Decision Looms for 2021 World of Bluegrass and Festival

IBMA’s board of directors and staff are hard at work to determine how World of Bluegrass will be held in 2021.

In a perfect world, of course, the business conference and music fair would be held in person in late September and early October. Pretty much everybody is ready for that as a huge step on the road back to normal, when live music and crowded restaurants were taken for granted.

But IBMA faces a number of unknowns in trying to determine the viability of planning and hosting a large public event more than six months down the road.

Usually, registration and the competition for the best and closest hotel rooms opens in early April. Under the two-week timetable for updates, that could still happen, though it wouldn’t come as a surprise if that deadline was delayed until June. Such a delay was put in place last year before the board ultimately decided to hold the event virtually.

That event, from almost every corner, was successful, despite the limits imposed by technology and the absence of hallway jams that help define the week.

There are some optimistic signs on the horizon.

For starters, approval of a third vaccine should help ease scheduling bottlenecks that have slowed the pace of shots in arms. President Biden has said there should be enough doses of vaccine for all Americans who want them to be vaccinated this spring. And there are some preliminary studies suggesting that the easing of restrictions could follow. Just today, for instance, the Centers for Disease Control announced that people who are vaccinated can gather without masks in small groups but should continue masking and social distancing in public settings.

But some hurdles remain, too, at least for now. North Carolina has tough restrictions in place concerning crowd size for both indoor and outdoor events, and limits on restaurant capacity. If those restrictions remained in place or were only slightly relaxed, the World of Bluegrass wouldn’t be feasible as an in-person event in Raleigh. The governor and state officials say they will revisit the matter and adjust the limitations later this month, and regularly thereafter.

“It’s all changing, literally, by the week,” said IBMA Executive Director Paul Schiminger.

The board’s decision isn’t happening in a vacuum, of course. Some festivals and public shows in other parts of the country are taking place as scheduled, and how they fare will be watched closely. It’s not just a question of safety. There’s a business aspect, too, primarily whether large numbers of fans are willing to venture out for live music, and whether they are ready to travel.

Others are adjusting their schedules, trying to buy more time for the situation to improve. DelFest, for example, has delayed its traditional Memorial Day weekend event in Maryland until September.

But still others are pulling the plug. 

The Country Music Association recently canceled CMA Fest 2021, which had been scheduled for June. “We know our fans near and far have hoped that the festival could safely return this summer, and while we are encouraged to see COVID-19 vaccines becoming more widely available, we still face several challenges that prevent us from bringing our fans around the world the CMA Fest experience that have come to expect,” the group announced on its website.

More relevant to IBMA, perhaps, are decisions by MerleFest and the Earl Scruggs Music Festival, both held in North Carolina as well. The inaugural Scruggs festival, after having been scrubbed by the virus last year, was recently rescheduled for Labor Day weekend in 2022. The decision was driven by what IBMA’s board will have to wrestle with: Uncertainly about what the state’s rules for crowds will look like in September.

The board that oversees MerleFest struck a more optimistic note, pushing back the annual spring festival until September, hoping that restrictions will ease by then.

Whatever the IBMA board decides, the decision won’t be easy, in part because the organization has no control over what the state allows or doesn’t allow. 

Here’s hoping the World of Bluegrass can be held in person again this year. But if, because of political uncertainty, the festival must be a virtual event again, 2020 showed us that the IBMA board, staff, and participants were able to rise to the occasion and present an event that far exceeded expectations. And they can, no doubt, do it again, if necessary.

I, for one, don’t want them to have to prove it.

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About the Author

David Morris

David Morris, an award-winning songwriter and journalist, has written for Bluegrass Today since its inception. He joined its predecessor, The Bluegrass Blog, in 2010. His 40-year career in journalism included more than 13 years with The Associated Press, a stint as chief White House correspondent for Bloomberg News, and several top editing jobs in Washington, D.C. He is a life member of IBMA and the DC Bluegrass Union. He and co-writers won the bluegrass category in the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest in 2015.