Early on the final day of IBMA’s weeklong Raleigh shindig, I caught Hubby Jenkins, a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops who plays similarly vintage music solo on the side. Between songs, he talked about the history of his songs, which included stories about slavery, minstrel music and black diaspora tunes from the South in the early 20th century. Before one song, he explained how complex Southern laws that essentially re-enslaved black people after the Civil War helped pave the way for a modern-day justice system that disproportionately imprisons people of color.

Unfortunately, the mostly white, mostly middle-aged crowd didn’t seem too receptive to any of this—a few folks applauded, but an uncomfortable silence hung over the audience. That was too bad, but it highlighted one of the festival’s biggest areas of possible improvement: Jenkins was one of the few non-white musicians I saw perform all week. The I in IBMA stands for International, so would it be so tough to include acts who better reflect that, aside from white Canucks?

However, two sets I caught later in the day help me wrap my head around what I think IBMA’s greatest musical potential might be. They were the Swiss outfit The Kruger Brothers with the Kontras Quartet, who played in the convention center’s upstairs ballroom, and the duo of Stuart Duncan and Noam Pikelny at Red Hat Amphitheater. Like Abigail Washburn and Béla Fleck or the Wide Open Jam the day before, both of these sets pushed and blurred the boundaries of “bluegrass.” And it was these sets that showed the power of bluegrass, even if they didn’t fit the “proper” definition.

The Kruger Brothers offered the world premiere of Lucid Dreamer, a mostly upbeat banjo concerto that rippled and swelled in all the right places. You could hear the bluegrass-inspired passages throughout, but the piece overall stood apart from the high lonesome sound. Later, Duncan and Pikelny played plenty of bluegrass in the form of Bill Monroe and Stanley Brothers tunes, but each player’s technical skill helped them give those songs an added, distinct edge.

During one of his acceptance speeches at the International Bluegrass Music Awards ceremony, Pikelny—who won Banjo Player of the Year and Album of the Year for his LP, Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe—spoke about how his time further away from “real” bluegrass with the Punch Brothers helped him develop his own voice as a banjo player. That became clear again as he and Duncan expertly wove through Monroe’s “Wheel Hoss” and “Lonesome Moonlight Waltz,” plus Pikelny’s own “Milford’s Reel” and “My Mother Thinks I’m a Lawyer.”

Some may complain that these acts aren’t bluegrass enough, but frankly, they seem to represent the spirit of the genre best. The founders of bluegrass forged their own voices from humble beginnings. They honed their craft and made music that sounded like nothing else. The bands that simply ape their sounds might have the harmonies or the banjo rolls and flatpicking down, but it’s the contemporary pioneers who keep bluegrass’s spirit close to their hearts that can keep the music going for decades to come.

Stuart Duncan and Noam Pikelny, “Sad and Lonesome Day”

YouTube video