The ability to serve as an effective master of ceremonies is underappreciated and often anonymous. Emcees are like baseball umpires: If you're too conscious of them, they're not doing a good job.
But they do get a pretty nice seat for the festivities. "Offer a brief introduction to each artist and then sit back, soak up the great music and cheer wildly," says Bill Leslie, the emcee of the first session of PineCone's two-day Winter Music Festival, describing his role. "I draw a lot of inspiration from other musicians," adds Leslie, a veteran songwriter and award-winning performer when he's not daylighting at the WRAL anchor desk. "I'm sure I will carry something home that sparks a new song."
Larry Nixon, Sunday's keeper and co-host of the PineCone Bluegrass show, also downplays his role in the proceedings. "I just introduce the acts and keep things flowing," says Nixon. "Well, hopefully."
Here's who Leslie will introduce on Saturday night:
6 P.M. You can get caught up in the novelty of Telluride champs Bearfoot being from Alaska and the story of the quintet's formation while members attended bluegrass camps in their home state, but Leslie's determined to steer you toward their rich and tight harmony. "(They're) fabulous musicians," he offers. "And not only great performers but superb teachers." This is for those who like their acoustic music in the Nickel Creek, genre-dodging vein.
7 P.M. It seems strange to talk about the unassuming Tony Rice in such terms, but he's a flat-picking wizard, an acoustic guitar superhero. "The first time I heard Tony Rice I thought, 'Why do I even try to play the guitar?'" Leslie recalls. "The guy is spectacular. So fast, precise, and fun. I could listen to his eight-minute version of 'Sally Goodin' all day. It's good mood music. It really lifts your spirit and helps you appreciate all the practice."
8:15 P.M. Triangle-based rootsy singer/ songwriter aficionados had the pleasure of watching Tift Merritt evolve from promising open-mic fixture to bandleader to genuine recording artist, migrating from Humble Pie to Austin City Limits to Paris. Leslie was paying attention. "[She's] charmingly beautiful and richly talented as both a wordsmith and melody crafter," he says. "Tift has graced the airwaves of WRAL numerous times, including an unforgettable performance with the North Carolina Symphony in our annual Pops in the Park concert series." For this performance, the Community Music School Choir will handle the support role.
9:30 P.M. With his maverick backstory, Kris Kristofferson seemed like a movie star even before starring in his first film. And after one false start, he did become a songwriting star. His word-rebel ways—it might seem quaint now, but using the word "stoned" in "Sunday Morning Coming Down" shocked a lot of systems in 1970—broke plenty of ground. And his last two records, including last year's appropriately sinewy Closer to the Bone, reveal a stance that remains uncompromised. "One of my heroes growing up listening to the radio in Morganton," says Leslie. "Once I peddled some songs in Nashville while in college, and I ran into a publisher who told me I should try to emulate Kris Kristofferson because of his poignant lyrics and his unique way of expressing heartache."
And Nixon will bring these groups out, starting on Sunday afternoon:
2 P.M. "Definitely old school" is how Nixon sums up Danny Paisley & the Southern Grass, winners of the 2009 IBMA Song of the Year Award. The five-piece is deeply rooted in family and tradition. The Paisley brothers—rangy vocalist Danny and bassist brother Michael—learned to play from their father, Bob, who originated the Southern Grass. Fiddler T.J. Lundy and banjo-playing brother Bobby had their father, Ted, cofounder of the Southern Mountain Boys, as teacher. And mandolinist Donny Eldreth Jr. also carries on the family business.
3 P.M. Talking IBMA awards? At the 2009 program, Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper won awards for instrumental group and instrumental recorded performance. Flamekeeper Jesse Brock won Mandolin Player of the Year, and bandmate Marshall Winborn earned Bass Player of the Year. As for bandleader Cleveland, it's a big deal when he doesn't win Fiddle Player of the Year (seven times and counting). "He's a little more contemporary," offers Nixon, "but he's firmly planted in the traditional. You hear him play, you know what he learned from."
4:15 P.M. Let's get the awards stuff out of the way first: Dale Ann Bradley is on a three-year streak of IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year wins. Nixon positions the former Coon Creek Girl and her band as "firmly contemporary and polished," despite a background that's classic bluegrass—that is, from the Kentucky hills, and the daughter of a Baptist preacher. Her recordings reflect that confluence of vintage roots and modern sounds, as gospel numbers and Carter Family tunes share space with arrangements of songs by Fleetwood Mac and Tom Petty.
5:30 P.M. When Ricky Skaggs released Bluegrass Rules! in 1997, it was viewed as a return to the high-and-lonesome fold for the former bluegrass child prodigy. Truth be told, Skaggs never truly strayed during his two-decade run of country chart success. "'Highway 40 Blues' was actually a bluegrass song written by Larry Cordle," says Nixon of one of Skaggs' many appearances at the top of the commercial country chart. "As Larry Cordle says, 'You put steel and piano with it and fool 'em.'" And as for Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder circa 2010: "Ricky's got his pick of super pickers." This time, the group includes Raleigh native Jim Mills, a guy with some Player of the Year hardware of his own.
The PineCone Winter Music Festival is Saturday, Jan. 30, and Sunday, Jan. 31. One- and two-day passes are available. See www.pinecone.org/wintermusicfest.html for details, and call PineCone directly for tickets at 919-664-8302.