While their musical terrain overlaps, there’s a foundational difference between the recently concluded AmericanaFest in Nashville and World of Bluegrass in Raleigh, NC, and that’s the picking. Picking is what ensues when musicians, professional or amateur, friends or strangers, encounter each other, hang out and jam on tunes they share as a common language. Americana people come to Nashville as either performers or listeners. They do not pick amongst themselves. Bluegrass people pick ubiquitously in a liminal overlap of performer and audience. Bluegrass people pick in every hall, every lobby, every corner nook and cranny. For six days, there was nowhere on site that didn’t resonate with banjos, mandolins, dobros, fiddles and keening harmony singing, in tune or otherwise.
Picking implies collaboration, which is the essence of bluegrass music. Whereas most Americana focuses on a songwriter (or two) supported by backing musicians, bluegrass fuses component musicians into a complex, co-equal unit. These collections are fluid and fungible to a degree. Musicians slip with ease from their established ensemble into another for a song or a set. It’s a stirring, dynamic thing that builds over time as the players grow to know and love each other across a continent-spanning web. Likewise the savvy audience, which loves spontaneous music making.
One high profile example of this beautiful phenomenon was Saturday night’s “Wide Open Jam,” which closed World of Bluegrass with the kind of eclectic, virtuosic collaboration we fans crave. Nashville stalwarts Sam Bush and John Cowan joined Colorado’s Leftover Salmon on stage at the Red Hat Amphitheater for a 90 minute romp that included a variety of walk-on guests. At its spiritual heart were songs from the repertoire of New Grass Revival, the band Bush and Cowan took to commercial and artistic heights in the 70s and 80s. On a perfect late September night, ecstatic fans heard “Callin Baton Rouge” with Bush fiddling its Cajun overtones and “Fly Through The Country,” the title track of a 1975 album.
Earlier in the set, we heard surging group performances as Leftover Salmon was joined by North Carolina fiddler Bobby Britt of Town Mountain, the elegant and pioneering California songwriter and singer Laurie Lewis and recent breakout star Becky Buller. The multi-award winner fiddled and sang a soaring, triumphant take on “Samson And Delilah,” a folk gospel number that’s been passed from Rev. Gary Davis to the Grateful Dead to the McCrary Sisters and beyond. Her bandmate Ned Luberecki, fresh off his first-ever win as IBMA Banjo Player of the Year, joined in as well by special invitation of Salmon banjo player Andy Thorn.
While a free street fair up the block rang with dozens of bands on eight different stages, those who paid for the ticketed festival component of World of Bluegrass heard epic collaborating over two days. The marvellous Raleigh band Chatham County Line hosted a set that brought on old-time duo Mike Compton and Joe Newberry and Libby Rodenbough of Mipso. Friday night’s closer featured The First Ladies of Bluegrass, itself a new super-group that’s learning to be a band on the fly, were joined by Gillian Welch for two fine songs and then by Rhiannon Giddens for a couple of mind-melting moments. Some of the greatest guitarists in the world - Tommy Emmanuel, Rob Ickes, Trey Hensley, Bryan Sutton and Jack Pearson shredded acoustically at sundown. And a massive round robin with Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Balsam Range, the Lonesome River Band, Donna Ulisse, Chris Jones & The Night Drivers, Sideline and Love Cannon jammed to raise awareness for IBMA’s Trust Fund, which comes to the aid of musicians in need.
The city of Raleigh conceived and built its amphitheater and adjacent convention center before they contemplated coaxing the World of Bluegrass to its downtown. But the design couldn’t have been better tailored to the event nonetheless. The airy convention center played host to three days of panels, meetings and showcases by and for the bluegrass music industry. Juried showcases also took place in nearby clubs and venues, a discovery-oriented club crawl called the Bluegrass Ramble. And there are dozens of sponsored shows in venues and hotel suites that offer as complete a picture of the state of bluegrass as one can have during a year.
My first set upon arrival was with a band I love to champion for their creative and contemporary approach to old time music. The Lonesome Ace String Band from Toronto features the driving but nuanced fiddling of John Showman on a mix of original and traditional songs. Those who want to bring back the old folk influences to bluegrass ought to know about this extremely hip trio.
If there was a takeaway band from this year and one band that ought to be on everyone’s new bluegrass agenda it’s the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys, named on Thursday night as winners of the IBMA Award for Best Emerging Artist. The East Tennessee based group enjoyed an invaluable daily residency at Ole Smoky Moonshine distillery in Gatlinburg where they got their 10,000 hours of practice, so when they stepped up as a touring band they were fully realized, from their sharp vocal harmonies to their coordinated (not matching) old school bluegrass wardrobe. The group was signed by Rounder Records this year. They’re a deeply traditional group singing and picking their way to a bright future.
Other bands made a buzz-worthy impression. Che Apalache is an aggressively experimental and worldly group formed when leader Joe Troop moved to Buenos Aires and grew a bluegrass band from the ground as a music teacher. Now they do “Latin Grass” with members from Mexico and Argentina. I caught a set in the Dance Tent that was decidedly hard to dance to with some difficult time signatures. But the overall effect was massively imaginative and absorbing. The quartet also played the Bluegrass Pride showcase, owning and celebrating Troop’s place as a gay man in bluegrass music.
The more conventionally Appalachian and literally named Appalachian Road Show featured former Mountain Heart banjo player Barry Abernathy and songster Darrell Webb leading a quartet. In Depression-era garb they played classic grass with a bluesy swing and a feel for pre-War influences. Nearby, Alabama veteran David Davis & The Warrior River boys roared with passion on gospel and secular numbers. Nashville’s emerging songwriter Ashleigh Caudill continue her deserved transition from side musician to band leader with an intimate set at Raleigh’s vibey upstairs bar The Architect. I missed the formal showcase by Austin’s Wood & Wire, but their street fest set on the weekend showed their charisma and virtuosity, plus the songwriting prowess of lead singer Tony Kamel. Late one night I saw Telluride Bluegrass Festival Band Contest winners Sugar & The Mint play pretty pulse-grass that will benefit from some rigors of the road.
In a field that’s seen and encouraged wide-ranging extrapolation and innovation in recent decades, this year’s tradition-minded IBMA Award winners, the elevation of Ricky Skaggs and Paul Williams to the Hall of Fame and any number of down-home sets of hard-driving bedrock bluegrass over five days all proved that Bill Monroe’s radical creation of 70 years ago is alive and well. As long as strangers can get in a circle and play favorites from the repertoire, so it shall remain.