I was among those not thrilled when IBMA packed up and moved World of Bluegrass from Nashville to Raleigh, N.C.
The annual awards show taking place somewhere other than the historic Ryman? Unthinkable.
The yearly business conference being held hours away from the homes of many bluegrass stars who could be counted on to drop in to appear on a panel or play a showcase? What were they thinking?
When I saw Nashville in the rearview mirror last year, I wasn’t convinced the move was a smart one.
I was wrong.
The move to Raleigh was a great one. The city has treated bluegrassers like royalty all week. Not just the stars, who get the red carpet rolled out for them wherever they park their buses, but lesser-known bands and fans, too. City officials even closed part of the main street for the weekend’s Wide Open Bluegrass festival (formerly known as Fan Fest).
There was a carnival-like atmosphere in the city on Friday and Saturday, with vendors hawking food and souvenirs and a seemingly endless stream of bands setting up on multiple stages, indoors and out.
And fans came, by the thousands. There are some reports, not yet verified, that this was the largest convention ever in Raleigh. Some estimates put the crowd for Saturday (pairing IBMA with the North Carolina Barbeque Championships) close to six figures – far more than ever came to IBMA in Nashville. That’s probably an inflated number, but the weekend’s paid shows were sold out and the free shows were mobbed. There were even scalpers! Yes, scalpers. That never happened in Nashville. And there was so much foot traffic, city cops had to direct traffic through intersections.
One reason for the heightened interest, no doubt, is the slow but noticeable uptick in the U.S. economy. (I know many areas and many people are still suffering, but overall, things are improving.) Many vendors reported doing better here than they did in previous years in Nashville. One instrument seller told me there was a good chance the trailer that was filled to the brim with guitars and mandolins on the way here would go home empty.
But much of the success it is due to the fact that Raleigh wanted IBMA to come here. And now that IBMA is here, city leaders are already working to keep the annual event here after the current three-year contract runs out.
I’m writing this on a patio outside the convention center, next to a giant statue of Sir Walter Raleigh. He’s holding his cape, the one he supposedly laid across a puddle so Queen Elizabeth I wouldn’t get mud on her royal shoes. For World of Bluegrass week, he also carried a banjo festooned with IBMA’s logo.
Nashville, by contrast, barely lifted a finger for IBMA. While this was the biggest conference Raleigh will see this year – and maybe ever – IBMA was just an afterthought in Nashville.
The board of directors took a big chance in moving from Nashville, but it looks like it paid off in a big way.
There’s no doubt that music is HUGE in Nashville. On my first visit to IBMA several years back, a well known songwriter pointed to a maintenance man washing the windows at the convention center and saying, “He’s probably written better songs than either of us ever will.” Because Raleigh isn’t saturated with music, they embrace music.
Nashville’s role as music central is one of the main reasons folks cite for the move being a mistake. But the truth is, Nashville’s role in bluegrass music history isn’t a central one.
On the other hand, Raleigh just happens to be a key locale for the music we love.
For starters, Bill and Charlie Monroe played a regular daily slot on WPTF radio. It’s also, as IBMA Chairman Jon Weisberger points out, where the brothers went their separate ways.
It’s not hard to imagine: No break up, no Bluegrass Boys. And, perhaps, no bluegrass.
Raleigh has embraced the bluegrass community and IBMA. I can see the city being home to World of Bluegrass beyond the three-year contract.
Raleigh wants us.
And we need Raleigh.