Friday, October 5, 2007

2007 IBMA Awards - Analysis

The IBMA awards were covered live by XM radio with Kyle Cantrell doing the honors last night. While the portion we listened to was enjoyable and professional with Kyle conducting skillful interviews to fill the inevitable on-stage lulls, we simply couldn’t stay up until one in the morning to listen to the show. The Bluegrass Blog had a live Internet connection backstage and live blogged throughout the evening. For the most part Brance and John did straight reporting with very little rooting or cheering, even though blogging relieves the writer of having to exercise editorial objectivity as if he or she were a journalist. Nevertheless, I’m grateful to John and Brance for their professionalism, so I’m relying on their blog for my reactions this morning.

Ordinarily, IBMA awards are pretty ho-hum with few surprises and the usual suspects winning. Over time, there are categories where there have been few different winners and many deserving performers have never won an IBMA award. For instance, there have been only three Dobro players of the year in the entire history of IBMA (Rob Ickes, Jerry Douglas, and Phil Leadbetter). Similarly only four performers (Adam Steffey, Chris Thile, Ronnie McCoury, and Sam Bush) have won mandolin player of the year. Rhonda Vincent won seven consecutive female vocalist awards. Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder have won eight Instrumental Group of the Year awards and Del McCoury won Entertainer of the Year nine times. I’m not for a moment suggesting that any of these recipients aren’t worthy or that they don’t represent bluegrass music at the highest standard. My comment is meant to suggest, however, that the voting members of IBMA are generally not inclined to take risks in their choices or to look widely for standout performances in a given year. An overview of the awards provides a core list of music and musicians who should be in your collection of The Best of Bluegrass.

The 2007 Awards stand as a very pleasant surprise. Awards did not necessarily go to the old standbys and some remarkable 2007 recorded events and performers were recognized. The Infamous Stringdusters burst onto the bluegrass scene this year with a refreshing sound that does honor to the traditions of bluegrass while forging a new instrumental and vocal flourish that is instantly recognizable and always pleasing and exciting. Their Fork in the Road was awarded Song of the Year. They were recognized as Emerging Artist of the Year and Fork in the Road tied with J.D. Crowe and the New South’s Lefty’s Old Guitar for 2007 Album of the Year. This is quite a haul for a new band composed of young pickers who two years ago were mostly session players new to Nashville. This group will bear close watching over the coming years, and their next album will be eagerly awaited by all. Their schedule of festival appearances will become even more crowded than it already is.

Perhaps the big winner in this year’s IBMA was the very deserving Tony Trischka. Tony Trischka has never before won Banjo Player of the Year, despite being widely recognized as one of the most skillful and innovative pickers out there. He joins a distinguished list of winners that still isn’t graced by the granddaddy of them all – Earle Scruggs. That isn’t to say that the people who have won awards aren’t deserving. They are, but voting members need to consider the choices more broadly and recognize outstanding achievement as it emerges. Trischka also won awards for his Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular as Instrumental Album of the Year, and Recorded Event of the Year. Tony’s playing and teaching have influenced every major progressive banjo player in bluegrass music, and no-one deserves recognition more than he.

There were some other surprises, some of the wonderful choices. Dale Ann Bradley was named Female Vocalist of the Year. Her sweet, melodic voice and commanding stage presence stand as proof positive that bluegrass music is still focused on sound, style, and substance. No singer has created a better catalog and she deserves this award royally. More confusing is the choice of Bradley Walker, who has a fine voice, but whose recorded music, at least as played on XM sounds more like classic country than it does like bluegrass to me. We’ve never seen him perform, so my judgment is based purely on his recorded voice on satellite radio. While Sam Bush richly deserves recognition again as Mandolin Player of the Year, it bewilders me how IBMA has consistently neglected Alan Bibey. There is no more elegant or accomplished picker in bluegrass. Bush’s recognition, however, stands as an indication of the widening acceptance of progressive, rock oriented sounds within the bluegrass community. The irony of Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper featuring Audie Blaylock winning Instrumental Group of the Year is obvious, as the Blaylock has already left the group after less than a year together. I'm told, however, that Flamekeeper is alive and more than well. Awards to Tony Rice and J.D. Crowe are particularly nice to see, as their work has shown renewed vigor and continued creativity during the past year.

These are my preliminary reactions to this year’s IBMA awards. The comments are not meant to be comprehensive, and I may want to revise and extend my remarks, as they say in Congress, but I want to post this. During the day I’ll try to add pictures to the text.