If you don't yet possess a ticket to World of Bluegrass, the overarching event that will inundate downtown Raleigh with banjos and mandolins and the like for five days this week, you probably never will.
The week's main attraction, an eight-band amphitheater bill on Friday capped by Alison Krauss and Steep Canyon Rangers, has long been sold out. And if the festival's history in the city is any indication, Saturday's big Sam Bush Band gig will inevitably follow suit. Yes, you could perhaps scalp a ticket for Thursday night's red-carpet-and-all IBMA Awards Show in Memorial Auditorium, but bring a thick wallet. Or you could still snag a pass to "The Bluegrass Ramble," which dumps a whole horde of repeating acts into downtown clubs, churches and convention center meeting rooms between Tuesday and Thursday night. You may even splurge for the $300 conference pass, which will get you into both the Ramble and IBMA's entire business conference.
But be forewarned: That option is not for the faint of bluegrass heart, and the lineup at large for this year's Ramble is perhaps the weakest it's ever been. Really, if you just want to sample the best that World of Bluegrass has to offer, no purchase has ever been necessary.
For starters, simply go to the Marriott on Fayetteville Street and look around—no, not for a hotel room, but for signs of sound. Though IBMA itself has been rightly criticized for being a cloistered organization, its conference and itinerant festival actually attract smaller roots-music institutions, like concert promoters or booking agencies, who want to show off their connections, too.
On the Marriott's ground floor, conference rooms will be brightly lit with overhead fluorescent bulbs. Never mind the lack of mood: The spaces should also teem with some of the genre's best players if not marquee stars. In years past, I've fought off the temptation of sleep to see Michael Cleveland stun with his fiddle for the after-midnight survivors. You don't need a schedule or invitation—just wander.
And then, take an elevator to whatever hotel floor or floors seem most popular, because those are the jam floors. (If you're feeling particularly spry, take the stairs, because you'll likely stumble upon some young players getting experimental with the stairwell's reverb, and after five days of straight bluegrass, the sound of psychedelia, however unintentional, is bliss.) Up and down the hallways, you'll find open corners and rented rooms jammed with players harnessing the chaos engendered by a cache of familiar tunes into potent picking sessions. Despite IBMA's membership fees and closed awards voting, bluegrass remains an extension of accessible folk music; watching professionals rub elbows and instrument necks in these close quarters is a stark, thrilling testament to the idea of oral tradition and shared songbooks.
But there are also slightly more scripted and much more stunning moments to be found in these rooms and suites. Again, organizations and enthusiasts will turn their own spots into tiny concert halls, where rows of chairs compete for space with standing-room-only throngs. It's a fire hazard, sure, but I've often found the risk to be worth the rewards of several of the best IBMA-related sets I've ever seen—Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn sharing an intimate set late one night, James King and company racing through their ecstatic stuff during another.
These moments, of course, require a nocturnal proclivity and a little patience. If your budget is limited on those assets, too, good, free stuff is still plenty easy to locate. When IBMA came to Raleigh, local organizers and advocates wisely convinced the establishment to loosen its grip and, as the conference wound down, throw a big block party that involved the city. Wide Open Bluegrass' StreetFest now stretches down much of Fayetteville Street and across many of its perpendicular tributaries on Friday and Saturday.
There are some excellent sets to catch, too: Joe Newberry and Jim Watson on Friday at noon in City Plaza, for instance, precede the righteous voice of Danny Paisley, one of the best in the business. Likewise, the mighty Bobby Hicks and an all-star cast of friends play on Saturday at 4 p.m. on Martin Street. The young old-time conduit Jerron "Blind Boy" Paxton leads an open dance Saturday night, hours after Mipso—the rising stars of local roots music—deliver a gratis City Plaza set.
You can make a meticulous schedule for all of this music, annotating the lineup and creating a storyboard scenario that should allow you to hear as many high-and-tight harmonies and fleet mandolin runs as possible in the span of a few days. But the most memorable moments at World of Bluegrass, at least for me, have unequivocally been those I've stumbled into without plan or warning.
For the most part, you're free to do just that, too, with or without a ticket.