For my concert report, I attended the Wide Open Bluegrass festival in Raleigh, North Carolina on September 29th. I arrived around four o’clock, four hours after the festival had opened up. The main stage was located at the Red Hat Amphitheater, there were other small stages set up within a two block radius all around the main stage. Just like many other street festivals, there were many pop-up shops and food trucks along the road. At around 4:30 p.m. we went to our first stage. The stage was dedicated to showcasing younger artists talents and was appropriately called the Youth Stage. This stage was pretty packed, all of the hundred or so seats had already been taken. This left me and many others standing around the stage. Most of the people there seemed to be in the age range of 50-60, and neither men or women dominated the crowd.
Seeing that bluegrass began its rise in popularity in the 1930s, most of these people were probably listening to bluegrass with their parents. Of course, geographical location is a big factor. As bluegrass was a homage to the traditional styles of string bands, as opposed to the mainstream hillbilly music of the time. The attire of the performers was pretty stereotypical cowboy clothing. All of the performers had on cowboy hats and boots, along with a button up shirt, and jeans. The clothing of the audience was similar, most of the men there wore a button up shirt with jeans and cowboys boots. The women in the audience wore similar attire to the men. Although we had arrived a little late to this groups set, we were still able to catch a couple of songs. Since we had arrived late, we missed their initial introduction. I would learn at the end of their set they were called ShadowGrass. They were a full string band, that consisted of a four-string banjo, acoustic guitar, mandolin, and a double bass. The acoustic guitar player also doubled as the singer for the group. The singer had a super strong southern accent and nasally voice, almost cartoonish in his delivery. At first, I thought he had played it up for the song, but when he finished his song, the accent persisted. The lyrics were exactly what I expected them to be, the first song I heard was all about being born and raised in the south. He also spoke about the pride he had in being southern, the crowd responded well to this song. When the song was completed, what seemed like the entirety of the crowd began to applaud and whistle.
I didn’t catch the name of the next song, but I did recall the lyrics being about a small town down by the river. This song is noteworthy for the banjo solo that comes near the end of the song. This band heavily reminded me of the early hillbilly music we listened to in class. The instruments were played well, but they seemed to want to keep it simple. The melodies weren’t complicated in anyway shape or form. From what I could pick up with my ears, the songs I heard were pretty repetitive. Similar to some of the early Tin Pan Alley songs in the way they were arranged. I also recognized the double bass, that played on every beat. Their last song was about a pretty girl that lived down the road. They sang of how sweet she was, and how beautiful her brown hair was. They then finished their set and began to pack up their instruments.We decided that this would be a good time to go look at some of the other musicians that were set up alongside the roads in small tents and stages. Most of these musicians were either by themselves or with one other person. We stopped by a few of these musicians and saw many of the same musical characteristics we saw in the first performers. The most memorable performers were two men set up on a small stage a block away from the Youth Stage. One played an acoustic guitar and the other a banjo. They didn’t sing in their songs, and most of what they played seemed to be improvisation. I attempted to tap my foot to the rhythm, but I simply couldn’t. The tempo sped up and slowed down many times. The instrument playing was super impressive, similar to something you would hear from Robert Johnson, but with a much faster tempo.
After traveling from one small stage to another, we decided to head back to the Youth Stage. We came back to a much larger group performing, also a full string band. They called themselves the Mountain Music Ambassadors. It consisted of seven members. It had the same instruments as the last group, but with an extra acoustic guitar, and two fiddles. The men in the group were dressed almost identically to the last, but this group had two female performers also. One was wearing a floral dress, and the other a button up shirt and a jean skirt. Unlike the last group, however, this group had three singers, one man, and two women. Their accents didn’t pop out at you unlike the other group, and their style of singing was very clean and sharp. While the pace of their music was still fast, it was a little slower than the first group I saw perform. The way their music was arranged really set them apart from the other group. They would constantly switch out positions, allowing for every instrument to have a small solo in just about every song, even the double bass got a solo. After watching all of these bluegrass performers, I realized something I hadn’t before. They often don’t tell you to want the name of their song is. The male singer stepped up to the microphone and gave a brief speech about how missing someone is a horrible thing we all go through. Then the song began, and of course, it was about missing family members who have passed and reuniting with them in heaven. A thought suddenly popped into my head, this group reminded me of The Carter Family. The way the two female singers and the male singer sang in harmony, and the overall lyrics and themes of their songs. Just a minute after I think this one of the female singers steps up to the mic and says she will be performing “Sweet Fern” by The Carter Family. Unlike any other song I had heard that day, this one featured yodeling. This was the last song they performed, and after they thanked everyone for coming out, they left.
I really did enjoy the atmosphere, and watching people dance to the music. It wasn’t a culture I was used to, but by the time I left, I realized how much I enjoyed it. Hopefully, I will be able to go to more of these festivals in the future, as the live music really is a great thing. I’ll admit I did feel out of place initially, but by the end, it felt like everyone in the crowd had bonded over the music.
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