Bluegrass showcase includes Hall of Fame inductee Dr. Neil Rosenberg
The tall, wide stage of the Red Hat Amphitheater in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina, is suited for mid-sized pop and rock shows. Large, parallel arrays of speakers point toward rows of plastic chairs that hold several thousand listeners, backed by a narrow, triangular lawn that holds many more. The city’s growing skyline hangs just beyond the crowd.
But on the Saturday afternoon of October 4, a man with a fiddle (Stuart Duncan) and another with a banjo (Noam Pikelny)—to be sure, a modest configuration for such a major setting—held the crowd captive and silent with but nine strings, some original tunes, and folk numbers they’d inherited from elders.
The outdoor venue felt, at least momentarily, like a small acoustic room, where players shared stories and songs collected over a lifetime. The surprising intimacy was one of several musical miracles at World of Bluegrass, the five-day celebration of pickers and singers, harmonies and solos organized by the International Bluegrass Music Association.
This marked the second year in North Carolina’s capital city for the early autumn gathering, a weekend that filled the city streets with free acoustic music and rock clubs for a paid “Bluegrass Ramble.” It also marked the 25th annual IBMA Awards show. Among the honorees, Dr. Neil Rosenberg, of the Canadian group the Spinney Brothers, was inducted into the Bluegrass Hall of fame, with a tribute performance by fiddlers Michael Cleveland, Stuart Duncan, and Jason Carter.
By the time the aforementioned banjoist and fiddler hit the big stage Saturday afternoon, they’d emerged as two of the year’s stars at IBMA. The attention was warranted.
On Friday, the fiddler, Stuart Duncan, had been among those players who had wowed at the Wide Open Jam in the same outdoor setting; standing just to the right of bassist Edgar Meyer, he’d traded solos with Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Béla Fleck, and Bryan Sutton.
The banjo belonged to Noam Pikelny, the Punch Brother who’d walked away not only with the organization’s banjo player of the year award Thursday night but also with the Album of the Year prize for Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe.
That Saturday duo set sealed their status as two of the week’s best and closed one of the conference’s great circles, too.
Pikelny had earned his prize for banjo interpretations of Kenny Baker’s fiddle work (Baker spent 25 years as the fiddler with Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys). And to his right, gathered around the same microphone, Duncan played a fiddle that his parents bought for him shortly after his 11th birthday at Monroe’s Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival, from Baker himself. They paid $260, and Duncan has played the same fiddle—“I’ve heard it described as a big wooden saxophone,” he said after the set—ever since.
“I’m fairly embarrassed by that price,” Duncan confessed.
Another of the IBMA’s most dazzling performances came earlier in the day and thanks, too, to banjo and a violin that you wouldn’t call a fiddle. The Krüger Brothers—the trans-Atlantic bluegrass trio that helped boost guitarist Doc Watson’s later years—premiered Lucid Dreamer, a new concerto.
A collaboration with Chicago’s Kontras Quartet, Lucid Dreamer blended string band and chamber ensemble parts. The banjo wove between two violins, and upright bass reinforced the rhythmic foundation of the cello across the stage. After a standing ovation, the seven musicians raced once more through the piece’s brilliant finale. The packed ballroom erupted again.
2014 IBMA Award Recipients
Fiddle Player of the Year Jason Carter of Del McCoury Band
Bass Player of the Year Barry Bales
Male Vocalist of the Year Singer/fiddler Buddy Melton of Balsam Ridge