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2002 IBMA Bluegrass Awards Roadtrip


By Derek Halsey
December 2002

As I drove into Louisville, Kentucky on this misty October night I reached for the radio dial to see if I could pick up WSM out of Nashville. I was about to take in my first IBMA Awards show and I wanted to see if WSM was covering it. Sure enough, the radio station was broadcasting live from the Galt House Hotel, which is ground zero for this weeklong convention of the International Bluegrass Music Association. I wasn’t listening, but a minute before the announcer had broken the news of the death of Brother Oswald Kirby earlier that day. Kirby was the legendary innovator of the Dobro guitar and a 50-plus year member of Roy Acuff’s band, The Smoky Mountain Boys. Although he lived a long life of 90 years, he would still be on the minds of many in attendance this night as another legend of country/bluegrass music has passed on.

The 2002 IBMA Awards is to be held tonight at the Kentucky Center For The Arts, just a block or so from the Galt House in downtown Louisville. The place is packed, the performers are nervous, everybody is dressed to the nines. As the awards for the best in bluegrass music from the past year were read off it was soon apparent that Del McCoury Band would yet again take home more than one award. Del and his band, featuring his boys Ronnie on mandolin and Rob on banjo, took home three awards including the big one, Entertainer of the Year. They are flat on fire and have been for a long time now. Other winners are Rhonda Vincent for Female Vocalist of the Year, Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder for Instrumental Group of the Year, Mountain Heart for Gospel Album of the Year for The Journey, Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver wins for Vocal Group of the Year, and Dan Tyminski won for Male vocalist of the Year. The Hall of Honor Award recipients this year, given out for a lifetime of work, were Dave Freeman, honored for his years of owning and operating the legendary Rebel Records label and the County Sales roots music store, and the Lilly Brothers and their now deceased banjo player, Don Stover. Don’s son, Jerry, accepted the award in his fathers honor. The Lilly Brothers came out of West Virginia to be a huge part of bringing bluegrass music to the northeastern part of America many years ago. 

The highlights of the awards show, hosted by Ricky Skaggs and Patty Loveless, were the individual instrumentalist of the year awards and the many fine live performances that accompanied the presentations. One popular award result was the announcement of the Mandolin Player of the Year honor being given to Adam Steffey of Mountain Heart. It was his first award ever and he was obviously surprised to hear his name called. Adam told GRITZ afterward, "Oh, gosh. I couldn’t have been more surprised if someone had hit me in the head with a hammer." Adam went on to say, "I have never expected to do this for my living, and I’m blessed everyday that I’m able to do it and to call it my profession, and that folks recognize my work. It’s real flattering.'" Another thankful winner was Jim Hurst, who won for Guitar Player of the Year. "I was driving a truck for about 60, 70 hours a week," said Jim to GRITZ. " My wife got tired of seeing me come home frustrated. So the job I had was winding down, and I was on the bubble, I could have went or stayed, and she said ‘now is the time to go to Nashville.’ So she did, she took me to Nashville and that was 15 years ago." Jim went on to explain how his wife helped him further once they were in Nashville. "She worked two jobs most of the time we lived there, so that I could come out and play." Another surprised and happy winner was Mike Cleveland. Mike not only won for Fiddler of the Year, but also won for Instrumental Album of the Year for his Flame Keeper album. Mike Bub of the Del McCoury Band won for Bass Player of the Year and Tom Adams won for Banjo Player of the Year.

The performances at the IBMA Awards stand up to and surpass any performances of any awards show of any genre of music that is out there. Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver performed the song "Blue Train" and promptly and stunningly dismissed any doubts about their Vocal Group of the Year Award. Their four-part harmonies were tight as a well-layed brick wall, yet flowed and floated and carried the audience along like that same brick wall was turned into a magic carpet of powerful acoustic music. Said Ricky Skaggs about the performance, "That had the stank on it."  It darn near brought the house down, especially considering that Doyle was only ten weeks removed from open-heart surgery. When Patty Loveless came out with her band to sing the haunting but wonderful song, "You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive", many of the other musicians came out from backstage to stand off to the side and listen to her sing. It is a personal song for Patty as her own father was a coalminer in Eastern Kentucky and suffered a similar fate as the person in the song does. Patty’s father also died as a result of his years working in the mines. Dobro great Jerry Douglas played twice on this night, once with the amazing Alison Krauss and Union Station on the beautiful song ‘Touch Me For A While," and also a tune from his solo CD, Lookout For Hope, called "Patrick Meets The Brickbats." Jerry also won the Dobro of the Year Award and in his acceptance speech admitted that the Dobro, " is the hardest instrument to master. But truly, the only two guys that I know who have mastered it are Josh Graves and the late Oswald Kirby."

