Several years back, the city of Raleigh was avidly courting the International Bluegrass Music Association, trying to get the IBMA to move its annual festival here. After the organization's board scrutinized bids from competing cities, word got out that Raleigh was among the finalists.
That's when William Lewis got involved. As executive director of PineCone (Piedmont Council of Traditional Music), Lewis had been booking folk and bluegrass concerts in Raleigh for years, and this looked like a grand opportunity to take the music to the masses.
"We sort of, um, invited ourselves to the table," Lewis, 38, said with a laugh. "But we wanted IBMA to understand there was a supportive local organization with a long history of programming bluegrass. And it worked."
When the bluegrass association's search committee came to Raleigh to tour the city's facilities in March 2012, PineCone set the schedule and organized a reception with various luminaries from the local acoustic-music community. Two months later, the association announced Raleigh as its 2013 host city – and Lewis as the organization's newest board member.
IBMA's "World of Bluegrass" festival gets underway Tuesday, drawing hundreds of performers and thousands of attendees from all over the world. PineCone is one of the event's producers, booking the acts and putting on shows at venues including Red Hat Amphitheater. As host and local face of the event, Lewis will be scurrying around various downtown venues trying to keep everything running on time.
"We've all been very impressed with William, who has been a great addition to the team," said Nancy Cardwell, executive director of the bluegrass association. "I don't know if he realized just how much work would be involved. He's the man on the ground there, one of our go-to people."
Connecting through music
Depending on how you reckon it, Lewis' career as a folklorist began during college, or during his childhood. Lewis grew up in rural Georgia – "10 miles of dirt road every which way," he says – and playing music together was a large part of his family's do-it-yourself entertainment. But Lewis didn't fully grasp how music could define people and places until he was taking folklore classes from Professor Cece Conway at Appalachian State University.
"I went with her to a lot of house parties because she was always chasing down fiddlers and storytellers," Lewis said. "That was my introduction to Appalachian music, not on stages so much as in people's houses, and it helped me understand the significance of the cultural context I'd grown up with. People's connection to place through music fascinated me."
Lewis continued on with graduate studies at UNC-Chapel Hill followed by work with the North Carolina Folklife Institute. Place-based cultural tourism became a specialty for Lewis while he worked on projects including the "Blue Ridge Music Trails of North Carolina" guidebook.
"Working on things like that and seeing the impact in the communities made a real difference to me," Lewis said. "It was tourism highlighting cultural assets, music and dance traditions tourists could experience, which was a new, viable economic model – especially with the old furniture and textile industries moving overseas."
Lewis joined PineCone, a nonprofit "dedicated to preserving, presenting and promoting all forms of traditional music," as a program associate in 2004. Formed in 1984, the organization has around 900 dues-paying members and an annual budget of $427,000 that it uses to put on workshops, educational events and several dozen concerts per year by the likes of Kris Kristofferson and Ralph Stanley.
After PineCone executive director Susan Spurlin Newberry retired in 2008, the board chose Lewis as her successor. He has continued the organization's work with evangelical zeal, energetically preaching about the potential value of music as a brand for North Carolina.
"William is very knowledgeable and extremely adept at working with all sorts of different kinds of people," said Wayne Martin, executive director of the North Carolina Arts Council and one of PineCone's original co-founders. "He's a wonderful connector who wants to do good for the community, which his work with PineCone shows. I think the potential is there to make North Carolina internationally known for music, and William has been a leader there."
A live-music city?
Once the bluegrass association announced Raleigh as its convention city for the next three years, the real work began. Lewis and PineCone's staff and volunteers have been closely involved in the countless logistical issues involved in planning the big-name shows with Steve Martin at Red Hat Amphitheater; the "Bluegrass Ramble" showcases at Lincoln Theatre, Pour House and other downtown nightclubs; and the free street festival.
It's reaching a crescendo in these last few days running up to Tuesday's kickoff. One thing Lewis helped set up was bus transportation to and from a campground at the State Fairgrounds, where people can stay to make IBMA more of a traditional camping festival-type experience.
"Part of bluegrass culture is camping and RVs," Lewis said. "So we'll see how many people do that. And we'll be rolling out the red carpet to make sure IBMA here is a distinctive experience. They were in Nashville for years and you'd never have known it. Raleigh has gone in the total opposite direction. Whether you're here for IBMA or not, you'll know about it."
Lewis hasn't slept much for the past month, but he is one of the people committed to making the convention in Raleigh a success – in hopes that the bluegrass association will stay longer than its initial three-year commitment.
"There are still doubts out there, people saying that Raleigh's not a bluegrass town," Lewis said. "But it's a warm place open to music of all sorts, and there's a lot of local support. Bluegrass is a key piece of Raleigh's history and heritage. I hope the city can benefit, rebrand itself as a live-music city."
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