This weekend will mark 16 months since the death of Doc Watson, the roots music pioneer and advocate who was born, lived and died just a few hours west of Raleigh.
Watson was a brilliant flatpicker with a voice that felt like a warm, wise hand on a cold and anxious shoulder.
But he also helped usher Americana music—bluegrass, folk, blues, country—into the modern world. Some of his collaborations guided bluegrass toward the popular fore, and his annual Merlefest worked as a living exposition for the steadily expanding definition of what American roots music could be. In a quarter-century, the festival grew to more than a dozen stages and more than 100 bands, a horde that annually presented the expanding possibilities of these regional sounds.
At least for a short time, Watson's death offered a reminder for some and a notice for others that North Carolina has perpetually served as a musical incubator. This week, that spotlight returns with the arrival of the International Bluegrass Music Association's annual World of Bluegrass—an awards ceremony, trade show, convention and concert series in one—in Raleigh for the first time. At least for the next three years, IBMA will turn the city into a roots music mecca, with the aim of honoring bluegrass' roots while extolling the potential of its future—an appropriate mission, given that North Carolina has launched some of its chief icons and iconoclasts. It's a representation that serves Watson's legacy well.
In this issue, we look at the long path that led IBMA to Raleigh and the strange circumstances that led Steep Canyon Rangers, a band formed in Chapel Hill, to the top of the bluegrass world. In advance of the festival, we offer our picks for what to hear. And after the festival, here on this website, we'll offer comprehensive reviews of what we caught and what we hope for when IBMA returns to Raleigh for another ramble next year.