Tuesday night at IBMA

Appearing on Tuesday’s official showcase, The Farewell Drifters put on a show sure to continue the what-is-bluegrass and what-belongs-at-IBMA debate. After an earlier release from the group that had clear bluegrass ties, including a Scruggs-style banjo component, the Drifters have moved in a decidedly different direction. Instrumentation is not the sole criteria for defining bluegrass, but their performance featured the absence of banjo, dobro, and mandolin solos, replaced with 12-string guitar and tambourines (one shaken by hand and the other struck by a kick-drum foot pedal), played with a focus on techniques, rhythms, and melodies which comprise a style of music few are likely to label as bluegrass.

The Farewell Drifters’ website, featuring blogs, press notices and reviews, makes little reference to bluegrass, and describes their music as a combination of rock, pop, and their own original musical thoughts, with lots of comparisons to Simon and Garfunkel, the Beach Boys, and the Beatles.

Setting aside for the moment the categorization and definition of what their music should be called, their performance demonstrated what lead the prestigious Keith Case & Associates to accept the group into their roster of artists playing what the agency’s website describes as the “finest in contemporary and traditional American music.”

Energy, enthusiasm and passion are words that come to mind in describing the Farewell Drifters’ stage performance. Even an audience that might prefer a more mainstream bluegrass style could not help but appreciate how they seem to genuinely enjoy what they are doing, and how much of themselves they put into their music. They have already experienced success and are likely to continue to elevate their career by winning fans everywhere they go, particularly with a younger audience.

Recognizing that comments questioning the appropriateness of their inclusion in a bluegrass concert or event promoting the “business” of bluegrass might be seen as criticism of the group, let me definitively state that I believe the Farewell Drifters are good at what they do, and have a bright future as professional musicians.

I spoke with the group’s lead singer, Zach Bevill, and he couldn’t have been more friendly. He seems to have no desire to force a square peg into a round hole, but stated that at nearly all of the venues the Drifters have had the opportunity to play in front of bluegrass audiences, the group has been received well. In years to come, it certainly will be interesting to see where the Farewell Drifters wind up taking their music.

The next group on Tuesday evening’s official showcase lineup was Nu-Blu, a mainstream bluegrass quartet built around the husband/wife duo of Daniel and Carolyn Routh, from North Carolina. They are supported by two young and talented musicians, Levi Austin on banjo and Austin Koerner on mandolin.

The set started with an introduction, and the broadcast of their music video of Other Woman’s Blues on the jumbo video screens on either side of the stage, all the while the group stood positioned ready to play. When the video ended they kicked into the first song, only to abruptly stop when it was realized that the wrong song had been kicked off, and in a key in which the group apparently couldn’t perform it. To their credit, Nu-Blu laughed it off, kicked off the right song and proceeded to put the glitch behind them and perform the rest of the set in what appeared to be a relaxed manner. They gave a good account of themselves, instrumentally and vocally, and no doubt added to the momentum they’ve created in the short time they’ve been together.

In a span of less than two years, Nu-Blu has released two projects, including one on a major label, Pinecastle Records, which have both received airplay and chart action. They’ve produced and released a professionally produced music video, won awards and now have performed a main stage official showcase at the most important industry event – quite a good start for a relatively new group.

Their website is impressive and aided no doubt by a team of publicity, web design, management and booking professionals. Nu-Blu backed up the build up by not wilting in the moment and delivering a solid performance.

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About the Author

James Gabehart

Jim has been playing the banjo, and other string instruments for nearly 40 years. Since joining the musicians union and becoming a performing musician at the age of 15, he won five West Virginia State Banjo Championships, as well as dozens of other competitions, and has taught hundreds of students. Jim was elected as Prosecuting Attorney for Lincoln County, WV in November 2012, and is an active touring performer with his wife and musical partner, Valerie. Learn more about their music at www.JimandValerieGabehart.com.