I love a happy ending. Last Saturday night, I looked across a crowd of almost 6,000 people in Raleigh’s Red Hat Amphitheater grooving as one bluegrass nation to The Infamous Stringdusters. Straight ahead of me was an elevated railroad bridge that ran past the stage, and every now and then a passenger or freight train would rumble across it, their whistles complimenting the bluegrass on stage as well as any loud extraneous environmental sound possibly could. To the left, beyond the outfield and dominating the performers’ view from the stage, was Raleigh’s famous “Shimmer Wall,” a metallic mural depicting a vast tree that appears digital but is in fact 100% analog art. It was a perfect metaphor for the bluegrass festival taking place in this lovely amphitheater and the streets nearby, with its mingling of traditionalists with progressives and of hand-made, wood-and-wire instruments with wireless devices that allowed the experience to be shared and celebrated.
So, a happy ending to what and for whom? To answer that question, I need to take you (as briefly as possible) inside the world of the International Bluegrass Music Association, the Nashville-based trade group that’s been putting on World of Bluegrass (WOB) since 1990 as its annual convention/trade show/awards show/fan festival.
If you’re already a member or a veteran of WOB in the past, bear with me; there are points here meant for you too. But I’d guess most Situation readers are fans of certain bands who discovered a music community here, while the inner game of the bluegrass business remains somewhat obscure and probably not even especially relevant. I’m not here to pitch you on joining, unless you’re a professional bluegrass musician, record company official, talent buyer, festival organizer, instrument builder, historian or educator. But since the new Wide Open Bluegrass festival looks like it may take its place all of a sudden as one of the best roots music events in the country and since IBMA is behind it, I feel like IBMA shouldn’t be a mystery to music lovers such as yourselves. It’s a key player in a movement that’s taking our national musical culture back from the celebrity industrial complex.
I joined IBMA as a journalist and fan in the early 2000s and I was elected to the IBMA board five years ago. (Though I have a dog in the hunt, my thoughts here are strictly my own by the way.) One of my personal priorities (shared by some but not all) has been to push IBMA beyond cultivating an insiders’ conversation to an outward looking, expansive evangelism for the music. Some say that’s not a trade association’s job. My argument is that nothing’s more vital to trade than creating demand, and who better to fly the flag and spread the word than the core of folks who make and cherish bluegrass as all or part of their living? So starting last year, IBMA began making strides in this direction. Act One was the launch of Bluegrass Nation, a news aggregation and community content site that emphasizes appreciation and education in bluegrass, rather than commerce. And while it wasn’t expressly developed as such, the new WOB in Raleigh just became the biggest thing IBMA has ever done to tell the bluegrass story to new and emerging fans.
World of Bluegrass began in Owensboro, KY near Bill Monroe’s boyhood home of Rosine. It outgrew the facilities there and moved to the Galt House Hotel in Louisville, which is where I first experienced it as a burgeoning bluegrass fan and writer. It was both awesomely weird and weirdly awesome. With furniture like your Aunt Gladys’s den (lots of brown plaid and paneling), a 1970s era rotating restaurant and hallways jammed with pickers, the Galt House was a hothouse of activity. I remember seeing Jimmy Martin, the legendary and eccentrically egomaniacal singer, holding court in the vaguely Tara-like lobby. I saw bands who would become favorites later make early appearances, including one called Nickel Creek. I once found myself sitting at some wee hour of the morning as the only non-playing member of a circle of jammers that included Chris Thile, Stuart Duncan and Bryan Sutton. And that’s when WOB became to me basically the greatest thing ever dreamed up by mankind.
The event outgrew Louisville too, and IBMA moved World of Bluegrass to Nashville in 2005. It put the event in easy reach of more business people and musicians and it let the IBMA Awards move to the Ryman Auditorium, the very hall where Bill Monroe and the seminal 1945-48 version of the Blue Grass boys found their sound, over the airwaves of the Grand Ole Opry on WSM. What could go wrong?
It was good for a few years. Attendance boomed and the Nashville Convention Center, bland as it was, hummed with music and fellowship. But a few things happened. Because so many bluegrass business folk and artists live in Nashville, they were tempted home to their own offices and beds when they otherwise would have been a captive audience looking for something to see and do, something to which I must plead guilty myself. During those years the music business contracted severely and the economy tanked. Countless bluegrass people were forced to abandon WOB for those reasons alone. Attendance fell year on year, while overhead stayed the same or grew. More intangibly, the true bleakness of the old Nashville Convention Center as a music venue gradually dawned on everyone.
