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Bluegrass Rules at the 2003 IBMAs

by Derek Halsey
August 2003

The International Bluegrass Music Association’s yearly convention is already a couple of days old when I arrive on Wednesday afternoon on the first day of October. Known as IBMA Week, it is an annual event that brings together bluegrass musicians, bands, record companies, instrument makers, journalists, and fans from all over the world. As I walk around the outside of the Galt House Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, ground zero for the week, I see a lobby already full of people playing and singing bluegrass music. As in past years, there are groups of people jamming together about every 20 feet or so. The sound is reminiscent of the cacophony of a casino; only it is mandolins, banjos, fiddles, and guitars everywhere instead of bells and whistles. I try to tell myself that I will be keeping some early nights here during my visit, but that notion goes out the window quickly.

Wednesday is turning out to be a good day for live music. The IBMA Awards show is tomorrow night and many of the genres best musicians are already in town relaxing, wandering around, and pickin’ here and there. During the day the convention center side of the Galt House hosts the annual industry trade show. The hall is full of booths occupied by luthiers, musicians, magazines, and those on the business side of the music. After the trade show shuts down I venture out into the crowded hallways to see what I can find. From looking at the many flyers that are laying around on shelves, tables, and taped onto the walls, this will be a good night for showcase concerts. 

Showcases are where record companies and bluegrass music associations from around the country rent suites on the upper floors and offer up concerts by up and coming musicians and bands. Some of the top bluegrass acts showcase as well. The amazing thing about them is that they are free for the public to hear and see, and they all start at 11 pm and go to almost 3 am, every single night. And that is on top of the thousands of pickers from all over the world that are constantly going at it 24/7 in the halls of the hotel from the first floor to the 15th.

My first stop is the Sugar Hill Records suite on the 7th floor. Everybody is in a great mood as people start to wander in about 10:30 pm. Tonight’s music will feature Blue Ridge, Don Rigsby with Carl Jackson, and a band from Canada called The Duhks. But first up is the Gibson Brothers from upstate New York. As they play in a corner of the suite with folks sitting and standing all around them, they quickly let everyone know that they are the real deal. Even though they use no microphones their sound is large and full, their picking is good, and their harmonies fantastic. They simply fill the room up with great music. I am due to be at many places at once so after a few songs I begin to shuffle from room to room. Next up is the Rebel Records suite on the 15th floor. The schedule of music at the Rebel Records suite is a perfect example of how the night is going. The Wildwood Valley Boys are to play from 11:00 pm to 11:30 pm, the Mark Newton Band from 11:35 pm to 12:40 am, then Karl Shifflet plays from 12:45 am to 1:15 am, King Wilkie from 1:20 am to 1:50 am, and finally Kenny and Amanda Smith play from 1:55 am to 2:25 am. There is a lot going on at the same time and I have to pick my spots, but I am not complaining. There is great music to be heard everywhere I go.   

As I walk the crowded hallways I hear from the many folks that I meet along the way that Gibson Instruments and First Quality Musical Supplies have teamed together to rent a small ballroom on the other side of the hotel. In this ballroom they are putting on a larger, and also free, concert featuring some of the best acts in the business. So, I head over. Tonight’s concert features Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, Mountain Heart, and Buck White and the Whites. The place is packed and all three acts are having fun. One surprise of the show is Ricky’s daughter Molly, who steps up to play some old time clawhammer banjo and sing. There are not a lot of young folks taking the time to learn the old time clawhammer style these days, but she does a fine job at it. 

After watching Mountain Heart play their always-superb set I start to wander around the hallways again and run into Jim Hurst and Missy Raines. They are standing with their instruments outside of the California Bluegrass Association suite at about 1:30am. Jim is the reigning IBMA guitar player of the year and Missy Raines has won the bass player of the year award many times. Together they are a hard combination to beat. The audience loves them as they play in a packed room where the crowd has over-flowed out into the hallway. In fact, that is how I figure out where to stop throughout the night. I go from floor to floor and look down the hallways and see if there is a crowd standing outside the doorway of a particular room. That is usually a good sign of something strong going on inside.

