The People of the Bluegrass Festival

Meet a few of the locals keeping this Southern tradition alive all year round

by Susanna Klingenberg | photography by Bob Karp

This year’s Wide Open Bluegrass Festival promises to be the most accessible yet: two days, 120 bands, seven free street stages, six downtown venues and all the impromptu jams you can handle. “We are raising the bar on ‘wide open’ with free general admission seating in Red Hat Amphitheater—along with an open mic stage and array of accessibility services—aimed at reducing barriers to participation,” says William Lewis, long-time executive director at PineCone, the Raleigh-based nonprofit that coproduces the festival with the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) and other partners. And while it’s often the big-name, visiting bands that get the most press, in the Triangle, we know that it’s the local folks who give the festival its heart. Here are a few neighbors whose talents and energy fuel this can’t-miss weekend of bluegrass.


The Traditionalist

Outside Lorraine’s Coffeehouse & Music in Garner, eager high schoolers jump into Jordan Driving School cars
in the parking lot to start their lessons. Inside, little kids zoom around with ice cream, students hunch over computers, buzzing on coffee, and older ladies—all regulars—play Rummikub. A chalkboard reminds visitors of Friday’s bluegrass concert, Sunday’s church service (the preacher used to play with David Allan Coe) and Monday’s Family Bingo; a hundred framed country music headshots look onto a small stage, overseeing the daily shift from bustling coffeehouse to packed-out music venue. Behind it all is Lorraine Jordan, café owner, guitar player and mandolin whiz, who fronts internationally-recognized bluegrass band Lorraine Jordan and Carolina Road. Known as the “Lady of Tradition,” Jordan is a passionate advocate for classic bluegrass, the kind with tight harmonies and acoustic instrumentation in the style of Bill Monroe.

At a time when a growing variety of banjo-infused music is called “bluegrass,” Carolina Road staked their ground with the hit Truegrass, featuring several heavy-hitters in the classic style—Tommy Long, Junior Sisk and Danny Paisley. The wistful chorus, by songwriter David Stewart, speaks to those who’d like to see the genre stay true to its roots: Now they’re tearing down tradition / Lord, it feels just like a sin. / Why can’t bluegrass be true grass again?  Truegrass was #1 on the Heritage Bluegrass chart for four consecutive months. Bandmate Randy Graham laughs, “It became a bit of an anthem.” But Jordan is quick to explain that preserving old ways doesn’t mean excluding innovation: “Listen, there’s room for us all! Just don’t leave us out.”

PineCone chose the “Lady of Tradition” to start a new one in the spirit of her coffeehouse: an open mic stage in the heart of the street festival. Jordan has booked well-known bands for half of the stage’s lineup; every other slot is open to musicians who didn’t land one of the festival’s coveted spots. Jordan hopes the welcoming atmosphere will help the festival to stay true to its name—wide open, for visitors, headliners and aspiring musicians alike. 


The Mentor

Jef Walter has a gift: he’s a really good explainer. By day, he’s a scientific writer, distilling complicated medical knowledge in a way readers can understand. On nights and weekends, he coaches budding musicians, untangling the complex techniques of bluegrass music. Walter’s knack for making complex challenges seem simple has attracted a group of young musicians who view him as a mentor. Seeing these musicians grow in their art and find community with one another brings Walter a deep satisfaction—one that even he can’t totally explain.

Walter leads the PineCone Youth Bluegrass Jams and coaches The Carolina PineCones, a youth bluegrass band born of the PineCone summer camps. The group has evolved from an outlet for practice into a sort of bluegrass ambassadorship, performing across the state at Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival, Motorco Music Hall, The Pour House and of course at Wide Open Bluegrass.

Though Walter loves seeing The Carolina PineCones grow as musicians, he also views the group as a place to practice being human: “Bluegrass is a microcosm for everything else in life: it’s interacting with people,” he says. “It’s making decisions for yourself, it’s being accountable for things you said you were going to do.”

Sam Stage, a 16-year-old fiddler in the group, doesn’t take their committed leader for granted: “Jef has always been willing to be on stage with my youth band, even back when we were pretty terrible. I’ve learned a lot from him about giving what you have to give, right where you are, in the community that matters to you.” Seventeen-year-old banjo player Anthony DeCesaris echoes that admiration: “Jef devotes so much of himself to young people who are interested in continuing the tradition of bluegrass music, and I’m grateful for all his help and wisdom.”

Walter’s a musician himself, part of the Beer & Banjo All-Stars that plays every Tuesday at Raleigh Times (alongside Hank Smith). As a bass player, Walter usually finds himself in the back of the band, not at the mic cracking jokes. But that’s just the way he likes it. For Walter, Tuesday nights are a way to keep up with the community that has nurtured his talent as both a musician and a mentor. And after all, he still gets to be the frontman for the next generation of Triangle musicians—and the future of bluegrass is better for it.


The Volunteer

At last year’s festival, Andi Wrenn faced a room full of upturned, expectant faces and took a deep breath. Fifteen music-loving kids were waiting excitedly to start a jam circle with a banjo legend—who was, due to a scheduling mishap, currently on the other side of town.

But Wrenn—a financial planner by trade and problem-solver by nature—didn’t miss a beat. She ducked into the exhibit hall hoping to find a willing substitute, spotted Ned Luberecki, 2018 Banjo Player of the Year, and convinced him to lead the youth jam and talk about his work. Soon the room was full of delighted, banjo-picking kids and seriously relieved parents. Just another day as a festival volunteer for Wrenn, whose love of bluegrass is perhaps exceeded only by her love of helping other people.

