What IBMA Can Learn from Merlefest

MerleFest 2016 highway banner near North Wtilkesboro - photo by Claire Ratliff, Laughing Penguin PublicityLeaders of IBMA and the city of Raleigh can breathe a little easier now that another year of MerleFest is in the books.

The annual four-day roots music extravaganza in Wilkesboro, NC, was the first major music festival held in the state since the controversial “bathroom law” hit the headlines. And from all indications, the issue caused barely a ripple.

MerleFest organizers announced Sunday that total attendance was 74,500. That was down slightly from 76,000 last year. But rain Saturday and Sunday, heavy at times, probably had more to do with the slight dip in attendance than the political squabble or any other factor.

No major artists stayed away and there was very little discussion of the law, from stage or in conversations that I could overhear (a decidedly non-scientific sample) during two and half days of wandering around. Brandi Carlile, an openly gay Americana artist, won applause for telling the crowd that North Carolina doesn’t always look like its politics. And more than a few attendees chuckled at a T-shirt vendor’s shirt with a logo that was half male restroom symbol and half female, with the word “whichever” beneath it. Beyond that, though, the 2016 edition of MerleFest was all about the music.

The Kruger Brothers at MerleFest 2016 with Sam Bush and Happy Traum - photo by Julie MacieThe festival, founded to honor Doc Watson’s late son, Merle, has made its mark by offering a wide range of American roots music – bluegrass, Americana, blues, old time and even a bit of jazz. There was a heavy bluegrass representation this year from the likes of Becky Buller, Kristy Cox, Tim O’Brien, the Kruger Brothers, Jerry Douglas and Sam Bush. But there were plenty of non-bluegrassers as well, such as Old Crow Medicine Show, John Prine, David Rawlings and Gillian Welch and Jason Isbell. To put it another way, there was plenty for everyone to choose from.

I happened to be leafing through the MerleFest program shortly after IBMA announced its lineup of showcase bands for the business conference portion of this fall’s World of Bluegrass conference and festival in Raleigh. I expected a lot of similarities between the MerleFest lineup and Raleigh’s end of the week Wide Open Bluegrass Festival, where some big name non-bluegrass acts are put on the bill to help put butts in seats. But I was surprised, at first glance, to find so many seemingly non-bluegrass acts on the list for showcases during the business conference early in the week. So, too, were a number of other folks, based on discussion groups and social media.

But closer consideration shows a handful of artists who, while not fitting under a traditional definition of bluegrass, do have strong ties to IBMA specifically and bluegrass general. Consider:

  • Joe Walsh had a good ride playing mandolin for the Gibson Brothers and still employs strong bluegrass sensibilities in his music.
  • Missy Raines, who fronts Missy Raines and the New Hip, has played at IBMA before and was the organization’s bass player of the year seven times.
  • Half of Zoe & Cloyd is John Cloyd Miller, a songwriter of some renown who has appeared in IBMA’s Songwriter Showcase.
  • Most members of Tellico made a big splash at IBMA a few years ago in Nashville, when they showcased as Dehlia Low. That band’s CD, Ravens & Crows made my Bluegrass Today favorites list.
  • Town Mountain has also been featured at IBMA before and shows a strong influence by both traditional bluegrassers and the Grateful Dead.

That’s on top of a handful of other bands among the 30 chosen that are grassers.

Zoe & Cloyd at MerleFest 2016 - photo by Claire RatliffWhile there has been some grousing about this year’s showcase lineup, the process for choosing the lineup was no different this year than in the past, according to IBMA Executive Director Paul Schiminger. The choices are made by four people from the bluegrass community who are selected by the board of directors and serve three-year terms.

For this year, the committee members individually reviewed more than 150 applications from bands, and their scores were tallied to come up with the final list.

“No instructions or guidance is provided by the IBMA staff or board,” Schiminger said. “Nor does anyone involved with contracting bands for the Red Hat or the StreetFest have any input.

“The selection of bands varies from year to year, based on those who have submitted. Typically the selection of bands has varied in styles and are geographically diverse.”

He didn’t identify the selectors “because we want them to maintain their independence and not feel pressure from outside influences.” But he said three of the four are talent buyers or event producers and one is a DJ.

Doc Watson once described the music of Merlefest as “traditional plus,” based on what he and his son used to play – “traditional music of the Appalachian region plus whatever other styles we were in the mood to play.”

Alison Brown and Jens Kruger jamming at MerleFest 2016 - photo by Claire Ratliff, Laughing Penguin PublicityMaybe IBMA should follow the same model and start calling the music it features “bluegrass plus” – traditional bluegrass music plus new grass, not grass and music that is played with traditional bluegrass instruments but doesn’t meet the strict definition of bluegrass.

It wouldn’t end the ongoing arguments about what is and what isn’t bluegrass, but it would at least offer some suggestion that not all of the music performed during the International Bluegrass Music Association business conference is bluegrass.

Should it be?

That’s fodder for a continuing dialog.

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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.