While the Wide Open Bluegrass festival – now in its fourth year in Raleigh – is an absolute don’t-miss for hardcore bluegrass fans, there’s plenty for casual, or even indifferent, music fans to enjoy, too.
1 Hit the streets
Wide Open Bluegrass Streetfest is one of the highlights of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s five-day bluegrass binge, where you can hear some amazing music without spending a dime. Just circle downtown Friday and Saturday to hit the City Plaza Stage, the Davie Street Stage, the Hargett Street Stage, the Capitol Stage and the Youth Stage to hear acts such as Balsam Range, The Grass Cats, Town Mountain, Band of Ruhks, Jim Lauderdale, Billy Strings, Tommy Edwards and the Bluegrass Experience, and a whole bunch of others. And remember, it’s all free!
2 Ramble to Red Hat
Some of the biggest names in bluegrass will be playing longer sets at Red Hat Amphitheater on Friday and Saturday. Red Hat’s Main Stage has music all day Friday and Saturday: Ricky Skaggs, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, The Soggy Bottom Boys, Jerry Douglas’ Earls of Leicester and others on Friday; Steep Canyon Rangers, Kruger Brothers, Del McCoury Band, Becky Buller Band and others on Saturday. It happens 11 a.m.-11 p.m. both days, and tickets are $40 to $140.
3 Impromptu jam sessions
Don’t want to sit in Red Hat or stand around a Streetfest stage? Some of the most interesting music you may hear comes from the jam sessions of all kinds of musicians that spring up around downtown. You’ll find a bunch of them in the ballroom areas of the downtown Marriott, in various corners of the Raleigh Convention Center and in the underground walkway that connects the two. Again, fun, free entertainment.
4 Art market
You’ll find a lot more than squirrel and banjo art (although, we do love some squirrel and banjo art) at the World of Bluegrass Art Market, a juried showcase of North Carolina’s arts community on Fayetteville Street between Hargett and Martin. Also, nearly 100 vendors will be scattered across Streetfest this year, with a special “Got to be NC” area (on Fayetteville between Martin and Davie) showcasing products from throughout the state, and a “Shop Local Raleigh” area (on Fayetteville between Davie and Cabarrus), showcasing locally-owned, independent businesses.
If you’ve got pork on your mind – and really, don’t a lot of us? – be sure to check out the big, whole hog barbecue championship. The judging begins Saturday morning, and you can buy sandwiches for $5 starting at 11 a.m. on Cabarrus Street near the Convention Center. There are also two barbecue dinners, both on Cabarrus between McDowell and Salisbury: Southern Smoke BBQ of Garland, N.C., serves from 5 to 9 p.m. Friday; and Arrogant Swine of Brooklyn, N.Y., serves from 5 to 9 p.m. Saturday. Tickets for each dinner cost $15.
6 Food trucks
And if you’re hankering for something different to eat, you’ve got options this year. During Streetfest, food trucks will be parked from City Plaza to Lenoir Street, across from the Marriott Hotel. You can sample from Two Roosters Ice Cream, Oak City Fish and Chips, L’Arepa and more.
7 The trade expo
One of the best places to wander around is the trade expo on the bottom level of the convention center. It’s only open to conference attendees through Thursday. But from 11 a.m. until 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday it’s open to the public and – here’s that word again – free. Check out the variety of exhibitors that include instrument dealers, CD sellers and various music festivals across the nation. And there often are freebies – guitar picks, etc. – for the kids.
8 Wake up with Al
For the first time, a national TV show will broadcast live from bluegrass week. Al Roker, the weatherman and co-host of NBC’s “Today” show, will be live from downtown Raleigh throughout the morning Friday. Watch him interview musicians, take part in a cooking segment and try to play a banjo as it happens downtown. And make a sign to wave. You might get on TV.
9 Great cover songs
Not a fan of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” or “Rocky Top”? That’s OK. We can still be friends. And you’re very likely to hear a song or two you know from another musical genre performed with a hint of bluegrass twang. On Wednesday, Asheville band Fire Side Collective did an awesome cover of Paul Simon’s “Call Me Al” in Raleigh’s City Plaza. (Hmmm. An early welcome for Mr. Roker?) Other covers abound. Asheville’s Tellico even plays a version of “Hava Nagila.”
10 People watching
It’s not quite N.C. State Fair-level people-watching, but it’s close. From hipsters to hillbillies (we say that with love), the diversity of hairstyles alone – both on the head and facial areas – can be captivating. The mix also changes a good bit from day to night, transitioning from the stroller set to heavily tattooed pickers. And where else might you see an Asian bluegrass virtuoso carrying a mandolin that costs as much as a house?