The World of Bluegrass Festival embraces the history
and the future of music—and of Raleigh.
By Bryan C. Reed
Since it moved to Raleigh from Nashville in 2013, the International Bluegrass Music Association’s (IBMA) World of Bluegrass Festival has been an open gathering for bluegrass and Americana aficionados. It’s the site of the annual Bluegrass Music Awards and a bevy of industry conferences. But mainly, it’s an all-you-can-eat buffet of twangy tunes with free concerts dotted all over downtown Raleigh—some even forming as impromptu jam sessions—and the main stage at Red Hat Amphitheater being the only ticketed venue.
In the midst of these shows and industry conferences, the festival has become a magnet for the genre’s top talents, with past headliners including the likes of Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn, Rhiannon Giddens, and Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers.
This year, the World of Bluegrass, which runs September 24th to 28th, will be more open and accessible than ever before.
In March, organizers of the festival announced that, for the first time ever, the headlining concerts at Red Hat Amphitheater will be free and open to the public. Upgraded advance tickets have been sold for fans who want to guarantee seating, but the remainder of Red Hat Amphitheater will be filled on a first-come-first-served basis for sets by the Del McCoury Band with Sam Bush, Molly Tuttle, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Balsam Range, Sister Sadie, Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen, and I’m With Her (a supergroup comprised of Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan).
In a press release, IBMA’s executive director, Paul Schiminger, celebrated the festival’s new approach. “With the help of our Raleigh partners and key sponsors, IBMA is transitioning our festival to a free, mission-forward event, taking bluegrass to the masses by reducing all barriers to participation. All are welcome to come hear the best in bluegrass music today.”
If past years are any indication, World of Bluegrass—and the music that gives it its name—has no shortage of fans. The News & Observer reported last year that the festival “has lured thousands of visitors to downtown and generated millions of dollars in economic impact since it moved to Raleigh.” And the city is contracted with IBMA to host the festival at least through 2021.
This is fitting, given the vital role North Carolina musicians played in defining the sound of bluegrass. Though the genre takes its name from Kentuckian Bill Monroe’s band, the Blue Grass Boys, which formed in the late ’30s, the recipe wasn’t complete until a Tar Heel joined the band.
According to The Bluegrass Heritage Foundation’s summary of bluegrass history, “While many fans of bluegrass music date the genre to 1939, when Monroe formed his first Blue Grass Boys band, most believe that the classic bluegrass sound came together late in 1945, shortly after Earl Scruggs, a 21-year-old banjo player from North Carolina, joined the band.”
Scruggs developed a three-finger technique on his banjo—different from the “clawhammer” style that
was typical of old-time music—that, alongside Monroe’s high-lonesome vocal, gave bluegrass its identity.
Since then, bluegrass has come and gone from mainstream popularity, but endured in factions of both preservationists and revisionists. For some, only the styles forged by bluegrass’ first generation—Scruggs, Monroe, guitarist Doc Watson, and others—are true bluegrass. For others—from Nickel Creek or the Avett Brothers to Fleck and Bush—that foundation has provided a springboard for new sounds and approaches.
At World of Bluegrass, both factions have been fully represented. The festival’s credo of inclusiveness and welcoming extends beyond tickets to the programming of the festival itself, which covers a broad swath of traditional bluegrass, folk, Americana, old-time, and other adjacent styles. Schiminger has said, “When it is all said and done, bluegrass fans will get to enjoy artists ranging from Hall of Famers and award-winning rising stars to special collaborations with amazing guests.”
It’s that broad swath of interpretations of bluegrass that has made World of Bluegrass a compelling—and remarkably apt—event for Raleigh, a city rich with history, and also in the midst of constant growth and evolution. Like the regions that birthed the sound, World of Bluegrass aims to honor the past while embracing the vision of a still-brighter future.