Perhaps you followed the drama that surrounded the International Bluegrass Music Association moving its annual World Of Bluegrass convention from Nashville to Raleigh, NC last year. The group, which supports the art and business of bluegrass worldwide, wrestled with declining attendance and many complicated pros and cons of Nashville. We were courted by officials from Raleigh who proved beyond a doubt that they wanted World of Bluegrass to be part of their Fall calendar and culture. And long story short, we made a very tough decision to head to a new city and it went better than any of us dared to hope. Even the IBMA Awards show was a hit, despite the painful sacrifice of moving out of the Ryman Auditorium.
This is the bare background you need to know to fully appreciate the context behind our annual IBMA partnership show, which is this Wednesday’s fare on Roots. It’s a two stage deal. At 4:45 pm we’ll go live on the webcast channel with a press conference announcing the nominees for the 2014 IBMA Awards. Then at 7 we’ll kick off our regular show with four top flight bluegrass bands. While we never know if our guests will be in the nominee pool, we have a pretty great track record on this front. And this year it’s distinctly possible that our lineup – Detour, Balsam Range, Becky Buller or Sam Bush (or their component musicians) – will be in line for a crystal obelisk by the time they take the Liberty Hall stage.
I have to start with Sam Bush and not just because he has quite a few IBMA awards. He’s one of the most effective, joyful and enthusiastic champions of bluegrass in the world, as well as one of the finest musicians I’ve ever known. I might have more records with Sam on them than any other single picker. He played the second Music City Roots we ever staged, and by the time I previewed that show, I’d come to know the entertaining guy behind all those shows I’d seen and albums I’d consumed. He’s a brilliant storyteller backed up by a capacious memory, plus a musical curiosity that’s as deep and wide as his fealty to old-time mandolin and the legacy of Bill Monroe.
After years making his impact with New Grass Revival, the Emmylou Harris Hot Band, Strength In Numbers and dozens of collaborative recordings, Sam cultivated the exceptional Sam Bush Band, featuring Stephen Mougin on guitar and Scott Vestal on banjo, plus the bass/drum rhythm section of Todd Parks and Chris Brown. Whether pumping out reggae-inspired grooves, pulsing danceable funky string band sounds or pure bluegrass, they’re as infectious and masterful as any band in acoustic music. It’s always peak Roots when they’re on our stage.
We’re very much looking forward to the Roots debut of Balsam Range, a band that in recent years has stepped into the upper echelons of IBMA Awards land by winning Album of the Year last year and Song of the Year in 2011. Hailing from Haywood County, NC, the quintet has had numerous chart-topping songs on the bluegrass charts and earned year-end accolades from a variety of media such as WNCW radio, CMT Edge and PopMatters.com. I’m enjoying the mixture of the bluesy, the old-time and the smooth on the band’s newest CD Five. CMT writer Robert Kimmel summed up the album’s dramatic back story concisely:
“Five is the sound of a confident band hitting their stride, which is remarkable considering that only a short time ago (singer Buddy) Melton’s singing voice was almost permanently silenced. On March 12, 2012, he got kicked while loading cattle on his farm and suffered severe head trauma. . . .His doctors told him it was unlikely that he’d ever be able to sing like he once had. Yet after listening to Five, that prognosis seems inconceivable.”
Becky Buller is an artist gone solo after some years working for others. Her journey began in a family band up in Minnesota, and she schooled up in both trad fiddle and classical violin. After attending ETSU around the dawn of that school’s bluegrass music program, she hit the road fiddling for Valerie Smith & Liberty Pike. During that decade of steady work, she released her first solo material and participated in the IBMA Award-winning Daughters of Bluegrass project. She’s just about to release her most fully realized project to date, made for the aforementioned Stephen Mougin’s Dark Shadow recording company. A great look at her collaborative spirit and affection for true bluegrass music can be seen in a video mini-doc about the covering Bill Monroe’s “Southern Flavor” with a bunch of former Blue Grass Boys. It’ll give you a great flavor of Becky’s vision and values as a musician.
Also with origins up north is the band Detour, from the humming, thriving bluegrass hotbed of, er, Michigan. How sick must they be of that joke now, after seven years of making records? But hey, Opry staff fiddler Matt Combs is from Michigan and so is Greensky Bluegrass. So the mitten state has a lot going on. Maybe it’s lake-inspired; they have a lot of them. Detour hooked me with their fine female lead singer. Missy Armstrong’s voice is really enticing and easy on the ears. Some veteran pickers flesh out a bold, modern rhythm section. Fiddle player Peter Knupfer is well known as a collaborator with the best, from Byron Berline to Peter Wernick. And banjo man Lloyd Douglas is formerly with Jim & Jesse and Lynn Morris. Our Nashville pal Jeremy Darrow recently joined as bass player.
So start your own road to Raleigh with a visit to our Factory or joining the watch parties on Wednesday afternoon. They call the convention’s festival component Wide Open Bluegrass, and that’s how we’ll have the bluegrass tap set for this week. Great music and spirits are going to flow out.