After days of intermittent muggy rainfall, bluegrass week finally hit weather perfection at sunset Friday evening.
A cool breeze blew through downtown’s Red Hat Amphitheater while the Earls of Leicester were onstage, singing Raleigh’s praises as host city for a successful fourth year of World of Bluegrass. The Earls played their old-school bluegrass with impeccable precision, nary a note out of place. They were great.
And yet they weren’t the best thing I saw during the week, or even that night. About an hour later, while Ricky Skaggs was onstage at Red Hat, I came upon a pickup jam in the lobby of the Raleigh Marriott City Center. It just so happens that the handicap-access ramp just off the hotel’s lobby has perfect acoustics, so six players were crowded into a corner and going at it – most notably Michael Cleveland, a blind fiddler of almost supernatural talent.
It was spectacular music for an audience of perhaps a dozen people. And we all whooped and hollered just as fervently as the thousands who were cheering for Skaggs across the street at Red Hat.
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That’s the most appealing aspect of World of Bluegrass – the proximity to the music. Sure, it was cool that the Earls and Skaggs both sat and signed autographs for hundreds of fans after their Red Hat main-stage shows.
But it was even cooler to get to stand right next to one of the planet’s best bluegrass fiddlers. Or to wander through the International Bluegrass Music Association trade show and bump into Joe McEuen, longtime banjo guru of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, sitting in with classical-bluegrass trio the Kruger Brothers.
“I go to about eight festivals a year and this one ranks at the top,” said Dan Engel, who came down from Lynchburg, Va. “It’s my favorite because it’s three festivals in one – the Ramble club shows, the big shows at Red Hat and the free Streetfest.”
And there’s also that fourth part, the casual and freely shared performances in intimate settings, the hallways and lobbies and hotel rooms. That’s still the best part of all.
Overall figures won’t be available for a few weeks, so we don’t yet know this year’s bottom-line attendance and how it compares with prior years. Even if 2016 doesn’t top 2014’s record-breaking total attendance of 180,000-plus, it should beat last year’s “Bluegrass Hurricane” that forced the outdoor-festival program inside the Raleigh Convention Center.
This year’s weather was comparatively cooperative, with good crowds on the street Friday and Saturday, plus solid crowds for the Thursday night IBMA Awards show and the weekend Red Hat Amphitheater shows. The IBMA also had an attendance increase for this year’s business conference.
The city of Raleigh has been an amazing partner, embracing and welcoming World of Bluegrass. You see it from the time you get to the airport, and on the streets. We’ve been overwhelmed. It’s been tremendous.
Paul J. Schiminger, International Bluegrass Music Association executive director
“The city of Raleigh has been an amazing partner, embracing and welcoming World of Bluegrass,” IBMA executive director Paul J. Schiminger said Saturday. “You see it from the time you get to the airport, and on the streets. We’ve been overwhelmed. It’s been tremendous.”
In ways both large and small, outreach was a priority for IBMA 2016 – including the sighted-guide initiative. This year, the World of Bluegrass local organizing committee provided guides to assist visually impaired festival-goers, and a few people took the committee up on the offer.
Two of them were Brian and Linda Lewis, a blind couple from Raleigh who hooked up with their guides on Saturday to explore the Wide Open Bluegrass street festival. Their guides led each down the street by the arm, pointing out obstacles – “OK, there’s a sort of down ramp here, then a wire to step over and you’re clear …” – and describing the scene around them.
They paused at the stage on Martin Street to watch a young quartet called Gravel Road. Mandolinist Addie Levy introduced Johnny Cash’s “Tennessee Flat Top Box,” which inspired Linda to let forth a loud “WHOO!”
“Well, now,” Levy said, looking in her direction. “We’ve got some Cash fans here, I see.”
Linda clapped along with the music, and she cheered louder than anyone else afterward.
More pointedly, diversity and inclusion have been emphasis points for IBMA this year, partly in response to North Carolina’s controversial House Bill 2. The so-called “Bathroom Bill” law, which forbid local non-discrimination ordinances, served as backdrop to a number of IBMA events.
