William Lewis, a Tar Heel of the Year finalist, shines a spotlight on NC music

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The News & Observer’s Tar Heel of the Year

The News & Observer recognizes North Carolina residents who have made significant contributions in the last year and beyond. This year, we asked readers to tell us about people who have made a difference in our state. Here are our stories.

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The first day William Lewis went to work for PineCone, the Piedmont Council of Traditional Music, he drove into downtown Raleigh and actually marveled at it. This was 2004, and the city skyline was smaller than it is now, with buildings like the Raleigh Convention Center and PNC Plaza still in the future.

But for someone who had grown up in the country, Raleigh might as well have been Manhattan.

“I’m from a small country town in Georgia, and I was in awe of the city,” said Lewis. “I’d never worked in a city before and I realized I felt like I could make a difference here. I’m not sure why, but it seemed like the right place for me. Raleigh seemed like a place where any person coming in could have a great impact, and I’m a good example.”

Fourteen years later, Lewis has proven that point. Lewis, PineCone’s executive director since 2008, has helped make downtown Raleigh a bustling destination. He’s had a lot to do with turning September into the city’s fall music-festival season.

That’s due to his efforts in helping persuade the International Bluegrass Music Association to move its annual convention from Nashville to Raleigh. Rebranded World of Bluegrass, the conference and accompanying concerts and street festival have been in Raleigh since 2013, becoming one of the city’s signature events — as well as a financial boon.

It’s drawn more than 1 million people and generated more than $61 million in visitor spending, according to figures from Visit Raleigh. Earlier this year, IBMA announced a three-year extension, keeping World of Bluegrass in Raleigh through at least 2021.

Lewis is a finalist for The News & Observer’s Tar Heel of the Year, which recognizes North Carolina residents who have made lasting and significant contributions in the state and beyond. For the first time, four finalists will be honored. The Tar Heel of the Year will be announced later this week.

As an IBMA board member, Lewis oversees the festival’s local organizing committee. PineCone books and produces the festival’s Wide Open Bluegrass outdoor program at Red Hat Amphitheater and on free stages around downtown — which accounts for the bulk of that 1 million attendance figure.

“We’re six years into this thing and we’ll have it for another three,” Lewis said. “We can’t rest on our laurels doing the same thing. To keep an event this large going, you have to be innovative and creative to keep it interesting, dynamic, evolving and sustainable.”

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Williams Lewis the executive director of Pinecone, talks with Jimmy Rhine, the manager for Mandolin Orange and Andrew Marlin in the green room of Meymandi Concert Hall following Marlin’s performance on Thursday, November 15, 2018 in Raleigh, N.C. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

Music-based tourism

Lewis had the sort of rural upbringing where you had to make your own fun wherever you found it. It was only natural that the four Lewis kids spent a lot of time playing music while growing up in rural Georgia. Their grandfather had played drums in a jazz band during the 1920s, while their father was an amateur folk musician who passed down tunes to his children.

Lewis went to Appalachian State University to get a degree in applied anthropology. There was a lot of old-time music in Western North Carolina, people playing the same songs as Lewis’ father. Lewis would often accompany Appalachian State professor Cecelia Conway on field-work trips when she was looking for old-time banjo players or fiddlers.

“We called him ‘Sweet William’ after the ballad, because he’s such a nice person,” Conway said. “He seems to know everyone. And his work with PineCone, particularly what he’s done with the IBMA street festival, has been brilliant.”

Graduate school at UNC-Chapel Hill followed, and contract work for the North Carolina Arts Council. Lewis worked on the “Cherokee Heritage Trails Guidebook” and “Blue Ridge Music Trails of North Carolina” books. Noting the appeal of local music and its potential to draw outsiders, he started thinking about music-based tourism as an untapped resource.

That carried over to PineCone, where Lewis went to work as program associate and took over as executive director in 2008 when Susan Spurlin Newberry retired. PineCone puts on a range of programming beyond the bluegrass festival, from concerts to school workshops.

The organization has more than 1,000 members and an $854,000 annual budget — more than double what it was five years ago. It has three full-time employees, and about 700 volunteers who work at the 200-plus events it puts on throughout the year.

“Our official mission is to preserve, promote and present all forms of traditional performing arts in the Piedmont region,” Lewis said. “Before PineCone, you had folklorists and song-catchers going around the Appalachians. But there wasn’t a ton of focus on the Piedmont, even though it produced some of the greatest music — Charlie Poole, Earl Scruggs, blues, jazz, R&B. That’s what we’ve taken up.”

Hot Rize’s Nick Forster laughs as he waits for the elevator in the green room at Meymandi Concert Hall with William Lewis the executive director of Pinecone on Thursday, November 15, 2018 in Raleigh, N.C. Lewis was helping the band load out their equipment following their show. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

North Carolina’s ‘Year of Music’

Next year should be a big one for PineCone. There will be another bluegrass festival in Raleigh in the fall, which is another opportunity for Lewis to show off both the city and North Carolina’s folk-leaning music in the best light possible.

It also will be North Carolina’s “Year of Music” through a new North Carolina Arts Council program, “Come Hear North Carolina.” The state’s music is the focus of the Oxford American’s prestigious annual Southern Music Issue, which helped kick off the campaign last month, along with a proclamation from Gov. Roy Cooper.

The Year of Music, with events, artist collaborations and stages at major festivals, will keep the spotlight on North Carolina music and its legacy more than ever.

“There’s something unique about folk and traditional music,” Lewis said. “People find so many different connections to it. It’s not all nostalgia and cabins on the hill. Folk and traditional music touches on the full human experience, which includes race riots and slavery, songs about labor, civil rights, floods, murder ballads.

“It’s very democratic, made by and for the people. We try to connect people to that.”

William Lewis

Age: 43

Hometown: Raleigh; born in Athens, Ga.

Family: Married, two children

Education: Appalachian State University bachelor’s degree in applied anthropology, 1997; master’s degree in folklore, UNC-Chapel Hill, 2003.

Accomplishments: Executive director, PineCone (Piedmont Council of Traditional Music), 2008-present; International Bluegrass Music Association board member, 2012-present; program coordinator, North Carolina Folklife Institute, 2002-2004; South Arts board member, 2016-present.

Tar Heel of the Year

This year, there are four finalists, revealed in alphabetical order, with the Tar Heel of the Year to be announced Saturday at newsobserver.com. Here is who has been announced so far:

Richard Brunson: The executive director of NC Baptists on Mission since 1992 has made the organization’s volunteers a critical component of disaster response in North Carolina and around the country, including hurricanes and earthquakes.

Rhiannon Giddens: The musician is one of the most acclaimed to come out of North Carolina. Her accolades include a Grammy Award and a 2017 MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” fellowship. She focuses on the under-represented, under-sung contributions of African-Americans to the cultural canon.

Jaki Shelton Green: Green is the North Carolina Poet Laureate, the state’s first African-American to hold the role. She has made a career out of reaching out to diverse, under-represented communities to find the poetry there.

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David Menconi has covered music and the arts for The News & Observer since 1991. He can be reached at 919-829-4759 or dmenconi@newsobserver.com.