World of Bluegrass officially starts on Tuesday, but the unofficial kickoff preview was this weekend’s “Live & Local: Bluegrass Festival” in Raleigh. And that wasn’t too early for people to start wondering whether this year’s weather would improve upon last year’s rain-plagued event.
One band that played Sunday, Swift Creek, even offered up a weather prayer of sorts. It was a three-minute music-history lesson called “Bluegrass Hurricane,” a string of weather metaphors inspired by the storms that drove last year’s outdoor events inside the Raleigh Convention Center.
Performing in a hazy drizzle in a park just off Hillsborough Street, Swift Creek’s Kevin Brown looked skyward as he sang.
There’s a rumble out of Georgia rollin’ up through Tennessee
Never miss a local story.
It’s a mighty force of nature washing over you and me
It’s the Carolina lightning, it’s the cold Kentucky rain
It’s the thunder from Virginia, it’s a bluegrass hurricane.
The roots of “Bluegrass Hurricane” go back to 2015, when Hurricane Joaquin was churning through the Atlantic and looked like it might hit Raleigh during the bluegrass festival. Once the hashtag #BluegrassHurricane started showing up on social media, that was enough for Brown.
“My first thought was, ‘Somebody is gonna write a song about this,’” Brown said. “Finally I decided, ‘Hey, I’m a songwriter, so why don’t I?’ I wrote the chorus during last year’s IBMA and it was all I had until we went into the studio for our next album. Jerry Brown, the producer, asked if I was still writing. I told him that idea and he said, ‘Finish it.’”
My first thought was, ‘Somebody is gonna write a song about this.’ Finally I decided, ‘Hey, I’m a songwriter, so why don’t I?’
Kevin Brown, of the band Swift Creek
The recorded version of “Bluegrass Hurricane” appears on Swift Creek’s current album “Magnolia,” with a video featuring lots of local landmarks. And like Chatham County Line’s IBMA-inspired 2014 song “Living in Raleigh Now,” Brown is hoping Swift Creek might get some mileage from the World of Bluegrass connection.
“Yeah, Chatham County Line did the local-angle song two years ago,” Brown said with a laugh. “I selfishly admit that I envision this as maybe occupying a little of that space this time around – local band makes explicit IBMA reference.”
Despite the elements, last year’s World of Bluegrass was a success and turned out about as well as it could have. Raleigh was spared the brunt of the storm’s wrath, but there was enough wind and rain to necessitate moving the outdoor program inside the Raleigh Convention Center.
The Red Hat Amphitheater main-stage shows like Alison Krauss went downstairs into the convention center’s exhibition area, while the smaller street-festival shows were moved into rooms large and small throughout the complex. Even the arts vendors were accommodated, along the convention center’s hallways and concourses. The only thing that had to be completely scrapped was the barbecue festival.
“We were certainly proud and excited about being able to move everything indoors last year,” said William Lewis, the PineCone executive director who heads up the festival’s local organizing committee. “It’s good to know it can be done, and it was great having everyone rally around to make it happen. But we hope to never have to do that again.”
While the event was saved, the indoor setting did limit attendance significantly. Following two years of record-setting attendance topped by the 180,000 people who came in 2014, last year’s model had a total attendance of about 98,000 – not bad, but not much more than half the year before.
As for this year, the weather forecast looks iffy early in the week. But that’s not really a problem, since the festival-opening International Bluegrass Music Association business convention that kicks off Tuesday is all indoors.
The forecast calls for cooler temperatures and decreasing chances of rain as the week progresses. That would be perfect, given that the “Wide Open Bluegrass” outdoor program starts Friday at Red Hat and along downtown’s Fayetteville Street main drag.
It’s not just the organizers who are praying for sunny and cool weekend weather, either.
“A lot of people talked about how they kind of enjoyed it more indoors last year,” said Russell Johnson, whose Grass Cats are scheduled to play outdoors Friday night. “Grass Cats did great, played to a packed room. But I still missed having it outside. Those first two years were so magic.”