Bluegrass lovers enjoying live music at the Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival – photo by Frank Baker
Last Friday night, in Kodak, TN, Darin & Brooke Aldridge were no more than a few measures into Tear Stained Letter when I scribbled in my notebook, “LIVE music is back!”
It seemed natural, but my first in-person listening in 16 months, at Dumplin’ Valley, made me realize how much we’ve all missed. And while I’ve always looked forward to IBMA’s World of Bluegrass since I first attended in 2010, the music of the Aldridges and John Cowan, made me even more eager to get back to Raleigh this fall.
The good news is all signs point to an in-person component for this year’s event. Vaccination numbers continue to rise, and as they do, more and more restrictions are falling away. Just last week, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper announced that fully vaccinated individuals no longer needed to wear masks in most circumstances. More importantly, for IBMA and those eager to crowd the Convention Center and the streets around it to celebrate all things bluegrass, he removed the occupancy limits for both indoor and outdoor events.
Those limits were one thing IBMA staff and board members were keeping a close eye on. With them off the books, look for an announcement soon that World of Bluegrass is returning, with hotel rooms and registrations opening in June.
While Raleigh leaders and the IBMA work out the details, they’ll also be working behind the scenes on a decision that will determine where the event will be held next year. The contract between the city and IBMA expires with this year’s conference and festival.
Returning to Raleigh isn’t a given, but logic and the pre-COVID numbers suggest a new host city would have to make an incentive-laden offer to force a move.
There are a number of artists and other bluegrass professionals who didn’t make the trek to Raleigh when the move from Nashville occurred early in the last decade. It seems unlikely those folks will follow IBMA to another city, and it’s highly unlikely the event will return to Nashville. The outdoor street festival offered a fun new attraction to the event in Raleigh. That wouldn’t be able to be duplicated in Nashville.
Also, Raleigh’s Convention Center offers an important safety valve in the event of bad weather – lots of indoor space to relocate too. That became necessary in 2015, when Tropical Storm Joaquin threatened to move inland. The move indoors wasn’t seamless, and the crowds sometimes made it feel like you were packed inside a Tokyo subway car. But the show went on, and it remains my favorite year in Raleigh. There aren’t many host cities that can offer a huge street fair and a bad-weather alternative.
Of course, not everyone will be ready for mass crowds by September, so in-person attendance may be somewhat diminished. IBMA will encourage some of those folks to participate virtually, as everyone did last year.
A crowded calendar may also curb the numbers. Many events that had been scheduled for earlier this year were pushed back. September is starting to look great for live-music lovers, packed with regular events and rescheduled ones. But it could force some difficult decisions after more than a year of nothing.
While most venues are avoiding scheduling conflicts with World of Bluegrass, there’s only so much travel and spending music lovers can do as a sense of normal returns. Those coming from afar might have to choose between a four-figure investment to travel to MerleFest, delayed from its usual spring date, or a similar outlay to get to and stay in Raleigh. And that’s just one of many events stuffed into September.
Here’s hoping there are enough music-hungry fans with enough spending money to keep all the vendors and events going. That last year-plus has been hard enough for them, and for musicians who lost their primary means of making a living, without suffering even more fallout.
But, for now, the important thing to remember is this:
Live music IS back!
“It’s good to back in front of an audience,” Brooke Aldridge told a couple hundred appreciative fans at the Dumplin’ Valley sessions.
Cowan expressed a similar sentiment when he joined Darin, Brooke and their band for the second set, his first in-person appearance as a member of the Bluegrass Hall of Fame.
“It’s so good to be here,” he said. “Actually, it’s good to be anywhere.” He joked about bluegrass musicians driving 12 hours to play a 45-minute gig. The road IS hard, but right now that prospect sounds heavenly.
After the show, before a late night drive to the next gig, Cowan sat on the edge of the stage, chatting with a 9-year-old boy who showed incredible knowledge of his catalog, spanning New Grass Revival and the Doobie Brothers. He posed for photos, his smile as wide as the river he sang about in Miss the Mississippi and You, until everyone was satisfied.
Then, spotting a familiar face off to the side, he called me in for a handshake and an embrace.
“This was so, so good,” he said.
And it was.