Field Reportings from Issue #66
THE PLAYER’S THE THING: The INTERNATIONAL BLUEGRASS MUSIC ASSOCIATION held its annual “World of Bluegrass” week September 25 through October 1 in Nashville, its second year in Music City after many years in Kentucky. The series of panel discussions, performances, regularly unscheduled jams and an awards show was as notable for commemorative glances back as for looking ahead.
Conference attendees heard about the future of internet bluegrass promotion and new directions in digital music distribution; there was even (tying ongoing issues and bluegrass history together) a seminar featuring Mac Wiseman’s thoughts on likely music business trends to watch for next. And there were moments that made history as they marked it.
Most dramatic and satisfying for many in the field was the unveiling of a permanent State of Tennessee marker at the Ryman Auditorium marking the building, already known as the “Mother Church of Country Music,” as the “Birthplace of Bluegrass.” The specific event cited was the December 1945 appearance of the classic, genre-gelling Bill Monroe Blue Grass Boys lineup on WSM’s Grand Ole Opry, featuring Lester Flatt on rhythm guitar, Howard Watts on bass, Chubby Wise on fiddle, and Earl Scruggs, of course, on mind-boggling “fancy banjo.”
Scruggs, the sole survivor of that lineup, was on hand for the unveiling, and had some fond memories of those early years to share. Ricky Skaggs and WSM’s Eddie Stubbs also spoke to help mark the event. Such early bluegrass luminaries as Jesse McReynolds (Jim & Jesse), Curly Seckler (of the Foggy Mountain Boys), and Everett Lilly (of the Lilly Brothers) were on hand in the audience, as was Scruggs’ friend Ray Price, who happened to be providing a spectacular change-of-pace night at the Ryman the same evening.
The dressy IBMA Awards ceremony and show moved from the Ryman to the larger Grand Ole Opry House facility, with Marty Stuart as host, and filled the larger space with apparent ease. King Records founder Syd Nathan was inducted into the Hall of Honor (and probably would have been amazed to know it, for all of King’s important bluegrass catalogue); so was the Lewis Family, who played such a large role in popularizing the gospel side of the bluegrass spectrum.
The most unpredictable awards this year, as last, were the most coveted ones: Entertainer of the Year (the Grascals), Emerging Artist (Steep Canyon Rangers), and male vocalist (Tim O’Brien). Album of the Year went to a one-off charity disc, Celebration Of Life: Musicians Against Childhood Cancer, which featured a mix of newer acts (3 Fox Drive, Cherryholmes, Blue Ridge, Bradley Walker) and such veterans as James King, Larry Cordle, J.D. Crowe and Karl Shiflett.
Many of the individual awards had that familiar “well, OK, them again” ring — including Rhonda Vincent for female vocalist (seventh time), Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder for instrumental group (eighth), Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver for vocal group (sixth), Missy Raines for bass (sixth), Rob Ickes for dobro (eighth), and Jim Mills on banjo (sixth).
The charm of IBMA, as ever, was seeing a player such as Ickes, for instance, astounding the “Roots and Branches” stage audience with contemporary moves in Three Ring Circle (his side band with star mandolinist Andy Leftwich and bassist Dave Pomeroy) one minute, then finding him playing with amateurs in the hallway outside moments later in an instant jam session — and then catching him leading a Masters Workshop a half hour after that. The accessibility of the big names and master musicians is unmatched in any other field, or event.
One of many scheduled after-hours parties, the post-awards party at the Gibson Showcase Theater near the Opry House, was hosted by the Del McCoury Band. They played a typically engaged and engaging set; at one point Del was joined onstage by Sam Bush and Tim O’Brien for three-part harmony on the Bill Monroe classic “On And On”. That’s how IBMA goes.
BOB THE BUILDER: He’s a musician, a recording engineer, a studio designer, a documentary filmmaker, a photographer and a painter, but if you ask BOB LANOIS to describe what he does, he answers: “I’m a facilitator.”
