The sentiment that the future of bluegrass is in good hands is as perennial as, well, grass. It's music that does indeed grow its new generations from the ground up with a formal and informal support system for youth musicians in training and emerging artists in the professional realm. Last week's World of Bluegrass in Raleigh, NC proved that once again.
IBMA's key discovery vehicle is the Bluegrass Ramble, a four-night club crawl juried showcase festival, where talent buyers, broadcasters and journalists get an early look and listen to artists on the rise. Here are seven acts I saw, nearly all for the first time, that I'd very much want to see again. They are neither unknown nor widely known. Each has a following and a history, but still regarded on the front end of their careers, with new frontiers to conquer.
AJ Lee and Blue Summit / AJ Lee has been winning prizes and praises for years in her native California. Now the 21-year-old singer, songwriter and mandolinist seems poised to make a national impact, somewhat in the wake of her long-time friend and former bandmate Molly Tuttle, who's about five years her senior. In a Tuesday night set at the Lincoln Theater, Lee and her four-piece band offered tight ensemble musicianship and variety that ranged from grooving gospel to swing to bluegrass to the kind of acoustic pop that made Alison Krauss a crossover superstar. To wit, the seductive and sophisticated song "Like I Used To," which offered long lines and delicate falls that vividly showcased Lee's astonishing vocals. I don't have synesthesia, but Lee's voice strikes me as a mix of copper and cedarwood. Her baseline range is a rich and autumnal alto, yet she flicks up to a cooing head voice with perfect control. She won the Vocalist category at this week's Momentum Awards, which identifies young bluegrass figures well-positioned for career growth. Her 2019 debut album with Blue Summit, titled Like I Used To, offers ample evidence that she's earned the honor.
George Jackson Band / This was a transformative set, partially for me but more so for the rowdy room where it was held. Beers and revelry were nearly drowning out the GJB's masterful old-time swirl, but one timely hush from the guitar player and a second half of clean-burning energy drew the crowd physically and mentally forward, until ladies were dancing arm in arm and the tribe achieved the heady push-pull pulse that makes old time such a timeless and transcendent joy. The leader George Jackson is a New Zealand native who ranged through many kinds of music including jazz studies before having his old-time epiphany at the Clifftop festival in West Virginia. Now he's based in Nashville, boldly pursuing the venerable tradition that launched the Grand Ole Opry in the 20s. There are few things more seductive than a modernist who seeks deeper beauty and secretive opportunities for expression in seemingly simpler, narrower genres. And this ensemble, including Hasee Ciaccio's prizefighter bass playing, bridged eras and approaches. Banjo player Brad Kolodner took the clawhammer style to heady heights, soloing with the deftness of a bebop player, despite the physical limitation of doing so on his plunking instrument. Jackson mostly plays his own dashing original fiddle tunes, which plant a flag in the 21st century for individuality in an ancient lineage.
Unspoken Tradition / Western North Carolina is possibly the hottest region in the country these days for the reinvention and renewal of American roots music. Evidence Unspoken Tradition, a five-piece band that embodies modern mountain soul and Appalachian jamgrass. The song "Nothing But Sky," part of an extra-long midnight set on Wednesday, is worth breaking down a bit because it showed off many of the group's gifts. So often, the instrumental theme at the top of a song is filler, but this quintet's scene-setting riffs are killer, hooking the listener and offering a launch pad for solos later on. The commanding, Stapleton-esque lead vocal of Audie McGinnis hit us with imagery of a bird on a wire that "has everything at the tip of his wing" and then the harmony vocals kicked in with keening precision and exquisite blues tension. It seemed as if every member contributed vocals at some point during the set, showing a competence that's often lacking on the tie-die side of bluegrass. This year's Myths We Tell Our Young is a darn fine recorded introduction to the band, but this virtuosic, flowing music is truly made for dancing outside in a live setting.
Gina Furtado / Gina Furtado's brother just won the Steve Martin Banjo Prize for his old-time style. Her sister plays dazzling fiddle in her band. While Gina herself is the sibling from this talented family with the most going on as a band leader and singer/songwriter. She recently parted ways with Chris Jones and the Night Drivers after four years and two Banjo Player of the Year nominations, so this IBMA was a big coming out party for Gina as she showcased her assertive, adventuresome voice, her intricate banjo chops and her songs. Furtado clearly has jazz in her bones, with compositions whose melodies leap and pirouette far more than bluegrass songs, yet when she solos or offers instrumentals, it's a subtle and remarkable hybrid of Earl Scruggs, Tony Trischka and jazz guitarists like Pat Martino. In a daytime set at the Raleigh Convention Center, Furtado offered "Airplane Ride," with a slinky slow pop groove and "Take Your Time," a humorous Gypsy jazz-tinged song about being stood up on a date. Those can be found on her second solo album I Hope You Have A Good Life, which came out last Friday.
Tellico / Singer/songwriter Anya Hinkle is an old soul fronting this very hip Appalachian string band. She and bass player Greg Stiglets were founders of the fine Asheville group Dehlia Low, which helped define the new North Carolina sound in the 2000s, and one of their albums gave Tellico its name. With the 2018 album Woven Waters as our guide, we might say Tellico is even more dedicated to storytelling. "Ballad of Zona Abston" is a remarkable, patient song (and a Merlefest Song Contest winner) about a mountain woman negotiating a lifetime of change in the Blue Ridge. And "Salsa" is a tear jerker ballad about a lost dog. The instrumentation of dobro, mandolin, guitar and bass is comfortable; what's more arresting are the antique song forms and tropes, made new again.
Aaron Burdett / Yes, there are some straight-up Americana songwriters haunting IBMA, because the roots genres are beautifully intertwined, and one of the most magnetic is Western NC's Aaron Burdett. He's no newcomer, having been performing around the region for almost twenty years, but his gritty and literate songs deserve a much wider purchase. On Wednesday night, he offered his Merlefest finalist song "Magpie," which definitely has a bluegrass dance in its rippling groove, while the lyrics evoke the troubles of an unfaithful dude. "Harmon Den" was inspired by a road sign out of which Burdett conjured a story of a fellow figuring out life long ago. He has imagination to spare.
Quick Hits: The always spirited Nashville string band Barefoot Movement was in Raleigh, its longstanding quartet format supplemented by a drummer. Singer Noah Wall leads four strong singers and an eclectic range of roots ideas. A new album is in the works. Australian songwriting and producing veteran Rod McCormack made the long journey to prove that besides being a commanding singer, he can pick a banjo or guitar like crazy. Sadly, I only saw one long, set-closing song, but Colorado's Twisted Pine threw down a global-grass gauntlet with outstanding improvisational fluidity, including, yes, a jazz flute. And it totally rocked. The Dead South is a big deal in its native Canada, over in Europe and increasingly in the US. The black and white clad quartet offered dark power folk and an involving show. WMOT interviewed the band for release at a later date. Boston-to-Brooklyn quartet Damn Tall Buildings gathered around one microphone and offered abundant pulse and personality across a range of nouveau old time numbers. They stirred up the crowd as effectively as any band last week.