5 Questions With… Paul Schiminger, Executive Director of the International Bluegrass Music Association 

Wide Open Bluegrass is just around the corner, and it promises to be more wide open than ever, says executive director Paul Schiminger.
As told to Susanna Klingenberg

In just two weeks, Downtown Raleigh will be bursting with bluegrass: banjo-wielding musicians, thousands of fans, endless concerts, and the smoky scent of fresh BBQ. It’s World of Bluegrass week—part street festival, part business conference—and the driving force behind it all is the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA), headquartered in Nashville. We chatted with Executive Director Paul Schiminger to find out what he’s excited for at this year’s festival, and why he’s optimistic about the future of bluegrass. 

Photo by Corey Lowenstein / Courtesy The News & Observer

This will be the 7th year Raleigh has hosted the bluegrass festival and conference. Still a good fit?

We began partnering with the City of Raleigh for the Festival and the entire World of Bluegrass week beginning in 2013, and it has exceeded everyone’s expectations. The IBMA is the global nonprofit association for bluegrass professionals and enthusiasts, so we are always seeking exciting and impactful ways for the IBMA to carry out its mission. The support and infrastructure of Raleigh and Wake County has helped us present bluegrass music to more people than at any other event in the world. Last year we had over 200 bands performing in front of more than 223,000 people over the entire week. So that has been a bullseye with respect to helping grow the appreciation of bluegrass music.  

In addition to our strong partnership with the city to work collaboratively, the downtown “campus” is perfect. It is all contiguous, which allows fans to wander from stage to stage to enjoy a huge selection of premier bands.   

What are you most looking forward to at this year’s festival? 

Every year we find ways to build on the success of previous years. This year, we made a bold and exciting change to the Wide Open Bluegrass Festival. Every stage, including the main stage in the Red Hat Amphitheater, is free to the public. In the past, only the StreetFest stages were free. To see the highlight artists in the Red Hat required a purchased ticket. We continue to offer purchased reserved seating for those who want the very best views and guaranteed seats, but over half of the capacity of that venue is free general admission, subject to capacity restrictions. This allows our festival to be more completely integrated and accessible to everyone, whether a diehard fan or someone experiencing bluegrass music for the first time. 

Aside from that, we are also excited about our main stage lineup. It will include Hall of Famers, rising stars, traditional and progressive bluegrass, and some unique star-filled collaborations you will only be able to see on the Red Hat stage.  

In the past, the festival has covered the gamut of bluegrass styles. Can we expect that variety again this year? 

Embedded in the IBMA’s mission are the important words, “Honoring Tradition and Encouraging Innovation.” Maintaining the connection to bluegrass music’s powerful foundational roots is essential to keeping its history and sound alive and relevant. At the same time, brilliant musicians have different ways of expressing themselves. Some want to dig into the deeply traditional sound, while others like to incorporate other influences and merge them together into something they and their prospective audiences will enjoy, much like Bill Monroe did in 1945.

For this reason, we work very hard to have a wide variety of bluegrass sounds available for audiences. We have a lot of traditional leaning bands, a lot of progressive bands and even some who stretch the boundaries pretty far by simply using influences from bluegrass. That variety allows a greater number of listeners to find something they like immediately and then begin their own exploration deeper into the roots of the music.

Courtesy IBMA.org

IBMA is the driving force of the week, along with the musicians and luthiers. But what role do Triangle-dwellers play in pulling off a successful festival year after year? 

Like any major event or production, the more seamless it appears on the surface the more there is going on behind the scenes. It is tremendous to partner with William Lewis of PineCone, who expertly produces our festival, along with the team of numerous contractors and volunteers who work during the festival. The stage hands, the sound and video engineers, the hospitality coordinators, security personnel, ushers, food and beverage vendors, merchandise vendors, cleaning crews and many others are invaluable to the success of the Festival.

What’s the future of bluegrass music? 

An important cultural aspect of the bluegrass community is the passing down of musical tradition generationally. It was long considered front porch music, and even though there many more avenues to teach and learn, it still feels like front porch music. 

It is gratifying to me to see such a surge in young people at World of Bluegrass over the past few years. They can be seen jamming all over the Convention Center, in the hotels, or anywhere they can find a spot. These opportunities provide them a sense of camaraderie that you can’t sufficiently explain. You just feel it. And when I witness the musicianship and passion of young people in bluegrass today, I know the future of the music is in good hands.