After the scheduled showcases are done I start to saunter around yet again. I end up in the walkway between the East and West sections of the Galt Hotel on the third floor. Sitting on a sofa is Rob Ickes, Dobro player for Blue Highway, and Andy Leftwich, fiddler for Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder. They are playing together and are rockin’. Andy is playing mandolin instead of his usual fiddle, and man, they are tearing it up. There are only about 15 of us night owls standing here watching this great impromptu set. As the two musicians go at it an artist, I believe his last name is Orrico, sits on the carpet in front and sketches the two of them as they play. Rob and Andy are about to pack up and move on to another jam when Orrico says he needs another song or two from them to complete the drawing. When they look down and see his work in progress they gladly play another couple of songs, much to the delight of the rest of us standing there listening and clapping. The whole thing is unplanned, fun, and very entertaining, and it all happens at 4 am in the morning. After walking around and listening to a little more music I realize it is 5 am and finally call it an evening. So much for an early night. Wow, and it is only my first day here.

The IBMA Awards Show is held at the Louisville Center For The Arts about three blocks down from the Galt House. It is a packed house as the show is taped live for a worldwide radio audience. The best musicians in the bluegrass field have come together to see who wins what award and to perform. Here is a partial list of winners for 2003. In the individual instrument categories the winners are, Mandolin - Adam Steffey; Fiddle - Jason Carter; Dobro - Rob Ickes; Guitar - Bryan Sutton; Bass - Mike Bub, and for Banjo - Jim Mills. 

Other awards received are; Recorded Event of the Year - Will The Circle Be Unbroken III; Instrumental Album of the Year - The Bluegrass Fiddle Album by Aubrey Haynie; Gospel Record of the Year -The Hand Made Cross by Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver; Emerging Artist of the Year - Kenny and Amanda Smith; Male Vocalist - Dan Tyminski; Female Vocalist - Rhonda Vincent; Vocal Group - Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver. The big time awards go as follows; Album of the Year - Live by Alison Krauss and Union Station; Song of the Year - "Blue Train" performed by Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver and written by J.D. Loudermilk, and Instrumental Group of the Year goes to Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder.

The Del McCoury Band wins the Entertainer of the Year award for the 8th time. As Del McCoury takes the stage to give his acceptance speech Sonny Osborne and Ricky Skaggs come out from the wings and stand at the podium right beside him. He obviously has no idea what is going on and is trying to figure out what the heck these guys are up to. After letting Del wonder about it for a minute Sonny finally says, "Rick and I have been sent out here on a real important mission. We’d like to ask you a real important question up in here, this is really important; How would you like to maybe, on October 25th, 2003, become the newest member of the Grand Ole Opry?" The crowd goes nuts, and it is apparent that membership in the Opry is something that means a lot to Del. He is surprised, touched, and is very happy with the news.

Another highlight of the night is the induction of banjo legend JD Crowe into the IBMA Hall Of Honor. JD started out as a member of Jimmy Martin’s band in 1956 and went on to form his own great band, the New South. The latter band’s album from the 1970’s, The Old Home Place, became the standard bearer for the second and third generation bluegrass scene. JD thanks Martin in his speech, "I’ll tell you what, he took me on when I was just a kid and I was just real green. I thought I knew some things, but I really didn’t. I was very fortunate, when I was starting out, to work with professional musicians and they took me under their wing and showed me the ropes, the dos and the don’ts. He knows the music inside and out, and I give him a lot of credit because he taught me to sing baritone, how the music separated into different styles, and that you can’t sound like someone else. You have to play what you feel." JD also thanks Earl Scruggs for influencing his banjo playing; "I’ve known Earl since about 1949-1950… and I was very fortunate to be able to go and see (Flatt and Scruggs) a lot. I really thank him because had I not heard him I probably would not be here today."

The performances of the night are also wonderful. Crowe plays with three different groups; his current New South band, featuring Dwight McCall, Ricky Wasson, Harold Nixon, and Ron Stewart; the original New South with Tony Rice, Bobby Sloane, Ricky Skaggs and Jerry Douglas; and he finishes up with a couple of songs with the Bluegrass Album Band featuring Bobby Hicks, Tony Rice, Jerry Douglas and Doyle Lawson. In contrast, there is also a performance by the younger pickers on the scene today. Musician Pete Wernick, of the group Hot Rize, has put together the best of today’s young talent to pick a song for the crowd. Tonight’s group features Maggie Beth Estes, Sarah Jarosz, Will Jones, Corey Walker, and Sierra Hull. The average age of these amazing pickers is about 13 years old. About ten years ago another group of young pickers performed similarly at the IBMA and went on to be stars in the business. After the modern day youngsters are through playing the so-called ‘old young pickers’ from ten years ago, Josh Williams, Brady Stodgill, Chris Thile, Mike Cleveland and Cody Kilby, come out to perform as well. The crowd loves it.

