The International Bluegrass Music Association’s convention got started bright and early Tuesday. Early enough, in fact, for attendees to need more of a pick-me-up than just coffee.
After a 9 a.m. discussion led by music publicist Emilee Warner – who reminded attendees that negotiating the music business is often as simple as minding your manners – Lucy Weberling came forward and announced it was time for “The Bluegrass Stretch.” She dialed up a bluegrass playlist on her mobile phone and led several dozen attendees through a series of yoga stretches.
“Pull your left leg up like this,” Weberling said, as a rippling banjo played. “Now let it down, slooooowly – don’t drop it fast or it does no good; now the right leg. It’s all about coming into your center and moving the body.”
Weberling, who came to Raleigh from Oklahoma, runs Festival Yoga. IBMA’s World of Bluegrass is one of a number of festivals and events where she helps get audiences and performers physically tuned up.
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“IBMA is hard, though, because it starts early and everybody stays up late every night,” she said afterward.
This is year two of IBMA’s Raleigh era, which has transformed what was once a small insider event into a huge public gathering. Last year’s Raleigh debut drew more than 140,000 people to all of the events, with downtown serving as an unexpectedly cool urban backdrop for an acoustic music festival.
“What IBMA is here in Raleigh, with the big street festival bringing in thousands of new fans, is back to what the original vision was for it 30 years ago when it started in Owensboro, Ky.,” said area resident Art Menius, one of IBMA’s original co-founders and a former executive director. “But this is so much bigger. The most we ever got for Fan Fest in Owensboro was about 8,000.”
Expectations for 2014 are sky-high. Bluegrass has taken over downtown, with many clubs and museums scheduling shows and events. Curtis Media Group even started up a bluegrass station in honor of World of Bluegrass – WFNL, 102.3-FM, which will broadcast through the week.
But for all that, IBMA still opens every year with a business convention. Opening day Tuesday had some quiet bustle, panels with titles such as “Broadcast Media Constituency Meeting.” Some business was being conducted, too. Inside the Raleigh Convention Center, Mickey Gamble of Arden-based Mountain Home Music was signing a new act to a recording contract, Chris Jones & the Night Drivers.
Nearby, a trio of young men sat on granite blocks just outside the convention center – guitar, banjo and three-part vocal harmony.
“Long gone, that’s how I’m livin’”
They called themselves Midnight Ryde and said they’d just arrived from West Virginia. Did they have an IBMA showcase slot?
“Nah,” said guitarist Aaron Richards, “we’re just here to jam.”
It was enough.
Concluding Tuesday’s daytime program was the keynote speech, with a modicum of pomp and circumstance. Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane welcomed IBMA to town, and there was the premiere of a funny video (with a song by Kickin’ Grass Band) showing a squirrel’s-eye view of last year’s festival.
Then it was time for keynote speaker Béla Fleck, the other-worldly banjo master, who was visibly nervous but acquitted himself fine. He said he could count on “zero hands” how many speeches he’s given and added wistfully, “I wish I had my banjo.”
Even though Fleck has wandered far from conventional bluegrass, he still has plenty of bona fides, and he proved it with funny personal stories about Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs and other influences. Then he concluded by paying tribute to bluegrass as his musical grounding point. In his travels, when Fleck finds himself in the company of African, jazz or classical musicians, he said he always plays bluegrass to find points in common.
“I am committed to a sound that is real and raw and authentic and beautiful,” Fleck said. “It is the very reason I play music in the first place.”
Staff writer Thomas Goldsmith contributed to this report.