Who Needs Nashville?

Iconic statue of Sir Walter Raleigh taken from inside the Raleigh Convention Center - photo by G. Milo FarineauSeriously, who needs Nashville?

I was among those not thrilled when IBMA packed up and moved World of Bluegrass from Nashville to Raleigh, N.C.

The annual awards show taking place somewhere other than the historic Ryman? Unthinkable.

The yearly business conference being held hours away from the homes of many bluegrass stars who could be counted on to drop in to appear on a panel or play a showcase? What were they thinking?

When I saw Nashville in the rearview mirror last year, I wasn’t convinced the move was a smart one.

I was wrong.

The move to Raleigh was a great one. The city has treated bluegrassers like royalty all week. Not just the stars, who get the red carpet rolled out for them wherever they park their buses, but lesser-known bands and fans, too. City officials even closed part of the main street for the weekend’s Wide Open Bluegrass festival (formerly known as Fan Fest).

There was a carnival-like atmosphere in the city on Friday and Saturday, with vendors hawking food and souvenirs and a seemingly endless stream of bands setting up on multiple stages, indoors and out.

And fans came, by the thousands. There are some reports, not yet verified, that this was the largest convention ever in Raleigh. Some estimates put the crowd for Saturday (pairing IBMA with the North Carolina Barbeque Championships) close to six figures – far more than ever came to IBMA in Nashville. That’s probably an inflated number, but the weekend’s paid shows were sold out and the free shows were mobbed. There were even scalpers! Yes, scalpers. That never happened in Nashville. And there was so much foot traffic, city cops had to direct traffic through intersections.

One reason for the heightened interest, no doubt, is the slow but noticeable uptick in the U.S. economy. (I know many areas and many people are still suffering, but overall, things are improving.) Many vendors reported doing better here than they did in previous years in Nashville. One instrument seller told me there was a good chance the trailer that was filled to the brim with guitars and mandolins on the way here would go home empty.

Welcome banner at IBMA's World of Bluegrass 2013 - photo by G. Milo FarineauBut much of the success it is due to the fact that Raleigh wanted IBMA to come here. And now that IBMA is here, city leaders are already working to keep the annual event here after the current three-year contract runs out.

I’m writing this on a patio outside the convention center, next to a giant statue of Sir Walter Raleigh. He’s holding his cape, the one he supposedly laid across a puddle so Queen Elizabeth I wouldn’t get mud on her royal shoes. For World of Bluegrass week, he also carried a banjo festooned with IBMA’s logo.

Nashville, by contrast, barely lifted a finger for IBMA. While this was the biggest conference Raleigh will see this year – and maybe ever – IBMA was just an afterthought in Nashville.

The board of directors took a big chance in moving from Nashville, but it looks like it paid off in a big way.

There’s no doubt that music is HUGE in Nashville. On my first visit to IBMA several years back, a well known songwriter pointed to a maintenance man washing the windows at the convention center and saying, “He’s probably written better songs than either of us ever will.” Because Raleigh isn’t saturated with music, they embrace music.

Nashville’s role as music central is one of the main reasons folks cite for the move being a mistake. But the truth is, Nashville’s role in bluegrass music history isn’t a central one.

On the other hand, Raleigh just happens to be a key locale for the music we love.

For starters, Bill and Charlie Monroe played a regular daily slot on WPTF radio. It’s also, as IBMA Chairman Jon Weisberger points out, where the brothers went their separate ways.

It’s not hard to imagine: No break up, no Bluegrass Boys. And, perhaps, no bluegrass.

Raleigh has embraced the bluegrass community and IBMA. I can see the city being home to World of Bluegrass beyond the three-year contract.

Raleigh wants us.

And we need Raleigh.

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About the Author

David Morris

David Morris is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist, songwriter and upright bass player. He has spent much of his career as a wire service political reporter, including nearly 14 years with The Associated Press and a stint as chief White House correspondent for Bloomberg News, and is now a senior editor for Kiplinger Washington Editors.

  • Darren Sullivan-Koch

    To answer your titular question, apparently these guys do: http://bluegrasstoday.com/rounder-rolling-to-nashville/

    • Darren Sullivan-Koch

      In all seriousness, I’m really glad to hear this was so successful.

  • Phil Bankester

    Well said, David. You sum up my impressions as well. I can’t wait until next year!

  • Darby Brandli

    Yep! I just posted a mini review over on the California Bluegrass Association Facebook page. A mini review is all I can handle after our week in Raleigh. Thanks to all who came by the CBA Suite at the Marriott and we will definitely return next year!! The only downside I can think of was a lack of nonstop flights to Raleigh from the west coast. Maybe we will charter a plane next year!

  • Anson Burtch

    Thanks for the great article. I agree with the sentiment entirely. Raleigh really went all out to make the IBMA feel welcome and it showed all weekend. The artists and attendees I spoke to all said how much they felt welcomed and how much they liked being able to walk to all the venues and event. Plus it’s a lot more fun playing a showcase at a local downtown bar than in “conference room B.” I’m already looking forward to next year.

  • Jon Weisberger

    Well…I thought it made for an amusing joke to suggest that Raleigh is a contender for the title of birthplace of bluegrass because it’s where Charlie and Bill broke up their act. But while I think that moving the World of Bluegrass to Raleigh has worked out well for many reasons, and while I have every reason to believe that it will continue to do so for years to come, I sure don’t subscribe to the idea that Nashville’s role in bluegrass music history isn’t a central one.

