Center of the universe?

N.C. stands to host the largest in-person traditional music festivals this year

From intimate gatherings to mega events, live music is back. North Carolina may be the center of one dimension of the universe (pardon the inept metaphor).

Earlier this week, the International Bluegrass Music Association announced its annual business meeting and music festival, renamed IBMA Bluegrass Live!, will go on as normally as possible, Sept. 28 - Oct. 2. It’ll be the ninth straight year Raleigh has hosted the event.

It’ll also serve as a gauge of how well downtown Raleigh has bounced back from COVID business closings, and last summer’s demonstrations and riots.

Touted as the world’s largest free urban bluegrass festival, the week will feature more than 100 performances, along with plenty of workshops and demonstrations, strategy sessions for people in the industry, countless opportunities for musicians of all abilities to jam, and lots and lots of merch. 

It’s delightful. A couple hundred thousand of us will head to Fayetteville Street to soak in the music and the fun. Here’s a cellphone video I took five years ago.

IBMA leaders and local officials also said the annual event will remain in Raleigh at least through 2024. 

Last year’s conference was virtual. Many of the performances were pre-recorded. All were streamed. 

This time, it’ll be up close and personal. It’ll take a lot of people behind the scenes to make it happen.

I contacted the folks at Pinecone, the nonprofit Piedmont Council on Traditional Music, the “local host” charged with managing the week’s logistics. Pinecone recruits a boatload of volunteers to do everything from making sure artists and attendees get where they need to go to staffing information booths and merch sites and plenty more.

Jamie Katz Court, Pinecone’s communications director, said in an email the formal call for volunteers will go out Tuesday the 15th. I’ve asked for more information on how Pinecone and the city’s convention bureau — which helps round up, train, and assign the volunteers — decides how many people they’ll need and how they make the events so seamless each year. 

Hope to learn more soon.

Center of the universe?

Unless there’s a dramatic change, North Carolina will host America’s two largest in-person traditional music festivals this year. IBMA Bluegrass Live! should attract a couple hundred thousand folks overall. Two weeks earlier, the 33rd Merlefest will take place 150 west of here in my hometown, Wilkesboro. It draws between 75,000 and 80,000 visitors over four days. This year may break records.

No other festival will rival those numbers.

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Merlefest has evolved from a one-time fundraising event — to build a “Garden for the Senses” as a tribute to blind guitar legend Doc Watson’s late son Merle — to a four-day celebration drawing as many as 80,000 people and more than 100 performers to 13 stages on the Wilkes Community College campus. It’s also the largest fundraiser for educational programs at the college.

Doc passed on nine years ago, a few weeks after his final public performance at Merlefest. But the event keeps going and growing.

For its first 32 years, the festival took place at the end of April. COVID canceled it last year, and organizers decided months ago to schedule this year’s Merlefest in September, hoping the pandemic would subside as vaccinations and therapeutics became available.

They made a sound bet.

Other major bluegrass/Americana festivals continue coping with COVID’s aftermath.

• Telluride, Colorado’s nearly 50-year-old celebration, takes place over the next two weekends. The artists will perform on stage in the spectacular San Luis Valley town. Few fans will be allowed to attend.* Others can pay to watch performances via livestream … for almost as much as in-person tickets would cost. Half the “gate” will support the local nonprofit that runs the festival. Considering how pricey it is to get to Telluride, much less stay there, if you want great live bluegrass, ticket prices aren’t THAT exorbitant.

•The Americana Music Festival in Nashville is set for Sept. 22-25. But the lineup and schedule haven’t been released, and the festival’s website suggests attendance may be limited.

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, the free San Francisco-based festival which draws hundreds of thousands of fans in October to Golden Gate Park, hasn’t announced its plans.

Other regular festivals have offered limited attendance, virtual performances, or rain checks ‘til 2022.

Back in North Carolina, the inaugural Earl Scruggs Music Festival, set for the foothills near Scruggs’ Shelby birthplace, was delayed a second time by COVID. It was supposed to happen last September. It’ll take place Labor Day weekend, 2022.

Let’s enjoy our year in the spotlight. Y’all join us.

Who’s playing?

Merlefest and IBMA rolled out their lineups over the past few weeks. They’re outstanding. 

Merlefest never has been a bluegrass festival. The Watson family promoted what they called “traditional-plus” music. It encompasses bluegrass, folk, soul, blues, Celtic, country — what’s now Americana. The lineups reflect the Watsons’ eclectic tastes. You never know who might show up. (Have I mentioned I saw Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones pick up a mandolin and jam on stage with Doc and Scruggs? The same weekend, JPJ — who was a ticket-paying customer when he attended his first Merlefest — joined the late, lamented band from Ontario, The Duhks, playing “Whole Lotta Love.” Grainy photo from lousy cellphone follows.)

In September, the mix will include Sturgill Simpson, Tedeschi Trucks, Mavis Staples, Melissa Etheridge, Sarah Shook and the Disarmers, LeeAnn Rimes, and JOHNNYSWIM. All-timers Sam Bush and Peter Rowan will be there. Sam will sit in on at least 12 other sets. (I’ll take the over.)

I’m expecting an announcement that Jerry Douglas (who, along with Bush and Rowan, has played every Merlefest) will find his way to Wilkesboro. Maybe he’ll bring the family, er, John Hiatt (they’re promoting a new album).

Lots of other acts. The Waybacks will perform a classic rock album in its entirety Saturday afternoon, with guests. Other than the performers, no one will know which album until the set begins. Clues should emerge soon.

The weekend will be amazing. It’ll rain heavily at least one day.

IBMA Bluegrass Live! typically headlines with an all-star ensemble. No disappointment here.

Belà Fleck’s My Bluegrass Heart features several fellow IBMA musicians of the year: Michael Cleveland (fiddle, 12 times); Bryan Sutton (guitar, 10 times); Sierra Hull (mandolin, three times); Justin Moses (dobro, twice); and Mark Schatz (bass, twice). Octogenarian Del McCoury and his stellar band also will perform, along with Jerry Douglas (no Hiatt), and dozens more to be announced.

Over the next few weeks I’ll talk with the folks behind the scenes who make these festivals welcoming and joyful and share what I learned.


*Update, June 23: Telluride indeed allowed 2,500 spectators, in “pods” of 10, to watch the festival. Normal capacity is 12,000 per day or 48,000 total.