A week before the International Bluegrass Music Association brought its annual convention and music festival to Raleigh for the third consecutive year, six panelists and a banjo-playing host gathered at N.C. State's high-tech Hunt Library to discuss what, exactly, bluegrass is. They also wondered where it might be going.
When most people hear the word "bluegrass," of course, they think banjos and fiddles, mandolins and nasal vocalists. Or maybe they think of hillbillies and Hee Haw, pickin' and grinnin' and O Brother, Where Art Thou?. But these were experts, folks who had, like Charley Pennell, been studying and defining the genre for most of their lives or, in Tommy Edwards' case, playing it long enough to become a local institution.
Led by area impresario Hank Smith, for an audience of several dozen, the panel discussed Raleigh's long-running bluegrass history, from being the former home of Bill Monroe—the patriarch of the genre—to the role of area radio stations in the music's spread. Toward the end of the hour-plus talk, John Teer—who plays fiddle and mandolin in Raleigh's modern stalwart bluegrass-inspired act, Chatham County Line—compared bluegrass to a country club. There were some parameters and qualifications for entry into the bluegrass "club," he explained, but the form could be a gathering place at which people can rally and celebrate and have fun.
Teer's country club metaphor struck a nerve, at least with me. Since its popularization in the late 1940s, bluegrass and its closest stylistic cousins—old-time, country, folk, Americana—have been overwhelmingly dominated by older white men, stereotyped by a reputation for stuffy archaism. And many acts still popular in the genre don't sound so different from their decades-old predecessors. While many musical forms thrive on and pride themselves on change and progress, bluegrass can seem at times to vaunt its own hidebound nature. The clubhouse is off-limits.
But can bluegrass survive indefinitely that way? Can it catch the interests of successive generations if it won't let their new ideas into the fold?
For bluegrass, one hindrance to stylistic expansion is deference to tradition and definition—that is, what is and, perhaps more important, what isn't bluegrass. For some, bluegrass pretty much ends with the likes of Monroe or Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Others are eager to expand and include elements of rock, jam-band improvisation or jazz. This squabbling is hardly new, says Alice Gerrard. In the '60s, Gerrard and Hazel Dickens formed what's widely considered to be the first female-fronted bluegrass group.
"I remember in Bluegrass Unlimited, in the very beginning of that magazine, there was this huge furor with letter-writing back and forth about whether the Osborne Brothers should have drums or electric bass or something in there," she recalls. "It was a heated argument, and that was in the 1960s."
Smith, more than four decades younger than Gerrard, notes the hypocrisy of those who lambast new styles of bluegrass but forget the genre's early reliance on innovation. His electric banjo rig and often-experimental approach to the instrument do not work so well for traditionalists, but that's not the point, he says.
"Flatt & Scruggs, Bill Monroe—those are the guys that everybody emulates. They say, 'You have to play just like this, and if you don't, it ain't no part of nothin','" he explains. "But Flatt & Scruggs and Bill Monroe were the innovators. Those guys were taking this music that hadn't really been done before and inventing it as they went along."
Sometimes, such innovators are well received by IBMA, essentially the governing body of bluegrass. The organization has championed the boundary-pushing banjo duo of Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn, for example, and the high-minded string quintet Punch Brothers. Last year, North Carolina's Kruger Brothers premiered Lucid Dreamer, a chamber music collaboration with the Kontras Quartet, during IBMA's conference. This year, they will present it at the Red Hat Amphitheater with the help of jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis.
But these are exceptions that prove the rule. Wander the roads of Raleigh during Wide Open Bluegrass' StreetFest, and many of the acts you see will offer such slight spins on standard fare that they may start to blur together. Even one of the main stage's headliners, the Grammy-winning Earls of Leicester, is a Flatt & Scruggs cover collective.
Jerry Douglas leads Earls of Leicester. If he looks familiar, it's not only because all of the IBMAs and Grammys he's won with his own band or as part of Alison Krauss' Union Station. He's played every IBMA convocation in Raleigh to date.
In fact, of the 16 acts taking the stage at the Red Hat Amphitheater this year, 10 have appeared in some context either on the headlining Red Hat stage or in a Raleigh Convention Center ballroom since 2013. Bands that perform at the conference showcases often ascend to the main stage, as with the Earls of Leicester and the Kruger Brothers this year. Others, like The Infamous Stringdusters and The Gibson Brothers, are repeated outright.
Turns out, at least in the case of IBMA, when governing bodies pick the talent, they tend to maintain a small corral rather than expand their reach. The self-codifying confines of Wide Open Bluegrass seem to hold it back the most: What could be a highly curated festival of new and classic talent turns into rehashed repeat appearances.
William Lewis is the executive director of PineCone, the local roots booster that's been responsible for booking the ticketed Red Hat shows and the free street festival. He's an IBMA board member, too. The booking priority, he says, rests mostly with who has a new project and who fits into the budget.
And though many names reappear from year to year, like Sam Bush or the Steep Canyon Rangers, the projects and performances are different, he promises. Bush played last year with an all-star jam lineup of Béla Fleck, Edgar Meyer, Jerry Douglas and others, yes, but this year he's headlining Saturday night with his own main band. And when the Steep Canyon Rangers took the stage in 2013, he says, they acted as Steve Martin's backing band. On Friday, they're performing without him.
But the band performed at Red Hat last year, too, in a mid-evening slot. Bluegrass can be so repetitious, these things can be easy to forget.