Visiting late night showcases at World of Bluegrass the past two days, we’ve seen a number of young groups here in Raleigh looking for more exposure within the national bluegrass market. And as the IBMA continues to welcome a wide range of musical expression under their bluegrass umbrella, one could walk just a few steps and travel to different spots along the chronological continuum.
Over two evenings at the Marriott hotel, I caught performances from Amanda Cook, Hawktail, Dewey & Leslie Brown, The Lonely Heartstrings Band, and a second set from Carolina Blue. World of Bluegrass has labored with some resolve to incorporate the term “diversity” into their recent promotional efforts. The word has picked up a hint of partisan baggage through its use in political argumentation, but as applied simply to music, it perfectly describes what was available from showcase artists this week.
I had heard music from Amanda Cook for the past two years, and had met her, her husband, and their band several times. But Wednesday was my first time hearing her live, which showed why Cook has risen so quickly in the bluegrass world. In conversation, Amanda is a bit restrained, but she becomes a dynamo when the lights come up. A powerful vocalist in any setting, she comes alive on stage, projecting her large voice with an intensity you can feel, and giving even greater impact to the carefully chosen material she has made her own.
She is ably supported by regular bandmates who include Carolyne VanLierop on banjo, George Mason on fiddle, and Joshua Faul on bass. For IBMA week, Aaron Ramsey on mandolin and Brandon Bostic on wrong-handed guitar were added to the group. They made for a very compelling ensemble, allowing Cook to occasionally stop strumming her guitar for dramatic points in a song. Now I see why Mountain Fever signed Amanda to a multi-album contract. She is that good.
Down the hall, in the Boston Bluegrass showcase room, Hawktail performed a set that was well outside of the bluegrass mainstream. An official Bluegrass Ramble act, this quartet never promised nor intended to play bluegrass. They are all highly-skilled instrumentalists, with many years of conservatory training behind them. Brittany Haas is on fiddle, Paul Kowert on bass, Dominic Leslie on mandolin, and Jordan Tice on guitar.
Their set was comprised of original instrumental music that demonstrated the startling virtuosity of the players. Think of them as a modern string quartet, but with a mandolin instead of a second violin, a bass instead of a cello, and a guitar… well, just because. Several of their pieces owed much to the fiddle tune tradition, and it was stunning to see Kowert bowing them up in the cello register, out over the body. His technique was impeccable, as we have seen through his work with Punch Brothers, retaining both spot-on intonation and a smooth flow of notes on demanding lines played on an upright bass.
A traditional bluegrass audience may not have known what to make of Hawktail, but the youngish crowd in the Marriott ballroom were with them all the way. Each amazing feat of dexterity elicited whoops and yells; music school kids playing for their peers, and receiving the acclamation that should be their due.
On the other end of the spectrum were Dewey and Leslie Brown, who have put together a vintage show that closely resembles the one Dewey worked with for many years as fiddler for Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys. Following the death of the great Dr. Stanley, Dewey and his wife, Leslie, bought a theater in western North Carolina, and began promoting shows there, using Leslie’s booking agency, Southern Belle Booking.
They have also been dedicating their time to forming and rehearsing a band, The Carolina Gentlemen, to record and tour the original music that the couple write. Old time mountain music is what Stanley liked to call his sound, eschewing the bluegrass label as belonging to Bill Monroe, despite his style encompassing many of the hallmarks of Monroe’s music. The Browns are plowing that same patch of ground, producing a sound that will feel familiar to fans of the Stanley Brothers.
Their group features Tim Spence on guitar, Brandon Henson on banjo, and Kendall Gales on mandolin. Leslie is on bass with Dewey on fiddle, and the Brown’s handling the bulk of the lead and harmony vocals. They all dress in period outfits from the 1950s, continuing a them that was quite prominent this week among several new groups. The Earls of Leicester have made a profound mark on the bluegrass subconscious.
Each year, it is these up-and-comers that hold the greatest interest for me. Balsam Range and Rhonda Vincent can be seen at festivals and concerts all over the country. But where else can you see dozens of developing and emerging bluegrass or acoustic acts under one roof?
It is quite satisfying to note the strength of the next generation of pickers and singers.