Arriving yesterday in the early evening at the Raleigh Convention Center’s registration area for World of Bluegrass 2013
, I first met a pair of young guys from Alberta. “We decided to come down on a whim,” one told me. I tried to imagine flying across the continent on an impulse to see bluegrass in Raleigh. I couldn't, but I didn't need to: I simply needed to walk down the street, to the Long View Center.
Indeed, I was anxious to hear something—anything—as soon as possible. Kristy Cox & Calder Highway were just beginning their set. Cox’s vocals and the complementary male harmonies rang crystal-clear throughout the sanctuary. It was only during the breaks between the group’s carefully arranged songs that you could tell Cox hailed from Australia, based mostly on the way she pronounced Raleigh in an accent that had been previously undetectable. With Cox and Irish folkies the Niall Toner Band sandwiching Raleigh’s The Gravy Boys and Virginia’s The Honey Dewdrops on the first portion of the Long View bill, I quickly learned that the festival is just as international as the association's name bills itself to be.
Based on the IBMA-related anecdotes I’d heard over the years, I expected mostly hard-line traditionalists and a sizable contemporary contingent to descend on Raleigh this week—that is, bluegrass “purists” in two different forms. I didn’t expect, then, that the best performance of my first night would belong to a Nashville-based group that wouldn’t be claimed by either camp. Disposing almost entirely of bluegrass conventions, Bradford Lee Folk and the Bluegrass Playboys defied both the frontman’s surname and the name of his backing band, though they were damn good at whatever you call their brand of outlaw roots music. Folk’s high-lonesome voice haunted his dark, richly detailed tales, totally dosed with black humor.
“This one’s about heroin addiction,” he said, introducing an unreleased tune. “Raise your hands… anyone?” After that dead-pan delivery, I knew I’d be better off leaving my assumptions at home this week.