At 11 a.m. Friday, Balsam Range took the Red Hat Amphitheater stage less than 12 hours after winning entertainer of the year at Thursday night’s International Bluegrass Music Association Awards. A few songs in, bassist Tim Surrett blinked in the bright morning sunlight and acknowledged the applause.
“Thanks so much, folks,” he said. “We’re so tired right now, we’re not sure if we’re washin’ or hangin’.”
By then, the members of Balsam Range weren’t the only ones.
Friday was the day IBMA’s World of Bluegrass kicked into high gear with the Red Hat shows and the free street festival, which drew tens of thousands of people downtown.
But for IBMA attendees who had been playing and listening and networking around the clock since Tuesday, Friday was when accumulated weariness started to catch up.
“We can’t get the whole band together right now,” Steep Canyon Rangers frontman Woody Platt was overheard telling a photographer. “Nicky (Sanders) has got to sleep until our show because he was up all night playing the fiddle.”
The well-worn joke about IBMA is that it’s an acronym for “I’ve Been Mostly Awake.” But the thing is, that’s not really a joke. Jon Weisberger, IBMA’s board chairman, released a fundraising album for the organization this year called “I’ve Been Mostly Awake” – and kept a schedule that proved it.
Tuesday’s IBMA opening day began early for Weisberger, with a morning television interview and board meeting. After that, he and the other members of one of his groups, Chris Jones and the Night Drivers, had a brief ceremony to sign a record deal. Then Weisberger took to the Raleigh Convention Center ballroom stage to introduce keynote speaker Béla Fleck.
More meetings and a quick dinner followed, then back-to-back rehearsals and gigs playing bass behind Irene Kelley and Jim Lauderdale at the Longview Center at 9 and 10 p.m. That left Weisberger about 10 minutes to hoof his upright bass across downtown to Lincoln Theatre for an 11 p.m. show with another of his groups, Lonesome Heirs; followed by yet another Lauderdale gig at 1 a.m.
He kept pretty much that same pace all week.
“You just expect to burn the candle at both ends,” Weisberger said. “Bluegrass has always been one of the pioneering do-it-yourself industries. Just about everyone in it wears more than one hat. Bluegrass musicians have always had to be booking agents and managers and publicists and recording engineers, too – you can mix and match some combination of those.”
‘I love this music’
It’s no way to get rich, so the music itself had better be reward enough.
“Honestly, it sounds corny, but I love this music and the people in it,” Weisberger said. “This week is a little heavy because of the showcase schedule. I got asked to do a lot of things semi-last-minute. But that’s always OK.”
Lest you think such a workload is an anomaly, lots of other people were working every bit as hard as Weisberger. Donna Ulisse and Poor Mountain Boys played a total of seven IBMA shows and workshops (not counting unofficial gigs such as a set at the California Bluegrass Association’s suite in the downtown Marriott Hotel), plus a bluegrass-in-the-schools appearance at Carnage Middle School.
Darin & Brooke Aldridge, a married duo from Cherryville, had just as heavy a schedule – also including an outreach performance at an elementary school in Garner – while adding in daytime networking events such as Thursday afternoon’s Gig Fair.
“I love to play and perform and meet new people,” said Darin. “A lot of folks are here, and it’s time to work, you know?”
The band that might have worked hardest of all to get to IBMA was Mustered Courage, a young quartet from Melbourne, Australia. The group put on an impressive series of performances, built around speed-of-light picking that belied just how road-weary they were.
“We’ve done 54 shows in 90 days and driven 19,000 miles through 43 states,” said guitarist Julian Abrahams after the second of three Tuesday night shows (out of 10 total for the week). “Getting to IBMA is what we’ve basically been working up to the whole time, and it’s taken three vans and four mental breakdowns to get here. And it’s been great.”
Still, Abrahams allowed that Mustered Courage was about ready for it to be over.
“We’re at the tail end of it and will see our own beds again soon,” he said. “It’s been the most challenging thing we’ve ever taken on – sharing four people to a room because we’re broke. But we’re planting the seed in this U.S. market. Maybe next time we can afford at least a bed for each person so no one’s on the floor.”