When her husband passed away in 2015, a grieving Wrenn knew she needed a fresh outlet for her energy and a new way to meet people. So she joined the hundreds of volunteers at the Wide Open Bluegrass Festival and—true to form—dove in head-first. She quickly became a team leader, then a “super volunteer,” first in charge of all the volunteers for the street fair and, most recently, for the conference.

In her leadership role, Wrenn welcomes and organizes volunteers, demonstrates their specific jobs, keeps them on task and answers lots and lots of questions. Paul Shiminger, executive director of IBMA, believes that volunteers like Wrenn are the key to making the festival and conference run smoothly: “The more seamless it appears on the surface, the more there is going on behind the scenes.” But Wrenn is quick to say that being behind the scenes is not all work: “Volunteers get free tickets to the Bluegrass Ramble! With bands in so many downtown venues, it’s a good way to find out what you like.” She laughs, “There’s so much great music, you could stay up all night!”

This year, in addition to leading conference volunteers, Wrenn is taking her commitment to a new level, leading a sleeves-up financial planning workshop specifically for musicians at the IBMA business conference. “Self-employed people don’t often think about what they can do with their money,” Wrenn laments. So she’s offering her considerable expertise for free, in hopes that those who make the music she loves can keep on playing for years to come. 


The Flavor

“Bar-be-cue is not a verb.”

Patrick Dowdee said it with a smile and a wink, but he looked like he meant it. His friend and teammate, William Hammock, agreed with a good-natured grin: “If it’s a verb, you’re probably a Texan.”

Dowdee and Hammock first cooked together a few years ago for their church barbecue fundraiser, where they realized they had similar approaches to the art of whole hog handling. Along with their sons, Sean and Duncan, they blew away the competition—and when they headed to the regional competition, Fur & Spur BBQ (named for the NCSU and USC mascots) was born.

A win this year at the Duplin County Cause for Paws competition ushered Fur & Spur BBQ into the bigtime: the Whole Hog BBQ Championship, perhaps the tastiest part of the bluegrass festival. Since 1985, the Championship has been held in different parts of the state. But when IBMA came to Raleigh, the City reached out to the NC Pork Council to make the competition part of the weekend. “BBQ and bluegrass—they both say N.C.,” says Jen Kendrick, the Pork Council’s communications manager.

This year, festival-goers have a new way to enjoy this cooking showdown: visitors who buy a Whole Hog wristband can wander through the tents, sampling 28 barbecues and sauces, and meeting competitors from across the state while they fill their bellies.
Dowdee and Hammock started cooking as a way to spend time with their teenage sons, but now that they’re headed to the state championship, Dowdee says they’re in it to win it. “We want a whole lot of fun—and first place.”

The trophy and $2,000 prize won’t come easily to these first-timers, as they’re competing against repeat champs and many more seasoned teams. The judges—who have all gone through extensive training—are tough, the scoring system leaves little room for error and the 12-hour marathon from hog delivery to judging demands strategy, focus and flexibility. “One wrong move, and you’re gonna catch your hog on fire,” Hammock warns, shaking his head.

Of course, winning isn’t everything. Kendrick points out that proceeds support the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle and the Bluegrass Trust Fund, and that all competitors—even those who don’t win—help preserve a long tradition: “Pork has been so important to North Carolina’s history, and we want to keep that heritage going.”

The fellowship these cooks share is as palpable as the smell of sizzling pork. They compete side-by-side all year, sharing admiration of a perfectly crispy skin, frustration with complicating winds and jubilation for each others’ victories. Much like the bluegrass community, the whole hog community prides itself in handing down tradition, teaching old ways and being generous with their advice, even in the middle of a high-stakes competition like this one. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have the prize in mind. “Oh, we’re cooking to win,” says Championship veteran Kevin Wooten of Pickin’ & Grillin’ BBQ. “But my advice to Patrick and William is to not be afraid to ask for help. We’re all learning, and we’re all in this together.”


The Fresh Take

Tatiana Hargreaves brings an energy to her music that sneaks up on you. Behind her flying fingers and masterful technique is a deep well of curiosity: about her art, its tradition and her own assumptions. On stage, that curiosity translates into a playfulness that draws audiences in, and has launched the Chuck Taylor-wearing 24-year-old to the forefront of a new generation of bluegrass and old-time musicians.

Despite her age, Hargreaves has already covered a lot of ground: she’s toured with greats like Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, won numerous awards for performance and served as a musical ambassador through the State Department’s Dosti Music Project alongside musicians from India and Pakistan.

Most recently, she collaborated on an album with clawhammer banjo innovator and fellow curious soul Allison DeGroot. “It’s often hard to transport the energy of a jam onto the stage,” admires DeGroot, “but with Tatiana, none of the intimacy disappears; she’ll meet you at every step of the way. What a joy to make music with this deep and thoughtful musician!”

Even though Hargreaves is young—or perhaps because of it—she thinks a lot about how the traditions of her art can be sustained in a way that’s just and inclusive. Her approach to music preservation is shaped by a degree in ethnomusicology, a wide-ranging musical taste (a current playlist includes Lizzo, Celia Cruz and The Stanley Brothers) and the recent news headlines, which have amplified the darker side of preserving Anglo traditions, rooted in white supremacy.

Uncomfortable though it is, Hargreaves believes it’s critical for young musicians to lean into the tension of that space and ask hard questions about the music traditions they love: “Who’s not here? How does that impact the communities whose music we’re playing? How can you contribute to Appalachian communities?”

They’re weighty issues, and they have the potential to weigh down Hargreaves’ performance. But in fact they do just the opposite: Hargreaves’ forward-looking approach to music imbues her playing with life (and even a little roguish mischief) that’s a treat to experience. Whether she’s helping shape bluegrass culture for a new generation or jamming on a national stage, Hargreaves brings her refreshing curiosity with her, and bluegrass fans—now and in the future—get to reap the benefits.