by Tracy Davis
photographs by Scott Sharpe
William Lewis wants to tell you a story. Storytelling is at the heart of his job, which is to preserve our region’s traditional music in all its many forms, from bluegrass to gospel, string bands to shape- note singing. It’s his passion, too.
“It’s all storytelling,” says Lewis, the executive director of PineCone, a Raleigh nonprofit in its 31st year presenting traditional music. “The story PineCone shares is indigenous to the Piedmont region of North Carolina … The music, the lore … it’s a broad, beautiful story.”
It’s because Lewis understands not just the sound of music but its cultural significance that he’s the perfect person to curate the city’s Wide Open Bluegrass festival. Coming to downtown Raleigh on October 2 and 3, it includes both a free street festival and ticketed shows at Red Hat Amphitheater. Both events are linked to the International Bluegrass Music Association’s annual convention, which brings together the industry’s foremost musicians and supporters from the world over for a conference, awards show, and Bluegrass Ramble showcases. Bottom line: A lot of top-shelf bluegrass is coming to town.
“Without William, it wouldn’t be here,” says musician David Holt, host of PBS’s David Holt’s State of Music and a four-time Grammy winner for traditional and folk albums. “I’ve been playing PineCone shows for many, many years, originally with Doc Watson, and got to know William that way. He’s just the man for the job. Everybody likes him. He’s honest, thoughtful, creative. And a hard worker.” He pauses, thinking. “Actually, put that first. William works really hard. As a musician, you can’t ask for more.”
Last year, Raleigh welcomed over 180,000 bluegrass lovers for the IBMA convention and accompanying festivities, which brought $10.8 million in visitor spending to the region. This year, those numbers are expected to climb. Though Lewis attributes it all to the hard work of others, those same folks point right back at him.
His role began in 2012, when the IBMA was debating whether to move its convention out of Nashville. Thanks to Raleigh’s shiny new convention center and amphitheater, as well as years of groundwork by music-loving visionaries at the Raleigh Convention Center and the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, the Oak City had a spot on the IBMA’s short list.
When Lewis heard that Raleigh “was gearing up to make its move,” he “dove in and went at it with a level of ambition that made it something everyone would take notice of,” says George Holt (no relation to David), director of performing arts and film programs at the North Carolina Museum of Art. “William has great taste and great vision.”
To Lewis, it was simple: “We said, let us help. We know the bluegrass community, we know the people who support it, we have all this stuff we could offer. We could make it big. We had to be all in.” PineCone joined forces with the Convention Center and GRCVB. The group formed a local organizing committee, fine-tuned its pitch, and knocked it out of the park. Lewis was asked to join the IBMA board as an at-large member, and PineCone was tapped as the IBMA’s local host.
The first year was a major hit. The city of Raleigh showed up. So did the rest of the bluegrass world. The praise and accolades rolled in, and just a few months later, the IBMA extended the terms of Raleigh’s initial contract from three years to six.
This year, Lewis says, it’ll be better than ever. He’s thrilled Alison Krauss is coming, and excited about some unique projects: At Red Hat Amphitheater, Jerry Douglas’s Earls of Leicester will pay tribute to the music of Flatt & Scruggs, and Carl Jackson’s Orthophonic Joy revisits the songs of the historic 1927 Bristol Sessions. Over at the street festival, the HillBenders will put a grassy spin on The Who with Tommy: A Bluegrass Opry; Jayme Stone’s Lomax Project will reimagine the songs collected by folklorist Alan Lomax.
Lewis will cover lots of ground, and get very little sleep.
Pulling it off
On a midsummer afternoon, a few months before his life becomes 100% bluegrass, Lewis is seated at his paper-strewn desk in PineCone’s office building in Nash Square, a staid, unadorned red-brick workhorse of a space on the edge of the Warehouse District. From here, his perspective is wide.
Lewis credits the IBMA with taking a leap of faith by not only changing cities, but also changing how it did things. “We asked them to open things up, give more public access. To abandon the old model, where bands played for free. We wanted to pay the artists, and to curate and grow the fan festival.” The IBMA had qualms, especially about a free street fest on such a massive scale. Wouldn’t it cannibalize other offerings? A reasonable concern, Lewis allows, but he was certain Raleigh could pull it off. “We felt sure the formula would work. This city loves and supports live music. And we want to compete with ourselves in what we offer.”
