Mid-day Saturday, if you stood in just the right spot on the Raleigh Convention Center staircase, a landscape of 10 different picking circles were visible across the lobby. About that many were out of sight, but could be heard. The hum of it all continued long into the night.
World of Bluegrass is nothing if not a hands-on, interactive experience. This year’s model was another grassroots affair, and the convention center complex with the Marriott Hotel was the tuning fork at the center.
By the weekend, there was end-to-end music up and down Fayetteville Street outside. But all week, the music was going pretty much round-the-clock inside. All you had to do was bring an instrument and start playing to join in.
If the bluegrass community itself was the star of World of Bluegrass 2018, it was partly because this year didn’t have as many big-name celebrities — no Steve Martin or Alison Krauss. So it was somewhat of a more low-key experience, but more of the same is pretty great nevertheless.
This was the sixth year of World of Bluegrass in Raleigh. While overall attendance figures won’t be available for several weeks, by all appearances, this week’s International Bluegrass Music Association business conference and awards show, nightclub shows, trade show and Wide Open Bluegrass outdoor shows looked comparable to years past, thanks to gorgeous weather on the weekend when the free street festival brought droves of people downtown.
Last year, a record 221,000 people turned out for the full slate of events.
“The numbers look about the same as last year, plus or minus a few,” said IBMA executive director Paul Schiminger.
Keeping the festival going at this level had a lot to do with IBMA’s announcement in May that World of Bluegrass would be staying in Raleigh at least through 2021.
Diversification of bluegrass
Bluegrass week began with Monday night’s “Shout and Shine” diversity showcase, highlighting the style’s demographic range across ethnicity, gender and orientation. The star of the night was Che Apalache, who pretty much stole the show at every event they played all week, including Friday night’s “Bluegrass Pride” showcase.
Che Apalache, a “Latin-grass” quartet based in Buenos Aires, Argentina, has members from Mexico, Argentina and also Winston-Salem — Joe Troop, an out-and-proud fiddler unafraid to ask, “Where my queers at?”
Che Apalache is an unlikely polyglot combination of global influences from as far away as Japan, covering everything from Bach to nursery rhymes. They put a worldly spin on the Flatt & Scruggs standard “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” played Latino folk songs as if they were bluegrass and brought down the house with a politically charged gospel-styled a capella song called “The Wall.”
There was plenty of tradition to sample, too, including living history. Friday afternoon, it was possible to see Kinney Rorrer on one of the outdoor stages telling stories and playing songs by his late great uncle, 1920s string-band legend Charlie Poole.
Noting that Ricky Skaggs, who was just inducted into the IBMA Hall of Fame Thursday, has covered Poole songs throughout his career, Rorrer said, “Charlie would be pleased that people are still playing him.”
Nevertheless, there were a lot of quirks on display, like California new-grass group Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen’s jam-band take on Steely Dan’s “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.”
The young Baltimore quartet Charm City Junction was the rare IBMA band with an accordion, imparting an Irish feel. And Wilkesboro’s Kruger Brothers were the missing link between classical conservatory and Appalachian porch picking party.
Jens Kruger, playing at an unofficial house concert Wednesday night, played his banjo with flamenco-sounding flourishes and the sort of neck taps usually seen in jazz or rock guitar. Bluegrass is usually played fast, but the Krugers are an example of the virtues of slowing down.
Equally spectacular was the “First Ladies of Bluegrass” special collaboration at Red Hat Amphitheater Friday night. Rhiannon Giddens and Gillian Welch showed up for cameos, but the real stars were the five players in the core group.
Fiddler Becky Buller, bassist Missy Raines, mandolinist Sierra Hull, banjo player Alison Brown and guitarist Molly Tuttle all displayed virtuosity that was both elegant and startlingly non-chalant, especially Tuttle. She played one jaw-dropping guitar solo after another, and looked completely unimpressed with herself while doing it.
They’ll be back
As always during bluegrass week, the stars were approachable. The morning after hosting the IBMA Awards with Hot Rize, banjo player Pete Wernick was in the convention center leading a workshop on picking-circle etiquette. He covered when to solo (less often) and sing along (always).
“While you’re soloing, I’ll just lecture you a little bit,” he said. “No one will arrest you if you sing really loud.”
Not long after that, Buddy Melton — to whom Wernick had presented entertainer and male vocalist of the year awards the night before — was walking alone down Davie Street. When given a congratulatory greeting, he smiled, stopped and said, “Thanks, friend.”
Interludes like that keep a lot of people coming back, like Bill and Pam Warren. They’ve been coming to World of Bluegrass in Raleigh every year since 2013, from their home in Detroit.
“We are passionate fans, go to 20 or 25 music festivals a year,” said Bill Warren. “This one is top of the line. It’s the best, just the music as a whole. And everybody here is smiling.”
“Everyone here is so welcoming,” said Pam Warren.
So will they be back next year?
“Definitely,” she said.