After the awards show was over the throngs of people walked the two blocks or so back to the Galt House Hotel and rejoined the other thousands of people that were already there that were  almost oblivious to the big show of the night. That’s because there were about 300 hundred other smaller shows going on in the east wing of the Galt House Hotel. From the weeklong trade and business show, to the three-day Fan Fest concerts that end the week, the Galt House is packed with people from all over the world. Bluegrass music is bigger than ever, and the crowds in the halls of the hotel proved it. I describe it like this; every 20 feet or so is a group of pickers having an impromptu jam session, and this goes on from the lobby to the 10th floor and beyond. The ‘20 feet apart’ description is no exaggeration. There is an official sign in the hotel lobby hanging from the ceiling that says, "Jam sessions are limited on the 2nd floor to the hours of 11pm to 4 am, only.” But it was Thursday night and I was tired from the traveling so I cut it short at 2am  and saved my energy for the next day.

Fan Fest is held in the 4000-seat main ballroom at the Galt House and the hall across from it is where all of the exhibitors set up their booths. Record companies, bluegrass magazines, and handmade instrument makers all plied their wares. Also across from the main hall is the smaller stage where all of the ‘instrument seminars’ take place. This is where the best players of their respective instruments sit right in front of you and play, teach, and answer your questions about playing the guitar, Dobro, mandolin, fiddle, banjo, and bass. For instance the mandolin seminar was at 2pm and it featured Wayne Benson, Alan Bibey, Ricky Skaggs, Rob McCoury, and Adam Steffey. Before and after it you would see the musicians walking around the instrument booths to jam, tryout various instruments, talk to folks, and just be normal. Ricky Skaggs was sitting in a booth trying out a banjo, which I did not know he played. Adam Steffey told GRITZ  later that, "I was pickin’ with a young lady back here that was eleven years old a while ago, that absolutely can tear a mandolin up. I always want to be accessible to folks and not be the kind that would slam a mandolin case shut, buddy, and I disappear and be gone." There was even a seminar for songwriters that featured Hazel Dickens and Pam Gadd and others. There was something there for everyone. 

There was also a showcase called, "Those Amazing Kids,” which always draws a huge crowd. This is where young pickers, from 8 year olds to 18, are showcased and make a few of the adult pickers look like beginners. These kids are always a big hit and never cease to amaze the crowd. All of the young folks were great. A couple of the standouts were the Farris Family and the Cherryholmes family bands, who live and sing and pick together and sound great. The individual standout young pickers were Sierra Hull on mandolin and Jennifer "Dobro Gal" Kennedy playing a mean Dobro. It is hard to describe, but seeing all of these young folks picking great and continuing the music into the next generation is simply wonderful. All of them did a great job. And, Sierra Hull found herself a month later on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry playing with Alison Krauss and Union Station. Alison called her up and asked Sierra to play with them and the rest, as they say, is history. Sierra did a great job on the Opry, showing amazing poise and talent.   

