When civic leaders from Raleigh persuaded the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) to leave Nashville and host its annual shindig in a city known more for wine sipping than string picking, many observers didn’t expect much.
That was before Raleigh gave bluegrass fans the red carpet treatment, turning the convention center and half the city into a weekend wonderland of all things stringed, from banjos and mandolins to fiddles, guitars, and stand-up basses. Organizers got lucky with perfect early fall weather, and thousands of people flocked the streets. Music rang from every side, and it seemed that at least one in twenty carried an instrument case.
I circled the streets on Saturday afternoon and stopped to hear live performances on at least four outdoor stages plus another at the convention center. I passed on the $50 ticket for the Red Hat Amphitheater where the bigger names were playing, because earlier in the week I’d attended a concert featuring banjo master Bela Fleck with the North Carolina Symphony (take that, Nashville), and figured it couldn’t get much more impressive than that.
Besides, I was mainly there for the exercise and the atmosphere: walking and watching was more fun than sitting and listening. Along the way I picked up a free copy of the amazing Our State magazine and signed up for a subscription, and listened to a kid-centered bluegrass group singing “I’ll Fly Away” — they could have been featured on Oh Brother Where Art Thou. I passed on standing in a 50-yard long line for barbeque sandwiches with regret, as I just didn’t want to stand still for that long.
The barbeque was donated by the N.C. Pork Council to the Interfaith Food Shuttle after an all-night “N.C. Whole Hog Barbecue State Championship” cook-off between 30 pitmasters, each given a 100-pound pig. The meat was then chopped by volunteers and sold at the festival, with the proceeds going to support the Food Shuttle’s ministry. The Pork Council also contributing some funds to the International Bluegrass Music Foundation.
“Bluegrass Wide Open” music wasn’t limited to the outdoor stages: downtown clubs featured a rotating list of established performers, while aspiring pickers could be heard from doorways, alcoves, and street corners. An exhibit hall in the convention center featured all things bluegrass, from flat picks (lightning fast!) to fancy guitars and more mandolins than I’ve ever seen in one place.
Reviews were glowing, and the festival was such a hit that observers are left wondering how the city can match it in the next two years of its three-year contract with the IBMA. About 1,500 people registered for the IBMA meeting (compared to 1,118 in Nashville the previous year), all the downtown hotels were booked up, and everything from the awards show to the Red Hat Amphitheater performances sold out. Up to 30,000 people attended altogether. Organizers will no doubt be hard-pressed to get lucky with such amazing weather again, and novelty won’t be a factor the second time around, but I’m sure they’ll go all out.
I confess that I rarely listen to bluegrass music, other than some favorite Doc Watson CDs, but you have to give Raleigh credit for hosting a terrific party, albeit for the purpose of collecting cool points on the national stage and attracting mega-dollars in business and tax revenue.
As I looped the festival area, I couldn’t help but notice the number of blocked streets, congested sidewalks, and extra effort put into collecting trash and providing portable toilets: all welcome enhancements for the festival. But I just had to wonder why it suddenly became a problem, a few weeks ago, for a few volunteers to stand on a sidewalk across from Moore Square and provide biscuits for homeless folk in need of a hot meal.
Hospitality shouldn’t be limited to having fun and making money. There’s more than one way to enrich a city.