It’s something you can pretty much count on during bluegrass week in Raleigh: Should you find yourself in some obscure corner of the festival, enjoying what you’re seeing and hearing, chances are good that Joe Newberry will be in the vicinity.
If you don’t know Newberry, study his picture and keep an eye out for the distinguished-looking gentleman in a white straw cowboy hat. The longtime bluegrass and old-time musician is someone whose presence in any given situation is a reliable indicator that you’re in the right place.
Newberry has been on the festival circuit for most of his adult life, as both player and fan, long enough to know how to negotiate any of them.
We asked him for a few tips on maximizing the festival experience as well as his “travel hacks” for those coming from afar.
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He also is the inaugural act in our occasional Front Page, Backstage mini concert, filmed inside The News & Observer newsroom.
And if you spot him in an informal picking circle, here’s a pro tip: Stop and listen.
1. Meet the musicians
Like most festivals on the bluegrass and folk circuit, World of Bluegrass offers priceless opportunities to get up-close and personal with the performers.
“One of the great things about festivals is you can get up and talk to your heroes,” Newberry said. “Really talk to them. Seeing some big rock band, you probably won’t be able to get backstage. But in this world, you can.
“Also, go ahead and ask because it never hurts,” he added.
2. Keep your eyes and ears open
Newberry usually has antenna up for folks at both ends of the age spectrum — old friends he hasn’t seen in a while, and new ones he has not yet met.
“Old friends are the best friends,” Newberry said. “I run into friends at these things where if we have a session, I know we’ll get into some good old songs. And when I don’t see anybody I know, I look for people with heart — especially young people who are digging deep.”
His instincts for the latter tend to be pretty dead-on. Two years ago, I came upon Newberry at the IBMA trade show sitting and listening to a precocious young girl playing old-time banjo. It was Uma Peters, who was then 9 years old.
Since then, she and her brother Giri Peters have become well-known players on the folk-festival circuit, and proteges of Rhiannon Giddens.
3. Tip your server and bartender.
Keep in mind that, while you’re running around having fun at this event, a whole lot of people are working — and working hard.
“Try to ask your service people how they are, and what time their day started,” Newberry said. “Chances are, you’ll get grateful about your own situation real quick, whatever it is.”
4. Be prepared to share the love, and the power.
Whatever the situation, few things will make you more instantly popular than breaking out a powerstrip to share with the mobile-phone masses in search of an outlet.
“I always try to have a powerstrip handy, and to keep it in my carry-on baggage,” Newberry said. “It’s a great thing when you bring that out, and everybody can plug in. Just spread that kindness.”
And while we’re at it, bring a portable phone charger with you. You’ll be filming videos and snapping photos of performers, and you don’t want your phone’s battery to go kaput.
5. Pace yourself.
There’s a lot to see and do. Take breaks. Stop and enjoy the music.
That especially goes for imbibing the spirits. Newberry doesn’t drink, but he’ll knock back a non-alcoholic “mocktail” equivalent.
“Virgin gin and tonics are great — all tonic, no gin — plus virgin Bloody Marys,” he said. “And Saint Clement’s, too, which is orange juice and bitter lemon. Not lemon bitters, which a friend testifies tastes pretty bad.”