All through last year’s World of Bluegrass festival in downtown Raleigh, people kept walking around talking, with some surprise and amazement, how great it all was. No one knew, really, how things would go with the International Bluegrass Music Association’s convention and accompanying festival.
It had been headquartered in Music City, after all. But IBMA officials didn’t think Nashville really appreciated the bluegrass gathering, that it played, pun intended, second fiddle to the mammoth country music industry. And so here they came last September to Raleigh.
It turned out that Raleigh, bluegrass-wise, was a pretty good Music City itself. Hundreds of bands played all over downtown, some official parts of the festival, others just “parking lot pickers” who gathered spontaneously.
About 84,000 of the 154,000 who attended the festival and all the assorted venues came from outside Wake County. Locals and vistors alike found some of the best music in hotel hallways downtown, where guitar and banjo and fiddle cases were emptied for a little live, spontaneous musicianship.
Among the highlights were appearances by well-known players like Steve Martin, who also happens to be a movie star. But if Martin and others commanded the major venues such as the Red Hat Amphitheater, there was plenty of free music to be found all along the streets.
It was possible to get chalk portraits of bluegrass greats, fiddle pins, funnel cakes and leather goods.
Raleigh came to life.
This isn’t to diminish the various other festivals in town, or the running events. But the IBMA gathering was big time with big stars.
And clearly, the association took a liking to Raleigh, announcing a three-year contract extension that will keep the gathering here through 2018.
And among the headliners this fall will be the icon Ricky Skaggs, singer, fiddler, banjo player, guitarist and one of the world’s greatest mandolin players. Skaggs has won more awards and played more different kinds of music than almost anyone in his field. And he’s got an affection for North Carolina, having made a memorable recording with two of the Tar Heel state’s most beloved musical sons, the late Earl Scruggs and the late Doc Watson.
“We own bluegrass,” Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane said after the announcement of the shows and the contract extension. Well, Kentucky might want to argue that one, being the bluegrass state and all, but at this point Raleigh could make a strong case.
What a glorious variety of artistic entertainment the Capital City has, between opera and ballet at the Duke Energy Center and the state symphony in Meymandi Hall and the Broadway touring shows and now, the greatest bluegrass gathering of them all. There’s no need for citizens and visitors to make a choice over their favorite among all those choices. Just have them say, “We love...we love Raleigh.” Yes, we’ll take that.