“Bustle” is not a word that tends to be associated with bluegrass festivals. But most bluegrass festivals don’t happen in downtown urban areas, and this week’s World of Bluegrass was indeed bustling.
Year five of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s annual festival in downtown Raleigh was better and (seemingly) bigger than ever. Drawn by perfect weather, huge throngs crowded the downtown streets. Red Hat Amphitheater was also packed for shows Friday and Saturday, featuring Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, Steve Martin with Steep Canyon Rangers and others.
While final attendance and economic-impact figures won’t be released for several weeks, it seems likely that bluegrass week 2017 will top last year’s record-breaking total attendance of more than 208,000 (and direct visitor spending of $11.5 million).
“This week’s energy level has been higher than it has since the beginning,” said IBMA executive director Paul J. Schiminger on Saturday. “People are now accustomed to what they can enjoy here.”
Plenty of that energy was evident up and down the Fayetteville Street main drag, which had stages at either end. And in between was a huge array of food trucks and vendors.
It felt very much like the midway at the North Carolina State Fair – no roller coasters or thrill rides, but abundant fried food and plenty of carnival games for the kids.
There was also music, and not just on the stages. Bluegrass picking circles seemed to occupy every street corner and storefront sidewalk, with players showing abilities from polished to amateurish while playing a wide-ranging repertoire.
The old classics like “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and “Rocky Top” were in the air, of course, as well as less likely selections. One banjo/fiddle/mandolin trio I was walking past caught my ear with a twangy down-home version of a song that took a minute to place.
Friday night I crashed your party
Saturday I said I’m sorry
Sunday came and trashed me out again…
It was a bluegrass cover of Billy Joel’s “You May Be Right.”
The youth movement
Bluegrass week includes the IBMA convention and awards show, capped by the weekend outdoor festival with ticketed shows at Red Hat Amphitheater and free stages all over downtown.
Inclusion was a major theme this year, part of the IBMA’s ongoing efforts at diversity. There was another “Shout & Shine” diversity showcase during the early-week “Bluegrass Ramble” nightclub shows, featuring a range of performers of different races, sexual orientations and physical abilities. And the acclaimed singer/actress/activist Rhiannon Giddens gave a spectacular keynote address outlining African-American influences on bluegrass that have been lost.
“The question is not, ‘How do we get diversity into bluegrass?’ but, ‘How do we get diversity back into bluegrass?’ ” she said, to cheers from the audience.
You could have also subtitled World of Bluegrass “Youth Must Be Served.” All week throughout the convention center and the lobby of the adjoining Marriott Hotel, you saw picking circles with surprising amounts of younger musicians. That spilled over onto the big stages, too.
Sierra Hull, 26, won mandolinist of the year at Thursday night’s IBMA Awards for the second straight year (after being the first woman to win it last year). And 24-year-old Molly Tuttle had a breakthrough this year, the first woman ever to win IBMA’s guitarist of the year.
Friday night found Tuttle playing in the California Bluegrass Association’s Marriott showcase suite, a performance that demonstrated the wisdom of the IBMA’S choice of her as best guitarist. Tuttle is an exquisite guitarist and a superb songwriter, with an excellent voice and quiet charisma. It would not be a surprise if she became a major mainstream star at the level of Alison Krauss.
One of the musicians who preceded Tuttle was Daisy Kerr, an 11-year-old from California and already a much-renowned hotshot guitarist. Complimented on her performance afterward, she blushed behind her braces and quietly said, “Thank you.”
Also in town this week was onetime local resident Hiroshi Arakawa, who came to Raleigh from his native Japan to learn English and bluegrass guitar before transferring to East Tennessee State University’s music program. A little less than a year ago, Arakawa was in a devastating car crash that killed his girlfriend and left him in a coma.
But Arakawa has made a remarkable recovery and is back to playing guitar as well as he ever did. Things have gone well enough that he recently branched out into playing old-time banjo. He gave a brief demonstration at the bluegrass trade show Saturday afternoon, which was impressive given that he just started.
“I’m playing a little electric guitar, too,” Arakawa said, smiling. “I can’t keep playing just bluegrass. I’m getting interested in other things, too.”
All this youth and diversity onstage, however, has yet to translate into younger or more diverse crowds out in the audience. At most stages across World of Bluegrass, small as well as large, the listeners were overwhelmingly older and white.
IBMA management is aware of this and is taking steps to try to get younger, more diverse audiences interested in the music. But there’s only so much an organization can do.
“The IBMA itself is not a political organization,” said IBMA executive director Schiminger. “We’re not pushing any angle other than that we think it’s important people feel safe and can express themselves. It’s an important tenet of our association that everyone feel welcome. It will take the bluegrass community to make that happen.”
The other issue for World of Bluegrass is what happens after 2018. Next year is the final year of IBMA’s deal with the city of Raleigh. Schiminger said before this year’s festival that he’s “hoping we can pull things together later in the fall” for extending the deal, and the city is also interested.
“We’ve had a great partnership run with IBMA for the past five years, we’re contracted next year and looking forward to further negotiations to extend the relationship,” said Laurie Okun, business development director for the Raleigh Convention Center. “The future is bright for American roots music having a home in Raleigh.”