When the International Bluegrass Music Association announced last week that it would be bringing its annual World of Bluegrass confab to the City of Oaks for at least three years starting in 2013, North Carolina's bluegrass cred became a talking point: the home-state claim to the late Earl Scruggs, the early-days Raleigh tenure of genre progenitor Bill Monroe, the runaway success of Wilkesboro's bluegrass-based Merlefest under the guidance of Doc Watson and so on.
What wasn't mentioned and seems to have been overlooked or forgotten, though, is that the roots of the IBMA itself trace partly to the red clay of the Piedmont. Among the couple dozen bluegrass enthusiasts who launched the organization in 1985 was Art Menius, a Triangle native and UNC graduate who was living in Chatham County at the time. When the fledgling IBMA hired an executive director in the fall of 1985, Menius nabbed the job.
Thus, the IBMA began its operations in the Triangle "in a functional way," says Menius, who returned to the area last month as executive director of The ArtsCenter in Carrboro after long tenures with the Folk Alliance organization and as a coordinator and marketing director for Merlefest. Although the IBMA's first mailing address was a P.O. Box in Nashville, and its initial main office was in Owensboro, Ky., "the work essentially got done out of here until 1990," Menius reveals. When the World of Bluegrass relocates to downtown Raleigh in late September 2013 following lengthy stays in Owensboro, Louisville and, most recently, Nashville, it will in some respects be a homecoming.
Of course, the Triangle has changed considerably in the intervening quarter-century. While bluegrass and similar acoustic roots remain an indelible influence on the region's musical identity, younger generations have brought the likes of post-punk, indie rock, hip-hop and alt-country to the fore. Increasingly, the trend is toward a blurring of boundaries between genres. Can the premier event of bluegrass—often viewed as a relatively purist-driven and tradition-bound form—find itself at home amid a state capital's increasingly diversified culture?
The city and IBMA both decided it was at least worth a shot. If the three-year plan sounds a little bit like a trial run, IBMA board member Jon Weisberger assures that such periodic re-evaluations are standard procedure for the organization. Although they'll go through the location motions again in 2015, "unless there's some really unexpected surprise that pops up, Raleigh will be the leading contender," he says.
Weisberger sat on the IBMA's site selection committee. He confirms that the primary factors in choosing Raleigh were the city's impressive collection of indoor and outdoor facilities—the Convention Center, the new Raleigh Amphitheater, the Progress Energy Center's multiple theaters and City Plaza, located between those theaters and the Capitol. The relative affordability of downtown hotels, compared to Nashville, added allure. "In Raleigh, our members should save anywhere from $50 to $100 a night," Weisberger says. "So room rates were a huge factor."
The enthusiasm shown by civic leaders was less measurable but equally persuasive, he notes. PineCone—a long-established local nonprofit with the mission to preserve and promote traditional music and folk arts in the area—was also key. The organization's executive director, William Lewis, now sits on the IBMA's board. His comments after last Wednesday's press-conference announcement suggest he's eager to plug the World of Bluegrass directly into Raleigh's downtown arts infrastructure.
"The intent is to engage the whole downtown community," he said. "There'll be a local organizing committee, and we're going to have people from all the downtown merchants and the museums as well as the clubs, to really be smart about our programming."
That Lewis went so far as to suggest World of Bluegrass might become "the bluegrass version of Hopscotch" is intriguing, though the IBMA's event is ultimately much different in aim and structure, consisting of a business conference (at the Convention Center), an awards show (in Memorial Auditorium) and a Fan Fest (at Raleigh Amphitheater and perhaps other venues). Still, the opportunity exists to reach outside the formal venues, particularly given the blueprint provided by the Independent Weekly's Hopscotch in early September.
"That's been very much in everybody's minds," Weisberger acknowledges. "It's something we want to look at and explore—maybe wrap some kind of street-festival complement, closing down some of the streets downtown and getting acts to play in the daytime or early-evening hours."
Beyond bonding the convention to the city on a logistical level, can IBMA connect to contemporary Raleigh in an artistic sense? It's worth noting that the public announcement in City Plaza last week traded primarily on traditional references—including a brief introductory set by the regional outfit Grass Cats that was exemplary and tasteful, yet also straightforward and predictable. North Carolina native Cindy Baucom, the IBMA's 2005 Broadcaster of the Year and wife of accomplished banjo player Terry Baucom, played up the state's connections to Bill and Charlie Monroe and noted that Grammy-winning banjo player Jim Mills resides in Raleigh. IBMA executive director Nancy Cardwell pointed out that the organization's reigning Entertainer of the Year is Brevard's Steep Canyon Rangers, via their collaboration with the famous comedian and banjo player Steve Martin.
That is all well, good and accurate, but much of North Carolina's most vibrant bluegrass-influenced music in the past decade has come from artists who are pushing the genre's boundaries well outside the traditional comfort zone. The punk-fired banjo-guitar-upright bass bombast of Concord mega-sellers The Avett Brothers is the most conspicuous example, but far from the only one. In Asheville, Toubab Krewe blends bluegrass and other Southern traditional sounds with African music. And in Raleigh, Chatham County Line superimposed their rock- and country-informed original songs onto the classic single-microphone bluegrass stage arrangement.
"I'll be curious to see what our role might be in it," Chatham County Line banjo player Chandler Holt says of the looming Raleigh IBMA event. "It would be nice to get more exposure of our stuff to that audience. Because as much as what we do doesn't quite fit, a lot of those people still seem to like what we bring to the table."
For his part, Menius hopes that the organization he helped launch nearly three decades ago will embrace and encourage a broader view of the world of bluegrass. "The greatest need of the bluegrass industry is to connect to this vast wellspring of young people with banjos and fiddles and guitars making their own music," he says. "Just as Bill Monroe did, they're taking things in a new direction. It's easy for me to argue that the essence of bluegrass is change, rather than cultural conservatism."
As Menius sees it, there's really no option. "The music will change," he says. "To be vital, it has to keep bringing up new ideas, or it ends up being like Dixieland—and that's a living death."
Bob Geary contributed to this article.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Picking Raleigh."