This week's festivities were meant to mark the third and final World of Bluegrass in Raleigh, at least according to the International Bluegrass Music Association's initial announcement back in 2012. The organization planned to plop its signature event in the burgeoning center of downtown Raleigh, grow it with a novel street-fair approach and then, ahead of 2016's event, find a new home for a renewed product.
But Raleigh proved to be a most hospitable host, with more than one hundred thousand people flooding the streets and the venues welcoming a (sometimes) beer-drinking bookend to the festival season. Editorials both in Raleigh and in IBMA's home of Nashville praised what the city had done for the organization and vice versa. Raleigh seemed to catch bluegrass fever, with more free acoustic series popping up across town than ever before.
So, four months before the second festival could even come to town, IBMA proclaimed it would extend its stay in Raleigh at least through 2018. And in recent months, rumors have been laced with the adverb "indefinitely," suggesting IBMA may be here well into the next decade. Good for Raleigh, then.
Now it's time for the city to demand more from what is quickly becoming its signature downtown seasonal lure.
During its first two capital city iterations (and, I suspect, during this week's third), IBMA used Raleigh as a platform to describe, proclaim and boast its specific brand of American roots music—bluegrass, largely traditional, played in a decades-old mold with subtle accents and flourishes, just to give you a tickle of the present day. It's been fun, too, what with the hotel lobbies and parking lots overrun by pickers, some of the country's best instrumentalists wandering in and out of downtown restaurants, and shut-down streets lined with listeners watching from hay bales and lawn chairs while sipping beers in autumn.
But in its third year, the event's lineup pushes against the limits of genre and reveals weaknesses at the very core. If you've been to IBMA in Raleigh before, you've already seen most of these bands. (You only haven't seen Alison Krauss because she canceled her first-year appearance.) Even of those you haven't seen, you've certainly heard troves of similar acts during the event. At World of Bluegrass, it often seems that there is more variety during the barbeque cook-off or during between-song banter than in the tunes themselves. The festival appears very much about boundary making, not boundary breaking, about preserving what has been instead of advocating novel ways for it to survive. For all of downtown Raleigh's talk lately about not being Mayberry, IBMA's conservative approach to programming a city with music sometimes sounds like we might be.
At a moment when IBMA's internal organization has been in public upheaval with resignations and dismissals, it seems fitting to ask for a reconsideration. We need a city-sanctioned, city-supported festival that is open to more types of people and less concerned with precious rules of style. World of Bluegrass can be that, with a few institutional adjustments. If a sense of inclusion is what we want to foster in our city (save the patios and the residents, right?), perhaps we can work to reflect that in an event whose attendance figures would only be eclipsed by the second coming of Christ, or maybe Jim Valvano.
I'll be at World of Bluegrass this week, and, unless it pours, I imagine I will have a great time, just as I have during both 2013 and 2014. But every so often, I'll probably want to take a break from bluegrass, or at least to hear something else that makes me consider this proud North Carolina tradition as part of a larger conversation and context.
To date, IBMA's World of Bluegrass has very rarely done that for me. It's got three years—hell, maybe forever—to try.