Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway at the 2023 IBMA Bluegrass Music Awards – photo © Frank Baker
There was a sense of normalcy when IBMA’s World of Bluegrass kicked off earlier this week in Raleigh.
After COVID wiped out the in-person event in 2020, an in-person/on-line hybrid week in 2021, and rains that forced festivities indoors in 2022, the crowds seemed to be back.
Then came the announcement: IBMA’s World of Bluegrass would leave Raleigh after next year.
There are many unknowns about where to go, many unanswered questions about what happened. On the surface, the relationship between IBMA and Raleigh appeared to be going swimmingly. The long stay in Raleigh was good for IBMA, and IBMA’s presence was good for the city. But like many long-term relationships, as the magic was starting to dissipate, IBMA’s wandering eye settled on other potential partners.
In the end, it was mostly about money. Raleigh wanted more concessions from IBMA for another three-year contract than the association was willing to give.
“We just could not find a middle ground that worked for us,” said IBMA’s incoming executive director, Ken White.
Interim Executive Director Paul Schiminger said Raleigh provided a competitive proposal to stay after the existing deal expires in 2024. “This campus is amazing,” he said, sweeping his arm to encompass the hotels, convention center, the Red Hat Amphitheater and nearby venues, not to mention the amazing street festival that took World of Bluegrass to a new level. “But it was time, from a mission standpoint to relocate.”
The most-pressing question, of course, is where World of Bluegrass calls home in 2025 and beyond. There are no definitive answers yet, though Schiminger, White, and IBMA Board Chairman Dan Boner did offer some parameters for the search during a mid-week town hall meeting with association members.
First, as was mentioned several times, the next partner will be a city with infrastructure and transportation services to handle the volume of traffic that World of Bluegrass generates. While that requirement seems rather obvious, a number of bluegrassers are openly seeking a return to Owensboro. Though that idea works for sentimental reasons, the crowds the weeklong event attract would overrun the facilities.
It also won’t be Nashville, where the event was held before moving to Raleigh in 2013. Nashville has the facilities, especially with new convention center. And it certainly “gets” the music. But it’s more expensive and less embracing of bluegrass than elsewhere.
“We were lost in Nashville,” Schiminger said. “We were just a client there.”
So what’s left?
IBMA’s site-selection committee has looked at more than a dozen potential suitors. The only city identified on the list so far is Tulsa, OK, and that only came up because a member of the audience suggested it, saying the city is “the new Nashville.” But Tulsa would seem a long shot because it doesn’t have a history or tradition of bluegrass, another factor the board is looking for.
One last criterion, cost, seems to rule out Washington, DC and its suburbs. The city has a rich bluegrass history, and is serviced by three major airports, but hotel costs would be outside the budget of many attendees.
“We need to find a place where our people can afford to go there,” White said.
White said he hopes to have the new host city locked in by the end of this year or early 2024. The deciding factor could be which city offers the sweetest partnership deal.
No matter where World of Bluegrass ends up, next year in Raleigh will be bittersweet.
“Everybody’s going to be a little sad about this,” Schiminger said.