The formula? The one he came up with for the first year continues to this day: PineCone presents, in a single weekend, “a constellation of our year”: An innovative lineup mixing bluegrass legends with up-and-comers and community-based artists who have the artistic chops to tour professionally but choose to put down local roots instead. The bands get paid, but the music is free, or as close to free as Lewis can get it. “Free stuff works,” he says. “It removes barriers, and reaches into communities.”
And, no branding of stages, designating “gospel here,” or “Americana there.” “Music is what it is,” Lewis says, and he wants to leave room for discoveries. “The musicians up there? They’re the ones who are going to bring you in, educate you, and get you to either connect, or not. Really, that’s why we exist.” He laughs at himself, then continues: “Not to get all existential about it! But … really. It’s all about connection.”
From Georgia to North Carolina
Lewis’s confidence comes from a lifetime of studying the connection between people and place. The youngest of four siblings, he grew up on farm and cattle country in Greene County, Georgia, where there wasn’t much to do but farm and ranch. He learned to play music from his father, who shared Lewis’s affinity for the rootsy sounds of the second folk revival: Dylan, Seeger, old traditionals. After high school, on a hunch Lewis still can’t quite explain – was it intuition? luck? – he headed for the mountains of North Carolina and Appalachian State University.
“I didn’t even apply to other schools,” he says. “I’m from Georgia, and it wasn’t a sure thing. But I wanted it. I wanted to go to a place that I could make my own.”
He brought with him a keen perceptiveness. “Maybe there’s something about being the fourth child,” he says. “I was a little quieter, and had a good sense for what the others did to get rewarded, or get in trouble. Plus, when you remove yourself from your family, your place, you can look back and see things differently.”
At Appalachian, Lewis found new landscapes, and not just mountainous ones. There was a whole new sonic landscape of string bands and banjos to take in, a world removed from Georgia’s gospel and blues tradition. What resonated most deeply for Lewis were the connections between those landscapes – the links between the mountains and sound, the stories and people. One of his favorite professors, Cecelia Conway, introduced him to the old-time music scene still thriving in house parties and on porches. “I’ve always been naturally interested in how people relate to each other, and how they related to place,” he says. He earned a degree in applied anthropology in 1997, thinking that perhaps he would teach. Then, he headed for the Piedmont, interning with the N.C. Arts Council and earning a master’s degree in folklore from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2003.
Wayne Martin, Executive Director of the N.C. Arts Council and one of PineCone’s four founders, was impressed with Lewis from the start: “Right away, it was, this guy is so bright, so smart. He has a real gift for connecting with people of all backgrounds.” PineCone was the perfect destination. Lewis came on board in 2004 as associate program director, armed with a practical and powerful certainty: “Cultural resources – the arts – can revitalize economies. They can create new economies.” When PineCone’s executive director spot came open in 2008, Lewis took the helm.
“With a group like PineCone,” says Martin, “and really any time you get into the folk and traditional arts, you’re looking at people influenced by family, by community. There are many layers. You need to value that, and understand how that fits into the mainstream arts community. It takes a special person to gracefully combine the professionalism, marketing, and personal connection required to make it work on all levels. William gets it.”
In his element
On a sweltering Father’s Day Sunday in June, Lewis is working the show up at North Hills. It’s part of PineCone’s newest offering, the Midtown Bluegrass Series, presented in partnership with Midtown Events. With him are his wife, Jessica, and daughters Eliza and Anna. Fiddle and guitar in hand, the girls are sitting in for the pre-show youth jam. Lewis is in constant motion. He checks in on the band, touches base with the sound crew, and helps adjust the jam tent in hopes of making more shade for the kids. Every so often, his youngest looks to him with a question, and he pauses to quietly offer a few tips; some chords are trickier than others. He is entirely, absolutely in his element.