“To tell you the truth, I have been kind of happy in my role as facilitator. I think I have a helping-out-other-people gene, which has been very dominant in my life,” says Lanois, 56, from his home south of Toronto in Hamilton, Ontario. His first solo album, Snake Road (which came out October 24 on Canadian label Cordova Bay), marks a long-overdue move by Lanois out of the shadows and into the spotlight. It’s a collection of instrumentals rendered by Bob on his harmonica, embellished with support from his brother, the celebrated producer Daniel Lanois.
Although the project was a long time coming, it came together remarkably swiftly. The pair collaborated in Daniel’s loft studio in downtown Toronto over twelve afternoon and evening sessions. Once they worked out their parts, Daniel, 54, created rhythm tracks on a Roland 808 beat box, and the two would play along live, together — Bob on harmonica, Dan on piano and guitar.
“We would do one track per session. We would complete the whole track, including the mix,” says Bob. “The place where we recorded really has influenced the way Snake Road sounds. Here we are at the top of the big city, with windows all around, the nighttime city lights really coloring our mood. I think you can feel the late-night, big-city vibe.”
The results, while thoroughly modern in sound and technique, echo the long-ago style of the brothers’ French-Canadian ancestry. “I believe my influences do come from the music I heard as a child in Quebec,” says Bob. “It does really borrow from that mood that is created in a parlor where someone is playing a piano and someone is accompanying on another instrument — sometimes a singer, sometimes a violin player. Often it was piano and harmonica we would hear in the parlor.”
While this marks the first full-blown musical collaboration between the Lanois brothers, they have hardly been creatively estranged. Some 30 years ago, Bob designed, built, managed and engineered Grant Avenue Studio in Hamilton. Daniel was the skilled musician; Bob was the technical guy. The sounds they captured there for Canadian artists caught the attention of Brian Eno, who made a pilgrimage to Grant Avenue, where he settled in for more than two years, making watershed experimental recordings. It was Eno who introduced Daniel to Peter Gabriel, which begat the mega-selling So, which begat U2’s The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree, Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball, Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy, etc.
Now that Bob is stepping out as a recording artist, he is already planning beyond Snake Road. In the works is a second volume of The Shack Recordings, his collaboration with Blackie & the Rodeo Kings’ Tom Wilson. Bob says he’s also eager to try his hand as a singer-songwriter. “My harmonica wants to tell stories,” he says. “It is a living thing. It may have something to do with the fact that it is a breath instrument. I think the combination of my breath and the little silver instrument creates a magic for me that pulls me in every time.”
UNBROKEN CIRCLES: Music City fans offered a very warm reception to CARLENE CARTER on her return to full-tilt, band-backed club performing at the large modern honky-tonk the Nashville Palace on August 26. She was in terrific form, salty and aggressive and in good voice, and winningly edgy again. Carlene came up with a new mix of rocking hits from her late ’70s/early ’80s chart heyday (“Every Little Thing”, “I’m So Cool”), more traditional, acoustic Carter Family material (“Dixie Darlin'”), and a number of fine-sounding and varied new ballads, rockers and blues songs she’s written for an upcoming CD, Stronger, produced by brother John Carter Cash and expected to be released next year.
After much-publicized personal traumas and losses, Carlene had returned to the stage — and to Nashville — in the Wildwood Flowers musical a year ago. She suggested to ND at that time that a return to songwriting and performing on her own finally seemed a real possibility. She’d snuck in a less-publicized performance in Philadelphia in March — her first full show in eleven years — as a recent grandmother and newlywed, just a few weeks after her marriage to Los Angeles television personality Joe Brown. At the Palace, she pulled Joe onstage and drafted him as a singing partner for a rousing version of mother June Carter Cash and stepdad Johnny Cash’s “Jackson”. She seemed home again in every way — and in a real sense, she was.