The IBMA convention is a place where people come together from all over the country to meet each other, jam with each other, and network in every way possible. On Friday afternoon I attended a get-together of a bunch of folks that know each other from the Jerrydouglas.com message board. They had talked for weeks of meeting at a certain bar at a certain time during the IBMA and I knew a couple of them so I tagged along. At the appointed time and place, Dobroheads and Jerry Douglas fans came together from all over the country. Now everyone could put a face to the names and the Dobro cases were opened, the cameras clicked, the beers ordered, and all had a great time. Doc came in from Texas, Kaye from Ohio, Todd L. from Colorado, MB from DC, BG from Pennsylvania, McP from Michigan, Willie, Gary, and on and on. I would see them all again many times walking around the festivities, including a couple of them that I ran into who were in the middle of some great jams at 3 in the morning in the hallways. And, this is where the story gets interesting. The jams in the hallways lasted from morning to night. Pickers came in from all over the world. There is something special about seeing a very good Japanese mandolin picker attempt to sing “Mule Skinner Blues” in a thick Japanese accent. Yet they really do love the music. There were representatives of bluegrass groups in attendance from Australia to the Czech Republic, all loving bluegrass and trying their best to talk a good bluegrass artist into making the trek to their country to play. They are simply starving for it.

The Fan Fest lineup for Friday was incredible and had the place packed to the gills. The show on Friday lasted from 11:30 am to after midnight, featuring 14 top of the line acts. The night was rounded out by this lineup; Lonesome River Band, IIIrd Time Out, Old Crow Medicine Show, The Del McCoury Band, Mike Snider, Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, Mountain Heart, and Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder. About 2am, early Saturday morning, the Washington, DC bluegrass association featured a showcase for the group, Kenny and Amanda Smith. The showcases of lesser known bluegrass groups would start after the main show was over at midnight, meaning they would start at 12:30 am and go until almost 3am.They would take place in the hotel suites scattered across the upper floors of the Galt House and the rooms would hold maybe 30 to 40 people. You looked for whatever room that had people lined up outside the doorway, out into the hall, watching what was going on inside. A friend of mine connected to the Kentucky Thunder outfit asked me to check out Kenny and Amanda Smith and they were right. With Kenny’s fine flatpick guitar playing and Amanda’s voice from heaven, these guys were the find of the week for me. You will find my review of their CD elsewhere in this issue. 

After that wonderful mini-concert I decided to walk around the various floors to see what was going on. The best thing to do was to avoid the elevators altogether because you could wait 20 minutes just to get in one. At one point there were some imbibed individuals who put a lobby couch into the elevator so they could sit and drink a brew and visit with the various passengers that got on and off from one floor to the next. It was one of those kinds of nights. About 2am I stepped onto the 8th floor and Wayne Clyburn grabbed me by the arm and said, "You need to see this." Wayne is a co-host with Katie Laur of the "Home To The Hills" bluegrass radio show on Sunday nights on WNKU in Northern Kentucky, near where I live in Cincinnati. We walked down the hallway and came on a group of pickers and stopped to watch Bill Keith, a legend of the banjo, playing with a group of young fellers. I did not know all that much about Bill except that I saw him play with the Lilly Brothers the night before at the awards show. Wayne told me, however, of Keith’s innovative and melodic banjo picking that he perfected as a member of Bill Monroe’s group in the early 1960’s. Tonight, he sounded better than ever, jamming hard with two other people in a hallway in the middle of the night. I kept walking the halls, going from floor to floor, and peered into a room only to find Mike Cleveland, the newly crowned Fiddler of the Year, standing there about ready to start a jam at 2:30 am in the morning. And what a jam it was, the best of the night. It featured Mike on fiddle, Glenn Gibson, Mike’s band mate in Coon Creek, on Dobro, Darell Webb from the group Wildfire on mandolin, Donica Christenson from Doobie Shea Records on banjo, and a various array of bass players. Most fiddle players play the rhythm chop with their bow just inches above the strings, popping it as they go. Mike Cleveland swings his bow when playing his rhythm chop like it was a windshield wiper, swinging it hard, wide and tight. I eventually left the proceedings without finding out what time it was. I was afraid to look.

On Saturday evening I stuck around to watch Ronnie Bowman and the great JD Crowe (who is interviewed in this issue) play, and then forced myself to head for the car and shoot for home about an hour and a half away. Rarely, however, have I seen so many great musicians so accessible to so many people over such long a period of time. Bluegrass has come a long way in the last few years, it is bigger than ever, and the IBMA has been a big part of that. It took me a few days to recover from the time I was there. But, I can assure you, I can’t wait to go back next year.

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