Finally, to the disappointment of myself and others, official Music City met the bluegrass nation with a few nice platitudes but nothing close to the financial and institutional support it lavishes on industrial grade country music. Dan Hays, IBMA’s longtime executive director, was on the Mayor’s vaunted Music Council, until it was downsized and both he and the Americana Music Association’s executive director lost their seats. Dan sought a modest grant from the city’s special event marketing fund (financed by a tax on the very hotel rooms IBMA attendees paid for) and was rebuffed, despite showing a $5 million impact on the city. Nashville of course closes downtown to traffic for a major street fair ever June on behalf of CMA, while supporting its marketing with hundreds of thousands of dollars. The idea of doing that for bluegrass was I think seen by most as far-fetched, unrealistic, ludicrous. What city would possibly do something so crazy?
Raleigh NC officials visited the IBMA board in the Spring of 2012 to formally pitch their convention center and amphitheater for WOB 2013, and a free public street fair was central to their vision. So to make that long story short, the vast majority of the board was easily convinced that at a time when something had to be done, Raleigh looked like a great opportunity. The vote to go to Raleigh earned a mixed reaction among the membership. Nashville-based people griped about the travel, even though they’d basically had their convention experience subsidized for seven years by those who traveled in. Some said Raleigh had little to do with bluegrass, as if the state of North Carolina hadn’t birthed Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson and Charlie Poole.
Dozens of changes and adjustments were made at all levels of the IBMA board, including an unprecedented Local Organizing Committee that corralled dozens of folks from all stakeholders in an effort to steer good ideas to the fore. For me though, the biggest drama of all, largely invisible to the music community, surrounded the reconfiguration of Fan Fest as a bolder event christened Wide Open Bluegrass. For more than 20 years, artists volunteered to play Fan Fest pro bono, while its ticket proceeds were split between World of Bluegrass overhead and the IBMA Trust Fund, a pool of money doled out in grants or loans of a few thousand dollars each to bluegrass musicians with health or financial crises. It’s one of the important, quiet functions of IBMA that nobody wants to mess up.
But a couple of board members launched a major policy shift that I think needs to be acknowledged now as brilliant turning point for IBMA. Craig Ferguson, owner and director of Planet Bluegrass and its awesome and influential Telluride Bluegrass Festival, worked with William Lewis, head of North Carolina’s PineCone, a promoter and presenter of traditional music, to produce Wide Open Bluegrass – encompassing byt the way not only the ticketed Red Hat show but the free public street festival as well.
I’m glossing over a bunch of details here, but bottom line is that the producers – while acting as volunteers themselves - requested a budget of about $250,000 to pay the talent playing IBMA’s fan festival for the first time. The case they made was that IBMA would only fill a 6,000 seat venue with top-line artists, and that we’d come to a place where we had to spend money to make money. It was risky to be sure. It was especially hard for the board to imagine that Raleigh could fill up both the amphitheater AND the streets around it. That led a lot of healthy, justifiable debate. But in the end, we said yes and Red Hat and sold out both nights, earning the biggest net in the history of IBMA, even as downtown teemed with people. Seven stages were almost not enough! In a classic win-win, the artists got paid to play, and IBMA still earned enough to ease much of the fiscal stress that’s dogged us for years. The Trust Fund will get a record donation.
This was, quite simply, a triumph of courage over caution, which is too often the default position when it comes to selling and expanding bluegrass. I’ll always be proud of being part of the group that said yes to Raleigh. The fact that I grew up in nearby Durham only added to the excitement for me. I paid my own way like every other board member and it was beyond worth it. Because there in Raleigh I found not just a gorgeous, sunny convention center, a vibrant trade show and a city/state that turned out by the tens of thousands to experience the music live. I also found my fellow bluegrass optimists. The ones who made the trip and the commitment were the ones who see nothing but upside in an inclusive and expansive idea of bluegrass. It’s a genre that sometimes generates as much anxiety and crankiness as it does G-runs, but in my 20 years of following it, the music always fares best when artists are left to seek their own path and minds remain open to change. Wide open.