Probably the most moving moment of the awards show is when bluegrass great Lynn Morris comes out to present an award with her husband, Marshall Wilborn. Lynn, unfortunately, suffered a stroke earlier in the year and has been on the road to recovery since. While she did not talk into the mic her presence was enough as the crowd stood up and gave her the longest standing ovation of the evening.

After the awards show JD Crowe is relaxing in the M.A.C.C. suite celebrating his big night. The party is hosted by Darell Adkins, who runs the annual Musicians Against Childhood Cancer benefit bluegrass festival that happens every summer in Columbus, Ohio. It is an event where a great lineup of bluegrass musicians come together to raise money for the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis. As JD and the rest take it easy and socialize there is a jam going on in the middle of the room featuring a gathering of great players from a bunch of different top bluegrass bands. The highlight of this jam is a singing performance by a young man named Bradley Walker. Bradley has grown up severely handicapped and is in a wheelchair. But folks, and this is not a sympathy vote, this young man can sing some soulful country music that would make George Jones run into the bathroom and cry like a nervous bride. As he sings the whole room is riveted, with all the greats of the business clapping and raising their glasses in toast after hearing one great tearjerker after another. Somebody needs to record this guy, if he hasn't been already. 

On tap on Friday, Saturday and Sunday is the annual IBMA Fan Fest. That is where up to 20 bluegrass acts per day play on two different stages for one ticket price. And, after each group performs they stop at their various tables to sign autographs and talk with the fans. The access to these great musicians is something that other music genres could learn from. Also during Fan Fest are workshops where the best in the business perform and answer all the questions from the audience about how to better play their various instruments. There are workshops on playing the banjo, bass, fiddle, mandolin, guitar, and even Dobro. In fact, from what I’ve seen here at this IBMA, ‘them thar Dobros are having babies.’ 

There are Dobro players everywhere. The Dobro is sort of the black sheep instrument of the bluegrass world in a lot of ways. But the pioneers of the instrument, such as Cliff Carlisle, Brother Oswald Kirby and Uncle Josh Graves, along with modern day greats like Jerry Douglas, Rob Ickes and Mike Auldridge, have all contributed to the growing interest in the Dobro over the years. For instance, a brand new website, www.resonatorguitarist.com, started less than a year ago and already has over 500 members on it. 

On Friday there is a Dobro get-together in a side room in the west wing of the Galt House and over 30 pickers show up. Joining the fun are a bunch of up and coming pickers as well as established ones. Henrich Novak, of the group Fragment, has come all the way from the Czech Republic. Also showing up are Leroy Mack, Ivan Rosenberg of Chris Stuart and Backcountry, Dobro great Mike Auldridge, Ivan Guernsey and a couple of Dobro makers including Frank Harlow and Hiroshi Suda, who came all the way from Osaka, Japan. One picker that did not make it was Todd Livingston, of the Colorado-based group Hit and Run. When I see him later in the day he tells me that it is because he overslept. The get-together was at 4pm in the afternoon. But then again, Todd stayed up playing with other musicians until 8am the night before. Sleep deprivation makes for some interesting jamming.

After the Fan Fest ends the Gibson-First Quality ballroom hosts yet another free late night concert. Larry Cordle and Lonesome Standard Time, Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, and Marty Raybon put on a great show that lasts until 2 am. And that is what this weeklong event is about. There is so much music to soak up during the IBMA that it boggles the mind. You never know what kind of jam you are going to walk up on. Some of them will include the best musicians in the world, or other jams that could feature a group of pickers from Canada playing with a group from Japan. Bluegrass is a powerful music that is growing by leaps and bounds with old folks and young folks alike, and this yearly event brings it all together at one place, at one time. Just don’t show up expecting to get much sleep.  

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