On Friday afternoon, September 27, 2013, I decided to walk out of the Marriott Hotel in Raleigh, N.C., and into the free Wide Open Bluegrass street festival. It’s a sunny day and there are people everywhere in North Carolina’s capitol city, to the tune of 60,000 plus. As I wade through the crowd, I take the time to walk to the multiple stages that are featuring music and, at each one, bluegrass bands such as The Boxcars, The Honeycutters and The SteelDrivers are performing before a lot of people.
Eventually, I walk towards the beautiful Red Hat Amphitheater located next to the Raleigh Convention Center. Not far from the highly populated street festival, the 5,500-seat open-air arena is sold out. Not only is the amphitheater filled to the brim with music fans, there are folks standing in the various levels of a nearby parking garage overlooking the venue trying to take in the show. And, there are ticket scalpers outside the amphitheater as well. Yes, I just said that there were ticket scalpers at a bluegrass concert.
While there may be things that need to be tweaked in the future, the rumors and comments that you may have heard about the 2013 IBMA World of Bluegrass (WOB) are true. The people of Raleigh did what they said they were going to do, making the WOB convention and the bluegrass world, in general, the focus of their hospitality. And, they stepped up and blocked off some of the main streets of their downtown area and handed them over to bluegrass music. A true buzz was created. The word is out.
I arrived in Raleigh on Wednesday evening, my friend and I checked into the Marriott Hotel, and then walk around the city to get our bearings. After a fine meal on a roof patio at a downtown eatery, which included watching the resident peregrine falcon flying above and landing on a ledge of the building across the street, I decided to seek out the late night showcases.
My first stop was the California Bluegrass Association (CBA) suite on the third floor of the Marriott. This organization had simply the all-stars of the unofficial showcase scene. The CBA suite welcomed all who came to listen to the half-hour showcases, and they proved to be wonderful hosts providing food and drink and a great card of live music. The Wednesday night lineup at CBA included wonderful performances by Special Consensus, the Kathy Kallick Band, and Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper, as well as two impressive up-and-coming bands, Eddie Rose & Highway Forty and California’s Front Country.
The late night showcases, officially known in Raleigh as the Bluegrass Ramble, took place in five nightclubs and an old church in the downtown area. On Wednesday night, the showcases lasted from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. My first stop was the Kings club to watch Town Mountain, whose old-school swing approach to bluegrass music garnered an honest and true standing ovation and call for an encore by the packed audience. Then, it was off to see the Steep Canyon Rangers at the Lincoln Theater where—sans Steve Martin and their coats and ties—the band was casually dressed, relaxed, and rocking the music from their new album Tell The Ones I Love.
After a dance-inducing set by the Rangers, I head over to the Pour House to see Balsam Range. With a live album (Live At The Altamont) as well as their IBMA-nominated studio album Papertown, the western North Carolina group is getting the recognition it deserves. They also recently just played on a third album, backing up John Driskell Hopkins on his project, Daylight. During the showcase, Balsam Range played for the first hour and then Hopkins, whom many know as Zac Brown’s bass player, joined them later in the evening to jam the night away.
Thursday was a day for honors. In the morning and early afternoon, the IBMA Special Awards Luncheon handed out nods in many categories, and three individuals and two bands were also given Distinguished Achievement Awards. Those included Keith Case, Charlie Pennell, Vic Jordan, Kentucky’s The McLain Family, and the legendary East Mountain Boys from Japan, which featured the Ozaki Brothers giving a wonderful acceptance speech.
A few hours later, the IBMA Awards Show was held in the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, and it would prove to be one of the most talked about programs in the history of the IBMA. Produced by Jon Weisberger and Chris Stuart, and despite a brief glitch with the curtains at the beginning, the 2013 version of the IBMA Awards would prove to be well run and entertaining. The show would include many wonderful performances, some poignant and emotional moments and even some levity provided by the hosts, the Steep Canyon Rangers.
However, what the 2013 IBMA Awards will forever be known for is the speech by Tony Rice as he was being inducted into the IBMA Hall Of Fame. News of Rice’s appearance that night spread quickly in this day and age of digital communication. Many cell phones belonging to those in attendance would blow up that evening as word of what happened spread rapidly. I was fortunate to take it all in firsthand.
The early rumors concerning Rice not showing up that night were not unfounded. The guitar legend has been battling some health issues this year, which have put him through the ringer. And, Rice has always had a problem dealing with the anxiety that comes with adulation, being one of the most influential musicians in American history. For some, especially an artist with a humble heart like Rice, being inducted into a Hall Of Fame while still living can be a heavy task. Others, like Jimmy Martin for example, expect it, soak it up, and run with it.
Sam Bush and Peter Rowan combined forces to give the speech inducting Rice into the Hall Of Fame, and when they were done, to the delight of the audience, Rice walked out from behind the curtain. He was there. All of this is the reason, I believe, inductors Bush and Rowan grabbed Rice by the arm and brought him to center stage and left him there to soak up the deserved applause, just in case he said ‘Thank you’ and disappeared quickly backstage. But the old soul and sage side of Rice took over, and he approached the microphone and began to speak.
At the beginning of his talk, with his voice gravelly and rough as a cob, Rice thanked “everybody within earshot.” And then, The Moment happened. His dear friend Alison Krauss was scheduled to perform at the Red Hat Amphitheater that weekend, but had to back out when it was announced that she was dealing with a problem with her singing voice, a form of vocal dysphonia. Rice battled a similar ailment and lost his singing voice nearly two decades earlier.
Rice mentioned Alison’s problem and then said, “I’ve been working on this on my own for the past few days. I don’t know what compelled me to do this, but one day I woke up and decided to try a few things with my voice, to see if anything at all could happen, even just a little stepping stone, toward restoration of the voice. And I tried a few things. And if my Heavenly Father is willing right now, I might be able to show you a little bit of what I’ve been working on.”
Rice then tapped the side of his head and said, “This is not easy. It takes some brainpower to get into this, so bear with me a second.” He then concentrated, lowly hummed a bit, and then the Tony Rice voice of old came flowing from his mouth. The voice that was so familiar, yet hadn’t been heard in 19 years, was now flowing ever so gently from his throat. That voice was suddenly coming out of the speakers in the hall, and was being heard around the world, over the airwaves, on the Music City Roots broadcast. From my vantage point, it was surreal and chilling. I saw Rice from afar up on the stage, and when his original voice appeared, it took a few seconds to process what I was hearing. The response in the hall was one of amazement.
For the next couple of minutes, Rice continued to sustain the long-missed timbre of his tone, and he gave Krauss some long distance encouragement and love. He also said this: “I figure maybe if I can keep this up, that one day again, maybe I’ll be able to do what I have missed at times for 19 years now, which is to express myself poetically through music. And if I can keep this momentum going, maybe one of these days, I’ll be able to do that again.”
Rice then thanked those who were instrumental in his career, including Sam Bush, J.D. Crowe, and David Grisman, and then he ended his speech by giving his thoughts on the future of bluegrass music. Said Rice, “I want to thank Nancy Cardwell and everybody even remotely connected with the IBMA staff for their help. (It is) unbelievable what this organization is about. I think it is our duty, not only as musicians but as participants of this music form, that it be like any other music form in history. It’s been allowed to grow and flourish a little bit. But, as an opinion, it is our duty to allow bluegrass music to grow and flourish and, at the same time, retain the most important part of it, and that is the essence of the sound of real bluegrass music. I love you all. Thank you so very much.”
With that, Rice disappeared behind the curtain and, soon, he would be making the three-hour drive back to his home in northern North Carolina. The reverberations from his speech are still being felt. Weeks later, I’m driving in the western North Carolina High Country when a DJ on WNCW-FM mentions “The Moment,” saying he still tears up just thinking about it. I talked to a friend of mine after IBMA WOB was over who said, “I listened to the whole thing on XM Radio. They played the encore performance (of the awards show) on Saturday night, and I was emotionally taken with the speech and afterwards I played every Tony Rice recording in the house!”
Rice would return the next night, however, to be a part of the Super Jam at the Red Hat Amphitheater that would also include Sam Bush, Mark Schatz, Del McCoury, Jerry Douglas, Béla Fleck, and Jason Carter (subbing for Alison Krauss). The headline act was a part of the overall Red Hat lineup put together by Craig Ferguson, Director of the Telluride and RockyGrass festivals in Colorado, and William Lewis, executive director of PineCone (Piedmont Council of Traditional Music).
Rice had some sweet moments during the Super Jam, especially on the song “Summertime.” When it was his turn to take a lead, Fleck, Douglas, Carter, and Bush all walked over and encircled him. While they were doing that to mess with him a little bit, it became a rather poignant moment, as from within his circle of friends, Rice played a wonderfully soulful and melodic solo.
As the week wore on, the music seemingly flowed out of every nook and cranny in downtown Raleigh. What was amazing about the free Wide Open Bluegrass street festival was noticing how many visitors were being turned on to great live bluegrass music for the first time. A lot of new fans were made that weekend. For instance, at 3:45 pm on Saturday afternoon, the Kids On Bluegrass jam took place on the Center Stage on Fayetteville street. This anticipated concert featured over 25 teenage and preteen pickers who played in various combinations, and they wowed the crowd as one might expect. Bluegrass newbies in the audience were amazed at what they were seeing, with eyebrows raised and comments heard such as, “Are you seeing this?”
The younger generation was also featured during the IBMA Awards Show. As a part of the production, the Bluegrass Youth All-Stars performed a kicked-up rendition of “John Henry,” and they were rewarded by an encouraging and moving standing ovation by all of the nominated musicians who were sitting up front. The members of the Class of 2013 All-Stars, who were coached by Stephen Mougin, Laura Orshaw, and Tony Watt, included Korey Brodsky on guitar (14 years old, Connecticut), Jacob Burleson on mandolin (14 years old, North Carolina), Michael Kilby on resonator guitar (15 years old, British Columbia, Canada), Jimmy Meyer on bass (14 years old, Missouri), Brandy Miller on banjo (15 years old, North Carolina), Grant Rigney on fiddle (16 years old, Tennessee), and Samantha Snyder on fiddle (14 years old, North Carolina).
The Krüger Brothers were also received warmly in their adopted home state, especially with Jens Krüger having just won the Steve Martin Prize For Excellence In Banjo And Bluegrass award. Martin showed up to jam with the Krüger Brothers in the Convention Center the night before he headlined Saturday night’s lineup at the Red Hat Amphitheater along with Edie Brickell and the Steep Canyon Rangers.
Throughout the weekend, the late night showcases continued. Some of the highlights included the Del McCoury Band hosting special guests Sierra Hull, Jesse Brock, Steve Thomas, Eric Gibson, and Kenny Smith, and the Earl Brothers and James King in the CBA suite. The halls of the Marriott were filled with jams that included members of the Italian band Red Wine, the Infamous Stringdusters, Greensky Bluegrass, Joe Newberry jamming with Kathy Kallick and Laurie Lewis, the Steep Canyon Rangers, a memorable two hour-plus song pull between Peter Rowan and Michael Cleveland and many of our bluegrass brethren from Japan.
A few of the issues that have been discussed concerning next year’s convention include the following: more of the late night showcases possibly taking place at the Convention Center instead of the clubs so that talent buyers can be better served, or a combination of both to avoid the drab and sterile convention center showcases that plagued Nashville; the business trade show should be extended by a day or two with the daily expo hours being increased; workshops, meet and greets, and seminars overlapping less on the schedule; specific band product booths placed by the stages at the open-air Wide Open Bluegrass street festival so bands can sell more merchandise; the availability of good food late into the evening and early morning.
Let there be no doubt, however, as all of these ideas are meant to take advantage of the new found energy that IBMA WOB has found in the city of Raleigh. Said the award-winning guitarist Jim Hurst after the convention was over, “An absolutely brilliant week at the IBMA’s WOB in Raleigh, N.C.! Bravo to the IBMA staff, organizers, board members and volunteers, and the award show producers! A better transition from Nashville to Raleigh can’t be imagined, and while there were some things that can be improved upon, it was a mega success. Yay bluegrass, yay Raleigh and North Carolina, and yay IBMA!”
Fellow bluegrass artist Steve Gulley concurred: “I can’t imagine any group of people in any town ever doing a better job or possibly making bluegrassers from around the world feel any more welcome. I’m a native East Tennessee boy, and I hated to see it leave my home state. But, I know that the event is now in a city that really wanted it! To all my North Carolina brethren and all my IBMA family, kudos and big-time congrats for doing it right! It’s refreshing and feels so energizing to see our music and parent organization heading in not only the right direction, but in a very positive one. Thanks Raleigh and the IBMA!”