The GPS directed us from our campground out near the massive outlet mall Opry Mills and the new home of the Grand Old Opry into downtown Nashville. The Renaissance Center Hotel and the Nashville Convention Center share a large plot surrounded by structural evidence that music and God have enriched downtown Nashville. We found a convenient parking garage and walked to the Convention Center to pick up our credentials. We’re used to checking out a new festival site, but this setting is large and everywhere we turned we saw faces we recognized, people we knew directly or by reputation, and lots of hustle and bustle. Very quickly, the International Bluegrass Music Association changed from being a faceless entity devoted to the enhancement and development of bluegrass music into a living, breathing organism.
Sharon McGraw (editor of BU) and Mr. and Mrs. Tom Gray
Elderly Instruments Booth
We wandered down two flights of stairs to the exhibition area. Elderly Instruments, Martin and Gibson, Huber Banjos and Deering, Andrea Roberts’ and Jim Roe’s booking agencies, Bluegrass Unlimited and Bluegrass Now, as well as a couple of dozen other exhibitors were set up. Meeting and greeting, even on this rather slow Monday opening, was in full swing. We chatted with John Lawless and Brance Gillihan of The Bluegrass Blog, the giant of on-line chroniclers of the industry, saw Kyle Cantrell of XM radio and Ned Luberecki of Sirius radio, soon to be colleagues rather than competitors, and visited briefly with Eddie Adcock who is recovering from having a device implanted in his brain to alleviate the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. We visited with Jim Van Cleve of Mountain Heart, Bryan Simpson of Cadillac Sky, Valerie Smith, Sharon McGraw, editor of Bluegrass Unlimited and many more people. In other words, we were enmeshed in the day-to-day activities of a business convention. Make no mistake about it, bluegrass music is a business. The business environment of the industry is changing due to changes in the economy, technology, and taste. Those who participate in it see the changes happening and know they must respond, and they don’t agree on what the solutions are. More about the exhibition area later with more and better pictures.
Brown spoke about the state of the music industry at the time the Bill Monroe emerged as the true genius he was. The music industry, along with the rest of the country, was damped down by World War II and labor unrest; music was moribund. At this time, two parallel movements emerged to put new energy and life into American music. In Harlem, musicians like Thelonius Monk and John Coltrane were breaking free from the strictures of the bland, lifelessness of the time’s jazz and BeBop emerged. At almost the same time, Bill Monroe added Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt to his band, and a new music fusing elements of rural and popular music became bluegrass. Brown pointed out that if one were to draw a circle with a radius of sixty miles around Charlotte, it would encompass the birthplaces of Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Thelonius Monk, and Coltrane. The similarity of that moment and the present circumstances of the music industry were clear to anyone who wanted to hear them. Roger Brown then challenged the movers and shakers of a troubled industry to rise to the challenges presented by the current situation. He noted, without a hint of irony that the arc or the careers of these men, and many others, were successful enough to sustain careers, but not so successful as to destroy them the way many rockers and country musicians have been affected. He especially emphasized the importance of inculcating bluegrass performance in the schools. Finally, he laid on the table the assurance that bluegrass music will be experiencing change and urged everyone there to rise to the challenge.
Dixie Bee Liners
After his speech, which was warmly received, the first of four days of official showcases began. Each day, six bands will perform for roughly half an hour. Showcases provide an opportunity for emerging bands or ones making advances in their music to give brief performances for a rather large audience of professionals. The bands performing for the first showcase seemed chosen to exemplify to substance of Roger Brown’s keynote address. Each one was clearly rooted in bluegrass while presenting their music with a difference in tone, an edge, that showed a change in tone and emphasis reflecting contemporary roots and acoustic music. The official showcase bands suggested in their performances that honoring the traditions of the founders and growing the music in new and interesting directions are not incompatible goals. The six bands (Dixie Bee Liners, Cumberland Gap Connection, Dapple Grays, Widow Maker, The Gibson Brothers, and The Steeldrivers) came from different parts of the country as well as from Canada. Each showed distinctive sounds and styles while all were acoustic, using traditional instruments and vocal patterns. The showcase presented a sense of hope and future orientation.
"After Hours" Showcases