Photos: Alan Mayor
Justice was finally served at this year’s IBMA Awards.
For the past five years, no one has helped to raise the profile of bluegrass music more than Steve Martin & The Steep Canyon Rangers. The International Bluegrass Music Association voters at last recognized that fact by naming the act its Entertainer of the Year.
“Maybe people bought a ticket to see me; maybe they didn’t know what bluegrass music is, but they leave [the shows] loving it,” said Martin. He jumped up and down with his trophy like a kid with a new toy at Christmas before wisecracking, “I want to thank the other nominees, and thank them for losing.” On a more serious note, he added, “We have loved, loved playing this music across the country.”
Cinderella’s coach turned back into a pumpkin for The Boxcars. They went into the show leading the field with seven nominations, but had to settle for a little less than three. The Boxcars won the Emerging Artist award, Instrumental Group of the Year and finished in a tie for Banjo Player of the Year between the group’s Ron Stewart and The Grascals’ Kristin Scott Benson. The group also offered one of the evening’s weakest stage performances of the night.
Michael Clevelend & Flamekeeper took two trophies. Cleveland won Fiddle Player of the Year, and the band won Instrumental Performance of the Year for its “Goin’ Up Dry Branch.” The other double winners were The Gibson Brothers and the veteran trio of Doyle Lawson, J.D. Crowe and Paul Williams. The former won the Vocal Group and Album honors.
“I’d like to thank my singing partner and older brother Eric,” said Leigh Gibson. “I don’t think either of us would sound that great without the other.”
Lawson, Crowe and Williams took home statuettes for Recorded Event and Gospel Recording for their splendid work on “Prayer Bells of Heaven.”
“I wasn’t expecting this,” said Crowe. “This is great. Especially at the Ryman. This is where it [bluegrass] all started.”
“We had a great time recording this, and we’re gonna do another,” promised Williams.
Repeating winners characterized much of the evening. In addition to Kristin Scott Benson (her fourth Banjo) and Michael Cleveland (his ninth Fiddle), they included Blue Highway’s Rob Ickes (his 13th Dobro), Flamekeeper’s Marshall Wilborn (his third Bass), Bryan Sutton (his sixth Guitar), Adam Steffey (his eighth Mandolin) and 111rd Tyme Out’s Russell Moore (his fourth Male Vocalist).
“Wow!” said Moore. “I’m honored that you feel this way. I thought you were crazy last year. This confirms it….I’ll do my best to make you proud.”
Dale Ann Bradley won Female Vocalist in 2007, 2008 and 2009. She returned this year.
“Everybody that’s bought a ticket and fed us soup, beans and cornbread, God love you,” she exclaimed.
Inducted into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame were George Shuffler and Del McCoury. Shuffler’s innovations as a “walking” bass stylist, “cross picking” guitarist, harmony vocalist and comedian in the bands of The Stanley Brothers and Reno & Harrell were noted.
“If I thought it [bluegrass music] was going to catch on like it did, I’d have tried to do it a little better,” he told the capacity crowd.
McCoury was inducted by his sons Ronnie and Rob. “I guess every kid thinks their dad is a hero, and we’re no exceptions to that,” said Ronnie. “He gives 100%, every night.” Added Rob, “Every kid wants to be like their dad. When I was 8 years old, I took a notion to take up the banjo.” At the time, Del was working as a logger. He’d come home from work exhausted, yet still made time to teach Rob his instrument.
Del was one of many during the show who saluted the 100th anniversary of the birth of Bill Monroe. He joined Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in 1964 and graduated to his own band in 1968. His sons joined him in the 1980s, and they moved to Nashville in 1992. The Del McCoury Band has more IBMA awards than any other group. In 2006, it won a Grammy, and in 2010 Del was given an NEA National Heritage Award. “But this is the Big One,” said Rob.
Del’s warm, rambling acceptance speech was sweet, countrified and amusing. “Positively, the state of bluegrass music is better than it’s ever been,” he concluded.
Echoing Del, let me add that the music is not only better than ever, it is also highly diverse. The performances Thursday night (9/29) at the Ryman (now billing itself as “America’s Theatre,” with an “re,” if you please) seemed designed to disprove anyone who says, “Bluegrass all sounds the same.”
Tones ranged from the smooth triple fiddling of Dailey & Vincent to the jazzy, minor-key sound of Sierra Hull & Highway 111. Balsam Range was lilting, flawless, melodic, deeply moving and harmony soaked on “Trains I Missed,” which won Song of the Year for Nicole Witt, Giles Goddard and Walt Wilkins.
Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver rose the hair off your head with the heat-lightning speed of “Gone Long Gone.” Steve Martin & The Steep Canyon Rangers provided humor with “Me and Paul Revere,” told from the point of view of the horse. The Gibson Brothers brought back sibling harmony. Lawson, Crowe and Williams offered jubilant, hearty gospel. The Grascals were softly meditative on “I Am Strong.” At the song’s finale, they were joined by two tiny girls who are patients at St. Jude’s Childrens Research Hospital and at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital. Everybody choked up.
The three-plus hour show was hosted by Mr. Fabulous, Sam Bush. His band saluted Monroe with a tight “Roll On, Buddy.”
“I’m especially proud to be hosting in this special year,” said Bush. “We’ve got some great performers for you, representing the state of the art, 2011.” He wryly recalled Monroe’s response to Bush’s “newgrass” music: “I hate that.”
“Our music is in good hands for another 100 years,” he remarked about the Monroe centennial. “Thank you for letting me be your ‘cruise director’ once again.”
Either applauding or presenting (or both) were Gary Paczosa, Barry Mazor, Tim Stafford, Tim O’Brien, Tom Roland, Tony Trischka, Dan Tyminski, Dan Hays, Ron Cox, Jay Orr, Sonny Osborne, Beth Gwinn, Eddie Stubbs, Vernell Hackett, Deborah Evans Price, Claire Lynch, Cody Kilby, Carl Jackson, Laurie Lewis, Sammy Shelor, Pete Wernick, Alison Brown, The Cleverlys and Louisa Branscomb, plus most of the IBMA Distinguished Achievement honorees Roland White, Greg Cahill, Bill Knowlton, Lilly Pavlak and Geoff Stelling.
This year’s World of Bluegrass convention and Bluegrass Fan Fest had an aggregate attendance of 20,000. That works out to around 1,500 per day for the convention and 6,000 per day for the fest. The fun continues all this weekend at the Convention Center.