This summer, James King faced the slow end to a long career of fast bluegrass. The singer spent more than a month in the hospital, beset by gallbladder and kidney complications.
But shortly after recovering, the former Clinch Mountain Boy returned to the road, hitting two or three stages in two or three states each week.
"If I was to leave my music, I don't know what I'd do," he says. "I love bluegrass."
The affection is paying off: His 2013 album, Three Chords and the Truth, earned a Grammy nomination for Bluegrass Album of the Year. In September, he was inducted into the Virginia Music Hall of Fame. "The governor don't write you a letter everyday," he quips.
Nicknamed "The Bluegrass Storyteller" by Tom T. Hall, King has classic sensibilities. He maintains a hard-driving band behind his emotive vocals. The one-two punch of panache and passion that has sustained his career now pushes him onward. "I've got a pretty busy year next year," he says. "Things are looking really good." Friday, Oct. 3, 10:40 a.m., Raleigh Convention Center. —Ashley Melzer
Sierra Hull was 9 years old when she attended her first IBMA conference, but she wasn't just listening. Hull had been playing mandolin for almost a year, so she was excited to jam with new friends—including Sam Bush, the rapid-fire, wild-haired mandolin madman.
Only a few years later, she rubbed shoulders with him again—this time on the short list for IBMA's Mandolin Player of the Year, for which she's now been nominated seven years in a row. "To be included in a list with somebody like Sam," she says, "just to be thought of for that list every year has been a big honor."
At 22, Hull is now a seasoned star of the bluegrass scene, with two LPs on Rounder Records and a degree from the Berklee College of Music. She's a virtuosic musician who sings with a heartfelt purity. Though she's focused in recent years on touring, she'll soon step back into the studio.
"It's been quite the battle of patience, making sure that what I'm doing is the right thing, taking my time," Hull says. "I really feel excited about being able to get started in December and work on something new." Wednesday, Oct. 1, 12 a.m., Lincoln Theatre; Friday, Oct. 3, 1 p.m., Red Hat Amphitheater; Fri, Oct. 3, 5 p.m., City Plaza Stage. —Ashley Melzer
Della Mae arrived at their first IBMA gathering five years ago, not long after forming. They've since self-released a self-titled debut, earned a deal from iconic roots label Rounder Records for last year's understated and Grammy-nominated This World Oft Can Be, and traveled the globe for the State Department.
Fiddler Kimber Ludiker calls Della Mae—a quintet of women—a showcase for sometimes overlooked female talent, beginning with herself.
"At face value, there's a novelty to the lineup, but our goal is to be compared against other bands in general," says Ludiker. "We want people to say that's a good band, not pretty good for a girl."
She does, however, want to inspire women to love country and bluegrass, as she did growing up in Texas. Through the State Department's system of musical emissaries, Della Mae has traveled to Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. They perform, collaborate with local artists and hold workshops.
"We're trying to be good role models, encourage female musicians and make an impact on young girl's lives during our travels across the world and talks about women's rights," Ludiker says. "We feel happy about the successes we've had, but we still have a long ways to go." Saturday, Oct. 4, 12 p.m., Red Hat Amphitheater; Saturday, Oct. 4, 9:45 p.m., Hargett Street Stage. —Chris Parker
Depending on your perspective, mentioning George Jones and Jesus in the same sentence can count as blasphemy or reasonable company. Do it in a bluegrass song with one of the most revered soul men ever, and you've only amplified the risk. That's what Siler City's Nu-Blu did on "Jesus and Jones," which pairs Sam Moore with bandleader Carolyn Routh. "One made wine, the other one drank it," she sings. "One spoke the gospel," he answers before she replies, "The other one sang it."
Nu-Blu considers itself a bluegrass act, with traditional instruments and a voice that recalls Alison Krauss. They mostly cut originals, too. "I grew up around bluegrass," Routh says. "Being from central North Carolina, you don't really have a choice."
But the band has no problem slipping from the common canon to recreate Pat Benatar's "Shadows Of The Night" with two guitars and a mandolin—or to link George, Jesus and soul.
"When we first started out 11 years ago, we felt a real need to conform to the industry standard," Routh says. "We're comfortable in our own skin now, able to step out of those boundaries and say, 'We love this bluegrass, but this is how we're feeling this song.'" Wednesday, Oct. 1, 12 a.m., Vintage Church. —Grant Britt
Before Hot Rize went into the studio to cut the new When I'm Free, the members spent some time hanging out, establishing a rapport. Hot Rize formed in 1990, but before the latest material, they hadn't made a record in a quarter-century.
The approach worked, as When I'm Free reprises the classic Hot Rize formula. There are expected elements, such as "Western Skies," a bustling ode to nature. But then there's the Southwestern-tinged cover of Los Lobos' "Burn It Down." Since its formation 28 years ago, Hot Rize has represented the impulse to blend bluegrass' traditionalism with more modern elements. A one-time DJ for New York City's only bluegrass program, banjo player Pete Wernick pushed in the progressive direction while mandolin player and fiddler Tim O'Brien pulled traditional, that frisson fostering broader appeal.
"Familiar but different is a good place to go," Wernick says. "When we switched from songs like 'Wichita Lineman' to more Stanley and Monroe-sounding things, we had the advantage of people who were familiar with where we were coming from."
Hot Rize recorded When I'm Free gathered around one microphone, reinforcing the new music's unfussy directness and candor.
"I get on with people who are attracted to bluegrass because they tend to be straightforward, not phony or pretentious," Wernick says. "And if you like bluegrass, you probably like harmony and harmony between people." Friday, Oct. 3, 7:45 p.m., Red Hat Amphitheater. —Chris Parker
This article appeared in print with the headline "Time & tension"