On a December night in 1945, Grand Ole Opry member and mandolin master Bill Monroe invited a young banjo picker named Earl Scruggs to join him on stage at the Ryman Auditorium. The sound of Scruggs’ three-finger style of picking was broadcast into millions of homes on WSM-AM — a moment that defined, if not birthed, modern bluegrass music.
Through the decades since, bluegrass has had a hot-and-cold relationship with Music City. And now, the next verse is being written.
This week will mark the end of Nashville’s six-year tenure as the host of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s annual World of Bluegrass week — which features the genre’s pre-eminent fan festival, conference and awards show.
Due to complaints about the high cost of hotels in downtown Nashville, the IBMA has set its sights east to Raleigh, N.C. — which boasts a new convention center and outdoor concert space.
The move is critical for the IBMA, which has experienced stagnant membership and operated at a deficit over the past several years. The continued vitality of its top event is imperative to the organization’s bottom line.
The move also illustrates a trade organization that is trying to reinvent itself in the midst of a quickly changing industry. But the question remains: How could Music City — with its hallowed venues and storied history — not be an incubator for a high-profile bluegrass event?
Tucked beneath shadows of commerce and wealth in the now-trendy Gulch, The Station Inn exemplifies Nashville’s relationship with bluegrass. It’s a gritty treasure surrounded by gleaming commercial developments.
But it wasn’t always that way.
Back in the 1950s and ’60s, bluegrass experienced commercial success thanks to exposure on Nashville’s WSM-AM and on TV hits like The Beverly Hillbillies.
“When you figure in over the years that on the Grand Ole Opry alone, you had Bill Monroe, the Osborne Brothers, Jim and Jessie and the Virginia Boys, and Flatt and Scruggs,” mandolin virtuoso Sam Bush said. “Those are four major influences on bluegrass musicians. It made total sense to me that bluegrass through the Opry got major exposure. That’s how people like me got to hear it.”
But when electric guitars and rock influences began seeping into Nashville, bluegrass largely retreated back to the hills of Appalachia — and other pockets of the country.
“It grew back into its own self. It came back into what it was in the early days. Even though it was big nationally, it was still regional,” explained bluegrass radio host Dennis Jones of WNCW in N.C.
Bluegrass thrived as a regional genre, mostly due to the prevalence and popularity of large festivals that could draw upwards of 20,000 people.
“If anything, starting in the 1970s ... the festival scene is what led to people from all over the country coming together and jamming together,” Bush said.
And while bluegrass continues to thrive mostly outside the city limits, several artists like Ricky Skaggs and Alison Krauss found success in the Nashville “machine.” But the business side of Music City, with its pop-rock emphasis, couldn’t be further from Flatt and Scruggs, Jones said.
The annual World of Bluegrass event began in Owensboro, Ky., where the International Bluegrass Museum is located. After moving to Louisville for a few years, it arrived in Nashville in 2005.
By all accounts, Music City was a no-brainer for the IBMA. The trade association had moved its headquarters to Nashville in 2003. The location was perfect. Bluegrass musicians, who sometimes toured with country bands as a day job, had roots in town.
“We were excited to move to Nashville back in 2005. I thought it was a great idea: This is Music City. There’s a big music industry, here and we wanted our members to take advantage of our expertise,” IBMA board vice chairman Jon Weisberger said.
But despite a booming opening year in Nashville in 2005, attendance for the World of Bluegrass event has declined and remained relatively stagnant. According to the Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau, the number of room nights booked for the event dropped by more than 700 over the past five years.
The industry also provided IBMA more than $330,000 in incentives over the past seven years, and the IBMA failed to hit certain thresholds for hotel nights.
The success of similar alt-genre events like the red-hot Americana Music Festival and Conference and songwriters’ festival Tin Pan South make the IBMA’s failure to stick in Nashville even more glaring.
“Looking at what works and what doesn’t, the [IBMA’s] model was tired and it hadn’t changed,” NCVB president Butch Spyridon said. “The CMA Fest had declining attendance for five or six years out at the fairgrounds; they spent two years working on, ‘What are we going to do? How are we going to change?’ ... and it’s been a success by any standard, and any measurement.”
But for the IBMA, the abandonment of Nashville is about simple math. IBMA executive director Nancy Cardwell said most of the bluegrass industry works on a part-time or even volunteer basis. Booking hotel rooms that cost at least $150 per night for a whole week can be a daunting prospect.
“With the economy, if you have something you do for fun or part time, and you’re on a tight budget, an annual convention is something you would cut out. It’s just gotten too expensive,” Cardwell said.
Not only does Raleigh provide cheaper lodging, but it also allows the World of Bluegrass event to be “a bigger fish in a medium-sized pond rather than being in a large pond in Nashville,” Cardwell said.
“[The move] will be a chance for us to refigure our events ... just making the whole thing a little leaner and meaner and less expensive.”
The transition to Raleigh is also vital for the organization, which has operated at a deficit over the past five years, according to tax records. Tax filings show that the IBMA operating expenses outweighed revenues by $30,000 in 2010.
In addition to being at a crossroads from a financial standpoint, the IBMA is also at a cultural fork in the road. When Spyridon worked with the organization in Nashville, he recommended they reach across genres to appeal to a new crowd.
“I look at bluegrass, there hasn’t been a great outreach to the newer and crossover artists,” Spyridon said. “In order to pump new life and get media attention and bring in new fans, you have to cultivate new artists.”
In the bluegrass world, that argument has turned into what one source described as a “fistfight.”
The IBMA, some argue, should pursue new-style artists like the Old Crow Medicine Show or Yonder Mountain String Band. But Jones, a bluegrass radio host in North Carolina, fears that opening the door for new styles could dilute the brand while not providing a fix for financial woes.
“There’s a difference between going to a bluegrass festival with folks sitting in chairs … or a festival [like Bonnaroo],” Jones said. “Are those two cultures going to mix? They are not going to mix. No matter how much peace, love, understanding and five-string banjo you sprinkle over them.”
But regardless of the direction the IBMA takes, Cardwell maintains they will continue to call Nashville home. In a couple of years, the IBMA will also ask Nashville for a bid on the next three-year cycle for World of Bluegrass, Cardwell said.
And Bush, who is nominated for two IBMA Awards, said Nashville’s current offering of bluegrass talent is as good as it’s been since that memorable night at the Ryman in 1945.
“In the ’70s, there were only a couple of places to play ... compared to now, with the more high-profile of bluegrass musicians that live around Nashville, the opportunities to play more bluegrass, and the bluegrass members on the Grand Ole Opry, it’s obviously grown,” Bush said.
“It’s no accident that the IBMA being in Nashville has, I believe, helped that along and raised the visibility of bluegrass music.”