    • Emory Shover

      Certainly in the early days, when there was not a great distinction between “country” or “bluegrass” music, Nashville played a huge roll. However, and this my opinion only, as CM moved toward the electrics and politics of attracting people to “their” music, bluegrass was moved to one side. Never promoted equally and never played nor promoted on “Top 10” CM stations (with the exception of a hand full of stations). Heck, at one time (the 70’s), bands moved to the Washington DC area to become known! This was due to the popularity of the Country Gentlemen and Seldom Scene as well as Rebel Records and Bluegrass Unlimited being located nearby.
      It has only been in recent years that Nashville has “re-embraced” bluegrass! This is mainly due to the younger bands, good recording studios, better management/promotion, etc. So, with higher degrees of popularity happening, what do we see? Country artists now recording bluegrass albums, some good and acceptable, and some not so.
      I, for one, am happy that the IBMA is now in Raleigh and my wife and I are planning on attending our first IBMA and bringing my brother and his girl friend with us (maybe a few more to boot!). I love the city of Raleigh and look forward to attending next year.

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  • Eugene Brown

    In the face of some rather snarky comments about the IBMA event’s move to Raleigh from Nashville music journalists and other Nashville advocates, I was thrilled to hear, as a member of the Local Organizing Committee for this event here in Raleigh, that the Nashville advocates were eating some crow after experiencing the overwhelmingly positive aspects of both the city and the conference. We rolled out as much red carpet as we could find and it was so gratifying that everyone, artists and fans alike, recognized that Raleigh really wanted IBMA here and that we were not treating them as red-headed stepchildren. What we learned this week will only further enhance for next year what has already proven to be a stupendous success.

  • Jan

    I live within 40 minutes driving distance to Raleigh in neighboring Johnston County. Considering the fact that the annual “Mule Days” where local schools shut down was going on at the same time as this as well as a local county fair and the N.C. State football game and ECU vs. UNC football game, I think the turnout was phenomenal. All of the Johnston Co. natives would have been in Raleigh if it had not been for Mule Days. I look forward to another great year in 2014. Hopefully, someone will check the schedule and not have all of these events happening the same weekend!

  • Dick Bowden

    Here’s another BIG thumbs up to Raleigh. Raleigh knows how to do conventions. Last weekend was Ray Price Harley Davidson weekend! Next weekend is Irish weekend! These folks know what they’re doing. The CITY put up portable generators, lights, stages, etc. for the on-the-street entertainment. And cleaned up. And provided unobtrusive security.

    I found everything to be very walkable. And since the weather was PERFECT, walking wasn’t an issue.

    Marriott Hotel couldn’t have been more welcoming and un-fussy. Plenty of places to jam, and yet plenty of quiet floors.

    Trade Show as huge and well run and well attended.

    The only negative was that unbelievably, by Wednesday the Awards Show and main festival stage tickets were SOLD OUT. A lot of people who drove a long way and spent a lot of money to get there weren’t able to see the best of the best. The main festival stage amphitheater seated SIX THOUSAND and was sold out. And the tickets weren’t cheap by any means. An interesting problem for IBMA, dealing with perhaps unanticipated success. Next year however people who book the required 4 day minimum hotel stay need some sort of priority on tickets before they sell out.

    Awards Show was terrifically presented in a gigantic and beautiful auditorium. Great announcing by Ned Luberecki (!) and of course the “Tony Rice Moment” will never be forgotten by anyone who was there.

    So it’s really good that most acts (but not all) also appeared somewhere else in a different venue. I got to see Del do a midnight show at the Lincoln Theater (a small kind of “dive bar theater” it was called by some).

    And there were interesting things to see (and eat) right in the same downtown district. State capitol building unescorted tour. A nice small museum on Raleigh history including early hillbilly radio. I didn’t even get a chance to go to the BBQ doo-dah!

    I always felt safe, even late at night.

    But finally, many of the IBMA staffers just didn’t seem to be very helpful in explaining to you what was going on where and when. Gads, they ran out of programs and registration card lanyards by Thursday! I learned quickly how to download the IBMA “app” to my Smartphone (my first app download ever!) to find schedules, rosters, and street maps.

    • William Earnhardt

      Glad to hear that you had a great time! As a Raleigh local, I was thrilled with the success of this event and hope it leads to many, many more IBMAs in Raleigh.

      I will say that tickets to the main event have been on sale since May, so there was plenty of opportunity to purchase them prior to getting into town. I bought mine the day they went on sale and sat on the 8th row in the amphitheater. I plan to do the same next year.

      Tickets were harder to come by closer to the event, but I know they were still available through the IBMA with a few weeks to go.

      There certainly was plenty of demand though, about two weeks ago a friend of mine had 2 extras and he listed them on Craigslist. He had 35 people contact him about the tickets within just a couple hours of listing them.

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  • Kevin

    Being a Bluegrass fan living in Australia the coverage of the entire weekend, mainly the live steaming of the main event, was awesome.
    Apart from a few hiccups I can only imagine that many lessons were learned and that the 2014 event will be overcome any shortfalls experienced this year.
    I hope the the city of Raleigh and the IBMA will offer attendance packages for overseas Bluegrass fans.
    Meanwhile we at http://www.musicmixcentral.com will continue promoting Bluegrass music through our online Bluegrass station as much as we can possibly can.

  • Elliott Cunningham

    Know everything and anything about Nashville at http://www.nashville.com The official website of music city – Nashville, TN.