Myriad Artists make a splash at IBMA!

It’s hard to imagine that the frenetic energy of bluegrass music wouldn’t filter into the vibe of the 2014 International Bluegrass Music Association Conference in Raleigh, North Carolina, and in truth the week felt a bit like a whirlwind. Panels bled into meet-and-greets, turned into concerts then into jams, then became late-night or all-night parties, and I don’t think the participants would have it any other way. It was my first year at IBMA and though bluegrass isn’t my primary musical genre, the conference and attendant festival gave me a lot of insight into the culture and community of bluegrass today, and also introduced me to some fiery new bands!

The first thing is that IBMA is a wickedly complex event. It encompasses multiple multi-day programs, from the conference itself early in the week to the late night professional showcases, a film festival, the all-star red-carpet awards show, and the staggeringly huge two-day free festival on the streets of Raleigh that caps off the week, each of which has its own schedule and in some cases ticketing. The second thing is that, happily, bluegrass is a relatively fluid term at IBMA, broad enough to encompass the Cajun swamp pop of The Revelers, the progressive bluegrass of our friends in Front Country, the older traditions of Appalachian old-time music (Tennessee fiddler Joseph Decosimo's street jam with The Stuart Brothers was a big highlight), hell even a cover of “Superfreak” by Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby was welcome. I went to IBMA wanting to try and understand how the conservative and progressive bluegrass communities interacted, and expected there to be tension between the two. While I think there is a kind of push and pull at work–Rolling Stone actually dropped a big article on this during the event–what I found more was both sides looking for common ground and finding it by centering on the traditions at the heart of bluegrass.  One of the trends I’ve been noticing in bluegrass is the recent focus on old-time traditions and this was pretty evident at IBMA. From top-flight mainstage artists covering Appalachian gospel legends E.C.and Orna Ball and old-school Kentucky fiddler Luther Strong, to Noam Pikelny winning album of the year for his LP of Kenny Baker/Bill Monroe covers, to no less than two covers of Jimmy Martin’s “Freeborn Man” that I heard over the weekend, it seems like a lot of pickers are going back to their roots these days.

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