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Off Main: Our Picks for IBMA Week 

Japan's Bluegrass 45

Photo courtesy of the artists

Japan's Bluegrass 45

With hundreds of acts in Raleigh for IBMA's 2017 World of Bluegrass, a glance at the week's schedule can be awfully intimidating, particularly for those who rarely wade into the genre. Though there's no shortage of talent on stage at any given moment, it can be trying at times to hunt down the performances likely to stand out from a crowded line-up of typical 'grass that can often blur together. Here are eight artists who take on bluegrass from varying angles and sometimes even skirt the genre's customs entirely, forming a cross section of the festival's best and most intriguing offerings.

DANNY PAISLEY & SOUTHERN GRASS

Friday, noon, City Plaza

With a set timed perfectly for a lunch break for downtown workers, IBMA's 2016 male vocalist of the year, Danny Paisley, leads his Southern Grass in kicking off this year's street fest with some of the finest singing and traditional picking to be found all weekend. This isn't the first time we've recommended Paisley as one of the festival's standout acts, but with powerful vocals, fleet flatpicking, and lightning-quick banjo rolls, it's hard to pass up one of the rare local appearances by the hard-driving rural Pennsylvania native.

THE EBONY HILLBILLIES

Friday, 2:30 p.m., City Plaza/7:30 p.m., Dance Tent

While the Carolina Chocolate Drops continue to be passed over by IBMA's festival planners, booking New York City's The Ebony Hillbillies—whose career revitalizing the legacy of black string bands actually preceded that of the Chocolate Drops—is a step in a similar direction. Equally at home performing in a subway station or at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, the sextet revisits the roots of African-American string band music from the turn of the twentieth century while folding in unlikely takes on contemporary fare, like Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing"—surely the only time the oft-covered classic has been done with fiddle and washboard. You can also expect heavy doses of traditionals such as "Liza Jane" and a smattering of original numbers.

10 STRING SYMPHONY

Friday, 5:15 p.m., Capitol Stage

Though Bobby Hicks brought the five-string fiddle to the bluegrass world decades ago, he likely wouldn't have envisioned 10 String Symphony, which relies almost exclusively on the instrument—and the extra range provided by its low C string—to craft elegant roots music. While the duo occasionally pulls out a banjo to mix it up, the dynamic Nashville pair combines Rachel Baiman's old-time background and the classical leanings of Christian Sedelmyer to reinterpret traditional fiddle tunes with inventive arrangements and to craft modern acoustic originals.

FRONT COUNTRY

Friday, 8 p.m., Capitol Stage

A staple of World of Bluegrass since the festival moved to Raleigh, Nashville-via-San Francisco quintet Front Country has rightfully built a following here. That's thanks in large part to the band's engaging and energetic progressive roots pop and frontwoman Melody Walker, a soulful dynamo whose passionate pipes have the power to rattle a room and the grace to quiet it back down. Straddling the line between forward-thinking string band and muscular rock 'n' roll outfit, Front Country creatively rearranges Americana conventions and embeds its music with formidable hooks that have plenty of crossover appeal.

The Ebony Hillbillies - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ARTISTS
  • Photo courtesy of the artists
  • The Ebony Hillbillies

JOE NEWBERRY & APRIL VERCH

Friday, 8 p.m., City Plaza

While Missouri native and Raleigh resident Joe Newberry scored one of IBMA's most coveted awards for the host city in 2013—"They Called It Music," which he co-wrote with The Gibson Brothers, earned a song of the year trophy—the multi-instrumentalist is an equally engaging performer in a variety of combos. On Newberry's latest project, he's paired with Canadian fiddler, singer, and step dancer April Verch, an award-winning bandleader in her own right whose wistful vocals suggest her rustic upbringing in a family of roots musicians. Together, the two sidestep bluegrass, instead tackling traditional old-time tunes along with their own sharp original contributions and what they've dubbed "Ottawa Valley and Ozark" songs.

BLUEGRASS 45

Saturday, 2 p.m., Red Hat Amphitheater

Kobe, Japan, may be famous for its beef, but in the late sixties it also served as the point of origin for Bluegrass 45, a groundbreaking sextet of Japanese bluegrass musicians who could've easily been confused with traditional stateside bands. Though the group played the Grand Ole Opry on its first North American tour, appearances outside of Japan have been rare, save for a handful of reunion gigs since the group disbanded in the seventies. Reforming the original lineup for its fiftieth anniversary, the group plans to record a new album, but it remains to be seen whether it's still up for any behind-the-head instrumental antics.

ROB ICKES & TREY HENSLEY

Saturday, 7:45 p.m., City Plaza

Though Rob Ickes's fifteen trophies for dobro player of the year make him the most decorated instrumentalist in IBMA history, in his collaboration with Trey Hensley—now Ickes's main focus since leaving Blue Highway after more than twenty years—the legend shifts his talents away from the genre. Hensley's powerhouse vocals and virtuosic guitar playing often suggest traditional country more than strict bluegrass. Barreling like a freight train through classics by Haggard and Hank while mixing in change-ups from Stevie Ray and The Grateful Dead, Ickes and Hensley should provide welcome relief after a weekend filled with occasionally generic pickin' and grinnin'.

CHATHAM COUNTY LINE

Saturday, 1 p.m., Red Hat Amphitheater/9:30 p.m. City Plaza

These native sons should be a fixture at IBMA weekend thanks to their tremendous local draw, if not for their song "Living in Raleigh Now" becoming the event's unofficial anthem after its first year in town. This year's double dose should make up for last year's absence, though, with an expanded version of Chatham County Line closing down the festival at City Plaza with its electric variant. The free Saturday night appearance is a rare one—the band's electric revues have generally been limited to brief, annual holiday jaunts. Expect classic rock covers nestled between rollicking versions of the already unconventional roots tunes the acoustic quartet will play during its afternoon set.

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