That’s not to say it’s always been smooth sailing for PineCone, or that Lewis is sure it’ll be entirely golden in the future. “We like to try new things, and we’re not afraid to fail,” he says. “That’s where insight comes from.”
That kind of willingness to risk and improvise has its obvious metaphoric comparisons. “Music is restless,” says David Holt, and having studied and performed it all over the world since the 1960s, he knows. “It won’t sit still. It’s always changing, evolving. What William’s doing is honoring that. To give it a positive…nest…to be in? That keeps it going.”
The same could be said of the laughing girls, including Lewis’s daughters, packed tight into a back porch settee and singing along to I’ll Fly Away on another laid-back evening in July. They know all the words, not just the chorus.
They’re at a house that backs up to the North Carolina Museum of Art’s rolling fields, where Lewis’s family has gathered with friends for a potluck dinner and impromptu jam session before heading over to the museum to see bluegrass virtuosos The Punch Brothers. It’s a bit of a challenge to sing, play guitar, and laugh so much all at the same time, but Lewis is managing fine. He and his friends are trading the lead in calling the tunes, and the jokes and barbs are flying.
It’s a gorgeous night. There are so many good songs, and once you hit your groove, which they do, that yen to play just one more is strong. Nobody’s watching the clock, so time will get away from them and everyone will end up racing through the museum’s darkened fields to make it to the show. But they’ll get there.
It comes together like a constellation of what matters to Lewis, and of what he brings to Raleigh. Like all constellations, it’s simple, but it shines. People and place, story and song, connected by the things that matter.
PineCone: Growing the music
When Lewis says “we,” and he says “we” a lot, he means PineCone. Founded in 1984, the nonprofit has a three-fold mission: To preserve, present, and promote traditional music, dance, and other folk performing arts throughout the Piedmont region. “It’s all part of the fabric of the culture here,” Lewis says. “If you live here, it’s yours, whether you grew up here or not.”
“For a long time,” says Wayne Martin, executive director of the N.C. Arts Council and one of PineCone’s four founders, “it was difficult to talk about folk art roots. In the South, there’s a tradition of it, but it’s sometimes seen as ‘not as good as’ the fine arts. Well, no. What we have is so deep, rich, and authentic, it produces incredible artists.” And what Lewis understands, Martin says, is that “Raleigh is part of a region that includes historically rural communities where these traditions thrive. Today, the ‘Raleigh brand’ includes all that. It’s both fine art and folk art, and that’s a good thing, because it’s true to Raleigh’s roots.”
PineCone’s growing pool of supporters – and its ten years as a resident company at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts – bears this out. In the A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater and Meymandi Concert Hall, PineCone presents traditional music performances on the same stages that showcase the symphony and ballet. “I don’t know of any other state that’s got their independent, nonprofit folk art organization presenting on this basis,” Lewis says. “This is music that’s equally beautiful or moving. We elevate it, and present it differently, in a professional and respectful context.”
PineCone covers the rest of the spectrum, too, because sometimes bluegrass really is best served up not on a velvet-curtained stage, but in the informal surroundings of an outdoor picnic. Or at an open jam for youth and adults. Or showcased with multiple concert series in venues across the Triangle, both indoors and out, or a weekly radio show. So PineCone does all of that, too.
Wide Open Bluegrass Festival
Dust off your dancing shoes – the Wide Open Bluegrass festival comes back to Raleigh this year October 2 and 3. The festival celebrates the end of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s World of Bluegrass week hosted downtown, and they’ve got a pretty busy weekend planned. StreetFest turns the city into one big party, with over 50 bands playing on five stages, while the North Carolina Whole Hog Barbecue Championship serves up some serious competition. There will also be plenty of artwork to check out in Artsplosure’s Arts Market, as well as a wide selection of local N.C. products and free activities in the Raleigh Convention Center. Purchase tickets to Red Hat Amphitheater for the weekend and you’ll get to jam out with some of the best-known names in bluegrass, such as Alison Krauss & Union Station, The Infamous Stringdusters, and The Wailin’ Jennys. Definitely worth every penny.
Free general entry to StreetFest; Red Hat admission starts at $50; wideopenbluegrass.com