Toward the end of their 90-minute performance in the middle of downtown Raleigh on Friday night as part of the bluegrass festival, the great Chatham County Line group smiled a collective smile and did the song that is in effect the festival’s new theme.
It’s called “Living in Raleigh Now” and comes with a video that shows the members of the group running through parts of downtown, passing the Sir Walter Raleigh statue and the New Year’s acorn, along with the shimmer wall. Part of the chorus goes, “What was born in Kentucky is living in Raleigh now.”
Yes, indeed it is, and given the spectacular turnout last year and this, the festival – part of the International Bluegrass Music Association meeting and the World of Bluegrass – may be ready to settle down for good.
Raleigh would be happy to have it, deliriously so.
On the weekend nights downtown, Raleigh was packed with pickers and singers and fans, jamming Fayetteville Street, sitting outside at bars and restaurants, stopping to hear impromptu performances by two or three players in amateur groups or heading to the Red Hat Amphitheatre for big names such as Del McCoury or Ricky Skaggs.
Merchants lined Fayetteville Street, where fans could buy belt buckles or paintings or ice cream or beer or, of course, T-shirts.
As was the case last year, folks were hospitable and friendly to one another, and there appeared to be no “incidents” despite the close quarters on the streets. At hotels, players gathered in hallways, some of them meeting for the first time, to pick and sing all night long. And nobody minded. At all.
The festival in a way mirrored the music. Bluegrass festivals, popular in virtually all parts of the United States, are the essence of democracy. At such festivals, the big acts, including people like McCoury and Skaggs and Rhonda Vincent and Alison Krauss, do command everyone’s attention.
But in the parking lots around such festivals, amateurs gather in circles. Some are lightning quick, professional-level players. Others just play chords, trying to keep up. But a novice banjo player knows there are lessons to be learned by playing with those who are better than he. And the great player feels an obligation to pay it forward, to teach younger players the shortcuts to help them pick up speed.
All are welcome, though, as all were welcome in Raleigh throughout last week’s festival. Not far from Red Hat, a group of youngsters called “Chatham County JAM” amazed an audience in The News & Observer parking lot. Elsewhere downtown, the groups got slick and loud and had more sophisticated sound gear, and as the nights wore on, groups such as Chatham County Line delighted audiences, pure pros.
The IBMA has signed on with Raleigh through at least 2018, having debuted here last year after being headquartered in Nashville. Indeed, the reports aren’t all in from the just-concluded festival, but the IBMA is said to be very pleased indeed with the Capital City’s “performance” as host.
And why not? Things have gone smoothly both years, and the numbers of people joining the IBMA have increased since the Raleigh venue was established. The city has embraced the festival with both arms in a musical bear hug.