Next week will bring a tsunami of bluegrass music to Lexington, showcasing performances Monday night through next Sunday morning with the second annual Best of Bluegrass festival downtown and the 41st annual Festival of the Bluegrass at the Kentucky Horse Park.
That seems to make sense. Lexington is, after all, the biggest city in the region known as the Bluegrass, which is the center of the Bluegrass State. Many of the busiest bands and brightest stars of the genre hail from around here.
But outside of the festival week, bluegrass music can be a trickier proposition for artists, venues and fans, particularly ones from out of town who visit Lexington and figure there ought to be some bluegrass being played around here.
"People often call us asking where they can hear some bluegrass when they are in town, and about five years ago, I was kind of embarrassed," says Festival of the Bluegrass director Roy Cornett. "It's easier now. It may not be every night, but there is bluegrass going on now year-round in Lexington."
Venues including Willie's Locally Known on North Broadway and Natasha's Bistro and Bar just off Main Street downtown have become known for a regular rotation of bluegrass artists. Two radio shows featuring heavy doses of bluegrass music are recorded almost every week in Lexington: the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour, which includes bluegrass among other genres, on Mondays at the Lyric Theatre and the very bluegrass-focused Red Barn Radio, on Wednesdays at ArtsPlace. On Tuesdays in the summertime, the free Southland Jamboree packs fans into a field next to a bowling alley on Southland Drive for shows.
But for some, Central Kentucky still isn't as strong a bluegrass market as they think it should be. There is also a lingering longing for the old days when star J.D. Crowe would hold court at Lexington's Holiday Inn North and bluegrass thrived at venues around, well, the Bluegrass.
"It was the culture in the '60s and '70s," said Jr Williams of the Lexington bluegrass band NewTown, which plays Tuesday night as part of Best of Bluegrass. "That's how people entertained themselves: They'd go out and listen to some music.
"Part of the problem is times have changed."
Struggling for a local audience
Even as a band that tours nationally and has albums and songs high on the bluegrass music charts, NewTown can struggle to find an audience sometimes when it plays in Lexington.
Presenters say that isn't exclusive to NewTown.
Willie's Locally Known opened in 2012 initially intending to be devoted exclusively to bluegrass.
"The model of being a full-time bluegrass venue was not viable for Willie's," says Ray Smith, who books bands there.
Willie's has broadened its offerings to Americana and primarily acoustic music. It continues to program bluegrass regularly, such as the married duo of David and Valerie Mayfield, who played to a small audience Wednesday night, and The Roys, who will play Tuesday night for Best of Bluegrass.
Natasha's also initially had a rough time when it started programming music in 2009 and tried some bluegrass offerings.
"We had a few shows that nobody came to, and said, 'Well, I guess that isn't going to work,'" said Art Shechet, who books music for Natasha's, which he co-owns. "But now, we're seeing a big change in interest in audiences, and a lot of younger players and an Americana explosion."
"Americana" is a term used to describe largely acoustic music that often uses instruments commonly associated with bluegrass, e.g., banjo and fiddle. Some stars of the genre are the bands Mumford and Sons and the Avett Brothers, which are not strictly bluegrass but have fueled a renewed interest in bluegrass.
But what is bluegrass?
That speaks to one of the central issues that comes up when talking to bluegrass artists and programmers: What is bluegrass?
Lewis says a challenge programming bluegrass is a factional audience. Some prefer the deeply traditional sounds that go back to early 20th-century star Bill Monroe, the Western Kentucky native who is regarded as the "father of bluegrass." Others might prefer jam-band style bluegrass, gospel bluegrass or a honky-tonk sound. What might turn off one fan excites others.
The Blind Corn Liquor Pickers is one of the most active bluegrass bands in Lexington, regularly playing Al's Bar, which it will do Tuesday as part of BoB.
But banjo player Travis Young acknowledges purists would not consider them to be a bluegrass band.
"When we started playing, we couldn't keep the rock 'n' roll out," Young said. "So we have electric guitar and we have drums. But it's hard to call a lot of our music anything but bluegrass."
Young embraces Central Kentucky's role as a place that holds an important place in bluegrass's history, but he says it is important for the region to view the genre as a growing and evolving tradition that acknowledges its roots.
He says he sees the factionalism in bluegrass audiences that Smith described, but not in other places the band plays, including Colorado, California and North Carolina, where there are thriving bluegrass scenes.
WoodSongs founder and host Michael Jonathan says, "Central Kentucky has unfortunately released its ownership of bluegrass."
He now looks to places such as Owensboro, which has the International Bluegrass Music Museum and the genre-pushing ROMP: Bluegrass Roots and Branches Festival; and the thriving bluegrass scene in Asheville, N.C. That's where NewTown recorded its latest album.
Growing the gigs
Nancy Cardwell, executive director of the Nashville-based International Bluegrass Music Association, says an important part of growing a national bluegrass identity lies in education and developing a local talent base and then having places to play.
"It's all about where the gigs are," she said.
Mary Quinn Ramer, vice president of marketing for the VisitLex tourism bureau, says that bluegrass music is an important part of what her agency promotes. She concurs that having a consistent lineup of music is important.
"We don't have a venue programming bluegrass 365 nights a year, but we're moving in that direction," she says.
Lexington bluegrass aficionado Roger B. Combs says, "What we really need is a venue that will consistently have bluegrass, so people won't wonder where the next bluegrass show is coming from."
Venues, of course, need audiences. Shechet, of Natasha's, says that's what events like the next week are designed to develop.
"That's what we're going to look at immediately after BoB," Shechet says. "How do we leverage this and build on it?"