetteville and the surrounding streets. Putting a bluegrass festival in an outdoor urban setting worked spectacularly, with huge crowds and great energy through the weekend.
“It looked great, a lot of people wandering around listening to music,” said IBMA board chairman Jon Weisberger. “That’s what we were expecting and hoping for. I’m really pleased, and so is everybody I’ve talked to.”
A signature event
IBMA filled some needs for Raleigh, too, most notably in filling a convention center that the city spent a great deal of money to build. And from the IBMA’s macro-perspective, this week’s breakthrough happened at a time when bluegrass’ popularity creates some opportunities for growth.
As Noam Pikelny noted in his IBMA keynote on Tuesday, nobody should expect Del McCoury to be “the next Beyonce” or for Miley Cyrus to take up dobro. But thanks to Mumford & Sons, Avett Brothers and other star acts taking banjos onto the pop charts, the mainstream seems more receptive to bluegrass than it’s ever been.
This year, the result was the sort of symbiosis that chamber of commerce types dream about. IBMA had its best convention ever, and Raleigh got a signature event that should pay off for years to come – especially because a lot of attendees were younger. Everywhere you turned, you saw kids playing bluegrass.
“The music is more popular than ever, and we want to be a vital part of that,” said the IBMA’s Cardwell.
So far, so great.
Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat