More than 6,000 people who work in fields related to bluegrass music recently gathered in Nashville for the annual World of Bluegrass conference and tradeshow hosted by the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA). VOA's Katherine Cole attended the seven-day event, and filed this report.
There are really three separate components to bluegrass week in Nashville: The four-day IBMA World of Bluegrass business conference; the annual International Bluegrass Music Awards; and the yearly fundraising concert weekend known as Fan Fest.
The World of Bluegrass operates much like any other business conference. Delegates from around the world come to town to attend seminars and lectures, explore a trade show, and network with their peers. The big difference is that the World of Bluegrass tradeshow is filled with banjos, guitars, mandolins and basses, not hardware or software.
Jean Spivey traveled from Austin, Texas to attend the World of Bluegrass. She's co-president of the Old Settlers Music Festival, and came to Nashville to audition bands as she hires acts for their 2008 festival. According to Jean, it's harder than you might think to put together a festival line-up. She's come up with a strategy that seems work.
"You look at your audience, and look at what your audience likes, and what you need in terms of men and women [performers] and traditional styles and jam grass and newgrass," she said. "You kind of have to balance everything out, so that it makes a good mix. A lot goes into it in terms of the flow of the music, and the variety of the music, and the people [audience] that certain artists will draw."
Was there any previously unknown-to-her band that caught Jean's ear?
"I really liked The Steeldrivers," she said. "They're just a southern bluegrass five-some. They're kind of, oh, gritty. But bluegrass gritty. I don't know how to describe them, but I really liked them!"
Could anything have prepared her for her first IBMA?
"Well, I have been to South By Southwest, and I've been to Folk Alliance, and they are very similar," she said. "Although there are more banjos here!
Some still think of bluegrass as music only enjoyed by people living in the rural American south. But International Bluegrass Music Association members can be found in all 50 United States, and in more than 30 countries around the world. Like Tony Trischka, Ira Gitlin grew up in the northern state of New York. So what attracted him to bluegrass?
Gitlin: "I think initially it was mostly just the sound of the instruments, and especially the banjo. But once I started getting into it more, I started appreciating it as a window into a culture that was different from the one I grew up with in New York City. I started to broaden my understanding of what life in different parts of the country is like."
Cole: "People come here to get serious work done, but there is also a lot of fun involved."
Gitlin: "Oh definitely. This is the high point of my year, every year when I come here."
Cole: "What makes it so special?"
Gitlin: When you play bluegrass music, and you're out doing your thing most of the year, you feel like you are a member of this weird little minority. And nobody really understands [who you are talking about] if you say 'Earl.' Even 'Earl Scruggs," most people won't really know what you are talking about. It's great to be here for a week, together with people from all over the world who understand. You know that everybody you're going to meet over there understands something that is such an important part of your life. It's a real great way to connect with people."
Cole: "I've run into people here from Japan, from Czechoslovakia, and I'm never quite sure what the attraction is to this type of music. Have you ever been able to figure it out?"
Gitlin: "I think for them it is probably the same as it was for me. The initial attraction is just the sound of it. And once they get drawn into the culture, being in bluegrass is like being part of a huge extended family, with its own in-jokes and traditions. Except that unlike being in a family, where you have to be born into it, here if you want to be a part of it, you are a part of it!"
And if this sounds like something that you would like to be a part of, check out the International Bluegrass Music Association website at IBMA.Org. Plans are already underway for the 2008 World of Bluegrass in Nashville next September.
One highlight of the week is the evening showcase performances. Among the 16 bands and artists playing this year was Dale Ann Bradley who sang Rita Mae.