Usually I’d go on and on about how my friends the Gibson Brothers were the highlight of the event, walking away with the top awards. They did. But I’m more inclined to tell you all about the awards show and the peripheral events that were enjoyed by thousands of fans. Even though I wasn’t in attendance in Raleigh the magic of modern technology brought the excitement and feel of the festivities right up here to little old Dover, Delaware. There was a live feed of the awards show over the internet and on Sirius/XM radio, Facebook feeds and YouTube video postings also kept us involved and fired-up. It’s winding down now but at various times on Thursday and Friday it was hard to keep up with everything.
We’ve all seen awards shows. They’re highly predictable with just enough suspense and controversy to keep an audience coming back after the commercial breaks. They’re packaged events that follow a reliable formula, often with lip-synced musical acts and tiresome acceptance speeches. Music awards shows are closely watched for the “scandalous” fashions and profane verbal “faux-pas”. There was none of that at the IBMA awards. There were awards and some brief and honest acceptance speeches. There were a couple hall of fame inductions. One of those involved a miracle of sorts, with guitar virtuoso and singer Tony Rice demonstrating how his voice, lost about nineteen years ago, was gradually coming back to a point where he may just sing again. And there was music. But this music wasn’t mouthing and pretending over some studio produced recording. This was live music, driving hard, with strong instrumental solos – some of them inspired, and real, solid heartfelt vocals. These folks weren’t faking. They weren’t putting on airs. Nope, they were delivering their art.
It’s hard to single out any one performer or group for accolades. They all gave performances that were award worthy. The flow of the show wasn’t always without a glitch here and there. But it was all warmly received with an incredible amount of goodwill between the audience and the performers and between performer and performer. People were happy to be there and it showed. The audience didn’t need cues for applause or laughter. It was all natural.
Then after the awards show (and in the time leading up to it) there were concerts and jam sessions all over the Raleigh area. There was a “Kids on Bluegrass” show, there was a Red Hat Amphitheater top name concert, and there were late night and early morning shows at various venues featuring bands with guest musicians. Jam sessions popped up in hotel rooms, building lobbies and in backstage areas all around town. There was even a banjo players’ “flash mob” at the Sir Walter Raleigh statue. Many of these great performances can be seen on YouTube. I was particularly impressed by one I saw that featured the Gibson Brothers Band and Sierra Hull.
So, after reading all of the above you’re probably wondering how a sophisticated and erudite individual such as myself could possibly be so smitten with all that twangy hillbilly plucking and whining. If that question is in your mind then friend, you haven’t listened to Bluegrass lately. There is no fresher music, music that draws on the origins of traditional country and American roots forms, being made today. Yes there are plinking mandolins and banjos. But they are played with drive and innovation. The guitars are acoustic and the fiddles are sometimes mournful. But the players are often masters of their instruments. Even less skilled musicians are making valuable contributions to the great body of Bluegrass music. And the rhythm section of a Bluegrass band is usually supported by a big old stand-up bass fiddle. Today’s bass players know how to build a foundation for some mighty fine beat keeping.
That’s not the whole story though. Another part of modern Bluegrass is songwriting. Great songwriters are contributing to the genre every day. Eric and Leigh Gibson, Sean Camp, Sam Bush, Joe Newberry, Tim O’Brien, Jamie Dailey, Claire Lynch and dozens of others are bringing new songs into this traditional form. Though new music is being created there is a great deal of reverence and respect for older songs. It’s a rare Bluegrass show that doesn’t feature a very large percentage of traditional songs and music from the founders of the form. Those songs won’t always sound exactly like the originals because most Bluegrass performers eventually put their own personal touches on them.
Finally I want to mention a facet of the Bluegrass business that I’d been thinking about for a long time but was unable to express adequately. Credit for a breakthrough in my thinking must go to my friend John Saroyan who tosses ideas around like they’re a common commodity. John said that there seems to be a move away from “packaging” Bluegrass acts which had been a burgeoning trend. It was then that I realized that most regular country music and virtually all of “pop” music is a packaged product. There is a sameness, a cookie cutter approach to recordings, an effort to make every show identical and to stifle the honest emotion that should be a part of art. But packaging is rare in Bluegrass and it seems that the more a band or performer moves towards becoming a packaged product the less appreciation they find from the audience. Bluegrass can most often be found in festival settings. I went to three festivals this year and each one had a different ambience and audience make-up. Every line up of performers was varied and interesting. There were bands that were playing for the first time and bands that had been playing for more than thirty years. There’s also a lot of what I call “cross-pollination” in Bluegrass music with musicians changing bands, sitting in as fill-in players or just joining in with spontaneous invitations. It adds a lot to the freshness of the music. This kind of forming and re-forming discourages packaging.
Did I say finally up there? Well, I want to add a couple more little things. The first is that Bluegrass is the only musical form that does so much to encourage listeners to become players. Most every festival has workshops where folks are encouraged to bring instruments or note pads and participate in making music. There are workshops for every instrument and for vocalists as well. I attended a songwriting workshop at the Plattsburgh Bluegrass Festival given by the IBMA songwriter of the year and his brother (sorry Leigh). There are special sessions for young people and performances are scheduled so they can show off their new found skills. All of those things add to the honesty, traditions and freshness of Bluegrass.
And finally, and I mean it this time, my friends the Gibson Brothers won “Vocal Group of the Year” “Song of the Year” (They Call it Music) and “Entertainers of the Year” at the IBMA awards show this past Thursday night. And Eric Gibson won “Songwriter of the Year” earlier in the day.
Give Bluegrass a listen. Take your time and think about it. Go to a festival or concert. You won’t regret it. Now have a fine day.