There was a convention panel called “Bluegrass Belongs to Us All: Creating an Inclusive Environment at Your Event, Gig, and in Your Career,” plus a “Shout and Shine” showcase with performers spanning nationalities, ages and orientations – from African-American to young Indian immigrants to an openly gay banjo player.
Ironically, it seems that HB2 resulted in gay people being more visible at IBMA this year than ever before.
It’s true that the audience is overwhelmingly white, but bluegrass is diverse. I’m glad we’re having conversations about diversity at IBMA now. That had not happened here before this year.
Justin Hiltner, co-organizer of IBMA showcase and panel on inclusivity
“There have always been women and African-Americans in Appalachian music,” said Justin Hiltner, co-organizer of both the showcase and panel. “It’s music predicated on the identities of marginalized people, but the narrative belongs to the white dude in a straw hat and overalls. It’s true that the audience is overwhelmingly white, but bluegrass is diverse. I’m glad we’re having conversations about diversity at IBMA now. That had not happened here before this year.”
Slowly but surely, the times are a-changin’, at least onstage. At Thursday’s IBMA Awards, Becky Buller won fiddle player and Sierra Hull mandolin player of the year – the first time women have ever won either category. And this came in the wake of Greensboro native Rhiannon Giddens becoming the first woman and first African-American to win the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass.
Out in the crowd, the graying of the bluegrass audience is still an ongoing concern. And it’s true that the crowds in the clubs, streets and stands during bluegrass week were overwhelmingly white.
But that’s not stopping a wide array of people with vastly different backgrounds from coming to it. Friday evening found one of those people, Hiroshi Arakawa, rolling back into town and hoping to find a place to play during the weekend.
A wide array of people with vastly different backgrounds are coming to World of Bluegrass. Friday evening found one of those people, Hiroshi Arakawa rolling back into town and hoping to find a place to play during the weekend. He is originally from Hiroshima, Japan.
A guitarist and 25-year-old native of Hiroshima, Japan, Arakawa spent last year in Raleigh learning bluegrass and English. Then his student visa ran out and he briefly returned to Japan before coming back to America and enrolling at East Tennessee State University’s bluegrass program.
“I’m taking a guitar class from Wyatt Rice, Tony Rice’s brother,” Arakawa said excitedly, referring to the acclaimed bluegrass guitarist. “Tony Rice is my hero, and I’m glad to have that opportunity. You just can’t get experiences like that in Japan. I brought my fiddle from Japan this time and I’m trying to learn it, too. I hope to be back here next year and have a show.”
An even younger generation of international bluegrass players is coming up, too. On Thursday afternoon, 9-year-old Uma Peters met up with Raleigh musician Joe Newberry at the IBMA trade show.
Uma and her brother, Giri, are of Indian descent and live in Nashville. They both performed at the diversity showcase. Uma was carrying her banjo through the trade show, and Newberry asked what she played. She blushed a bit, mumbling so softly you could barely hear her.
Newberry finally got out of her that she played clawhammer banjo, and he asked her to play for him. Uma sat down and began to strum, the beginnings of a smile forming.
“She started out playing Suzuki violin, then it became fiddle,” said her mother, Sarika Peters, a psychologist at Vanderbilt University. “Then she saw Rhiannon Giddens and said, ‘I want to learn banjo now.’ She’s so shy, but she just lights up when she plays.”
Uma and Newberry were passing her banjo back and forth, showing each other licks.
“Try it one more time,” Newberry said. “Now that was perfect. Man, you have a good right hand. Were you born with that, or didja buy it?”
Smiling shyly, Uma gave Newberry a fist-bump.
They are the champions
Well, you just can’t beat home cooking. Congratulations to the late, great Doc Watson, Deep Gap’s own native son and flat-picking guitar god for the ages – and the winner of our “IBMAdness Bluegrass Bracket.” Watson handily dispatched the Stanley Brothers in the finals, winning easily.
Congratulations also to Leslie Schreiner, who won the grand prize of a deluxe kayak package from Great Outdoor Provision Co. The winner was selected by random drawing of all participants, and we thank everyone who voted.