It’s not so unusual, in bluegrass, to see a 15-year-old fronting a band or a little kid hanging in next to someone’s grandfather in a jam session.
Bluegrass, perhaps more than any other genre of music, welcomes young people and sees the value of nurturing the next generation.
“People involved in bluegrass see it as much more than a musical genre; they see bluegrass truly as a community,” said Phil Bankester, a guitarist (and the dad) in his family band, the Bankesters. “It’s a kind of music that generally is passed on from person to person to person.”
Festivals – such as this week’s World of Bluegrass event for the International Bluegrass Music Association – have a way of bringing people together. And kids are very much a part of that.
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IBMA’s Youth Council kicks into high gear during World of Bluegrass, hosting a Youth Room in the Raleigh Convention Center all week and a Youth Stage during the free street festival Friday and Saturday.
The stage gives young musicians a chance to perform, while the Youth Room offers more of a chance to kick back, with informal jams, youth-tailored seminars and drop-ins from some big names in bluegrass.
“We want to create an environment where kids can network, kids can meet other professionals, kids can meet other kids, kids can learn about bluegrass, kids can have fun and feel welcome,” said Andy Rigney, the Youth Council’s 21-year-old chairman. “It being a business conference, it can be a little overwhelming for a preteen to just jump into something like that. So we want to create an environment and an atmosphere and a location where a kid can just be a kid playing bluegrass.”
In addition to the Youth Council events, a program called Kids on Bluegrass showcases some of the brightest up-and-comers in the genre, ranging in age from 9 to 17.
The participants – 27 of them this year, handpicked by a small committee – are performing at two showcases during World of Bluegrass, putting them in front of audiences and industry insiders who could propel their careers to the next level.
Sarah Jarosz, now 23, whose latest album earned two Grammy nominations this year, was once a Kids on Bluegrass performer, as was Sierra Hull, also 23, who is a nominee for IBMA’s mandolin player of the year award this year.
The performances – as well as the interactions the musicians undertake as they swap song ideas and recordings – inspire the kids to reach higher and further, said Kim Fox, founder and producer of Kids on Bluegrass.
“When they get here and they are with these other kids, they all have to step up their game,” she said, “and it’s great to watch it.”
The great thing about bluegrass festivals, Fox said, is the connections that flow between musicians and audiences and between generations.
“When you’re a kid, you can join a jam with a 70-year-old guy or a 30-year-old woman or whatever – you become friends with people that you would never dream in your life that you’d be friends with,” she said. “It wipes out your age.”