Bluegrass Raleigh

For bands on the rise, the 'Bluegrass Ramble' is a marathon, not a sprint

Front Country bassist Zach Sharpe carries his instrument along Wilmington Street with fellow band members on their way from their first performance at Tir Na Nog on Blount Street to their second show at the Raleigh Convention Center ballroom on Tuesday September 24, 2013 in Raleigh, N.C.
Front Country bassist Zach Sharpe carries his instrument along Wilmington Street with fellow band members on their way from their first performance at Tir Na Nog on Blount Street to their second show at the Raleigh Convention Center ballroom on Tuesday September 24, 2013 in Raleigh, N.C.

Several songs into Front Country’s set, guitarist/bandleader Jacob Groopman paused to take a breath.

“We flew all night last night,” he told the crowd Tuesday night at the downtown nightclub Tir Na Nog. “So we’re a little slow. Just a little. But in a good way.”

Groopman’s bandmates smiled; they were all just as weary. But they sounded plenty energetic on the next song, an ace cover of Bruce Hornsby’s 1986 hit “The Way It Is,” which transposed to bluegrass almost perfectly, with Luke Abbott playing the signature hook on banjo.

Like lots of people at the International Bluegrass Music Association’s “World of Bluegrass” shindig, Front Country is working hard this week.

The Bay Area band’s IBMA odyssey began late Monday night at San Francisco Airport. An all-night flight and connection through Atlanta later, they touched down at Raleigh-Durham International Airport shortly before noon Tuesday.

Seven hours later, Front Country was onstage at Tir Na Nog for the first of two shows Tuesday night as part of the IBMA’s multiclub “Bluegrass Ramble.” The band also planned to play Wednesday night at the California Bluegrass Association’s “Jamming Floor” suite at the downtown Marriott Hotel, and Thursday at the Pour House. But first, all six musicians had to power through Tuesday’s travel-and-doubleheader-performance marathon with no sleep besides a few naps.

It helped that everyone was excited. While various members have played North Carolina before with different groups, this is Front Country’s first time at IBMA – or playing anywhere east of the Mountain Time Zone. Coming to IBMA represents a big investment, starting with six plane tickets and two hotel rooms.

“We’ve got to make it worth our while,” fiddler Leif Karlstrom said. “But it will be. It’s too exciting for us to be exhausted. We’re psyched to be here.”

Trying to make a splash

While Steve Martin, Punch Brothers, Del McCoury and other big-name headliners are IBMA’s public drawing card, bands like Front Country are the bulk of the festival. Since forming in 2011, the group has had some success in contests, winning this year’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival band contest. But the group is only now starting to tour.

Playing IBMA means there might be booking agents, managers or radio deejays in the audience. So upstart bands like Front Country try to play as many times as possible.

“Bands are coming to town trying to make as much of a splash as possible not just with fans, but with industry,” said Ben Surratt, an IBMA board member who helped book the acts for this year’s festival.

IBMA’s move to Raleigh created new possibilities for showcases, which were previously confined to Nashville’s convention center. Raleigh’s concentration of downtown venues allows IBMA to open the festival up to more acts, from last year’s 18 to this year’s 33, all playing multiple times.

One act keeping a particularly hectic schedule during IBMA is Kruger Brothers, a North Wilkesboro trio featuring newly minted Steve Martin Prize winner Jens Kruger. On Thursday, the band is in New York City taping a performance with Martin for CBS’s “Late Show With David Letterman.” By the time that airs Friday night, the Krugers will be back in Raleigh in the midst of four performances in two days (on top of a banjo workshop).

‘Pops and cracks’

After finishing at Tir Na Nog, Front Country’s members hoofed their gear offstage and briefly paused. Immediately after shows is for networking and merchandise sales. Just like clockwork, they connected with two bluegrass deejays to talk about airplay and interviews; and they sold a couple of compact discs to new fans.

“You’re like country before it got all poppy,” one of the CD buyers told singer/guitarist Melody Walker.

“You could say that,” Walker said, smiling. Afterward, she appeared to flag a bit.

“The flight was not as bad as it could’ve been,” Walker said. “I had a few pops and cracks in my voice. Whenever I get less than eight hours sleep, my voice will do something that’s not good. Next set might be rough.”

Karlstrom, mandolin player Adam Roszkiewicz and bassist Zack Sharpe set off on foot to make the five-block walk over to the Convention Center, Sharpe carrying his bass without a case. Front Country’s other three members took a cab (Walker’s feet were hurting, thanks to new boots).

The chatter en route was typical post-gig talk, about songs that worked and songs that didn’t, and favorite libations (Karlstrom talked up the “pickleback,” a mixture of whiskey and pickle brine). Fatigue was setting in for most of them, but not Sharpe.

“Nyquil made the flight fine for me,” he said. “Couldn’t talk anybody else into it.”

Soldiering on

Where Tir Na Nog was a full house with a nice vibe, the Convention Center’s plush and cavernous ballroom was almost deserted. Walking in, Front Country’s members couldn’t help laughing. Traveling long distances to play for almost no one is a time-honored music-business tradition. Nothing for it but to soldier on.

“It’s gonna be awesome,” Karlstrom said, tuning his fiddle backstage. “There’s a certain ridiculousness to these things. But you still have to give it every time, no matter what.”

Thanks to the ballroom’s acoustics and dramatic amount of reverb (which Walker said made it “the most epic gig we’ve ever played”), Front Country’s nightcap sounded better than the Tir Na Nog set. Alas, there were only about 20 people in the room listening.

By the time Front Country finished shortly before 10 p.m., almost 19 hours had passed since they’d left San Francisco. But they weren’t done; there were bands to see at the California Bluegrass Association’s hotel suite, and later at the Pour House. Sleep could wait.

“I love things like this, popping around,” Groopman said. “Every hour, there’s something to see. You get to one place where you’ve had enough beer, and you just keep going.”

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