As is the case most weeks, you can go to Tir Na Nog on Tuesday night and hear bluegrass. But the difference this week is it will cost something to get in – the downtown Raleigh nightspot is a “Bluegrass Ramble” venue for the showcase portion of the International Bluegrass Music Association convention.
Most every other Tuesday, you’ll find local banjo player Hank Smith hosting Tir Na Nog’s “Beer & Banjos,” one of the Triangle’s better recurrent free bluegrass programs. Smith is a very fine player, as well as a droll and low-key host, holding forth with his Deering Crossfire electric banjo and making declarations like, “I’m about to play 45 minutes of solo banjo, so if you’re in any way suicidal you might want to leave the room.”
“‘Beer & Banjos’ was born out of IBMA,” said Smith. “There are weekly regulars, but it’s mostly people wandering in who might have been to the IBMA street fest and want to keep the party going.”
After this one-week hiatus, “Beer & Banjos” will be back on the first Tuesday after IBMA, Oct. 7. Meantime, Smith will play a half-dozen shows elsewhere during bluegrass week, primarily showing off the 2014 album he made with fiddler Lindsey Tims, “Impulse,” or performing with his band Morning After Music.
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Smith is actually in lineup transition, with Tims scheduled to begin a hiatus from music after this fall. So these IBMA shows will feature an expanded band lineup with Kickin Grass Band fiddler Pattie Hopkins as Smith’s emerging new main foil, rounded out by guitar, mandolin and bass.
Not ‘grandpappy’s’ music
“Basically, it takes four people to replace one Lindsey,” said Smith. “The showcases are a way of showing what we’ve done with the ‘Impulse’ album and also ring in this new band, letting audiences see what happens going forward. It’s a bluegrass lineup, but a little different from your grandpappy’s bluegrass.”
“Not your grandpappy’s bluegrass” would apply to most of what Smith has done since moving from South Carolina to the Triangle nearly a decade ago, including stints in Kickin Grass with Hopkins and in the new-grass band Barefoot Manner. Another of Smith’s projects is Blu-Bop, billed as the world’s only tribute act to the fusion act Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. Hopkins actually got the chance to tell Fleck about it at the inaugural Raleigh IBMA in 2013, securing his blessing.
“It was surreal,” Smith recalled. “I gave Bela a flier and he said, ‘So you’re the guy.’ ‘Oh, snap,’ I thought, ‘this may not be good.’ But it turned out he was flattered. ‘The Flecktones were some of the best years of my life and I’m glad somebody else wants to do this because we probably won’t,’ he said. So it felt like a torch being passed. He’s been very encouraging since then when I’ve sent him videos, sharing them.”
Smith keeps busy teaching as well as playing, and he has emerged as one of Raleigh’s leading local ambassadors of bluegrass – especially after IBMA relocated from Nashville three years ago. This past March, he went through IBMA’s Leadership Bluegrass, a program that grooms the next generation of performers. It’s not hard to imagine him being on the IBMA’s board of directors someday.
“This was the 15th Leadership Bluegrass class and it’s a bit like the bluegrass Freemasons,” Smith said. “Coming together with folks from all walks of bluegrass to push your own career and the music forward. They teach how to write a business plan, curate a festival, tour, network, host an online concert, work social media.
“But I do have to keep in mind that I’m a performer and composer first, an instructor second and everything else third. This is the time of year when that all swirls together because of IBMA. It’s an interesting juggling act.”
If you go
Hank Smith’s performance schedule during bluegrass week includes:
Tuesday: Hank Smith and Lindsey Tims at 7 p.m. at Vintage Church and 9at p.m. at Raleigh Convention Center Room 304 (IBMA Bluegrass Ramble, ibma.org/world-of-bluegrass)
Wednesday: Hank Smith and Lindsey Tims at 9 p.m. at Pour House and at 1 a.m. at Vintage Church (IBMA Bluegrass Ramble)
Friday: Hank Smith and Pattie Hopkins at midnight at Kings (IBMA After Hours showcase)
Saturday: Morning After Music at 1:30 p.m. on Hargett Street Stage (Wide Open Bluegrass free street festival, wideopenbluegrass.com)