International Bluegrass Music Awards Show – Ryman Auditorium (Nashville, TN)
This annual rite of recognition and all-star show has been a key date in the world’s bluegrass calendar since 1990. A convergence of some gulp-inducing history and freshly expanding ambitions of the International Bluegrass Music Awards organization suggested, heading into this edition, that things would be different this time around. And so they were.
The move from of the awards show from its longtime home in Owensboro, Kentucky, to the stage of the Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville came with the 20th anniversary of the organization, the 40th of multi-day bluegrass festivals, and the 80th of the Grand Ole Opry — which was home to the specific, recognized founding moment of this music, when the classic Bill Monroe & the Blue Grass Boys lineup featuring Earl Scruggs on banjo took this very stage, 60 years ago this year. Not many fans of any forms of music can reconvene at its birthplace, and everyone onstage and in the audience of this show was aware of that circumstance.
The surprise presentation of a new wall plaque to be affixed to the Ryman permanently, marking it as the birthplace of bluegrass, punctuated the moment — as did the evening’s finale, a fusion of the top-ranked Kentucky Thunder, Union Station and Del McCoury bands into a supergroup that paid touching and exciting tribute to the “big bang” night, ripping into the Blue Grass Boys’ “Mighty Hard To Travel”, “I Hear A Sweet Voice Calling” (with Ricky Skaggs up front), and “Bluegrass Breakdown”, the proto-instrumental, featuring top banjo players Ron Block, Rob McCoury and Jim Mills.
More than a few followers of these proceedings have groused openly about the tendency for the same undoubtedly gifted but familiar acts and performers to cop the top awards year after year. There’s nothing like an “If you’ve won twice in a row, you can’t be nominated the next year, too” rule to prevent that. Perhaps IBMA voters were sending a bit of a message, or maybe it was that convergence of nostalgia and page-turning, but the 2005 winners were largely unpredictable.
The great and lasting but often under-celebrated Larry Sparks won Male Vocalist of the Year, Recorded Event of the Year and Album of the Year; veteran Phil Leadbetter was honored as best dobro player; and the livewire family band Cherryholmes received not Emerging Artist of the Year as might have been expected (that went to the Grascals), but Entertainer of the Year — unprecedented for such utter newcomers (and accepted by “Dad” Jere Cherryholmes with an air-punching “YEAH!”). A pointed nod of recognition and achievement also went to Mike Bub, formerly of the Del McCoury Band, as best bassist; he spoke graciously of his longtime, former bandmates.
And then there was the music, dispersed between award presentations throughout the evening and heard by radio listeners live on XM satellite radio as well as 300-plus broadcast radio stations around the world.
It’s undoubtedly the special situations set up just for the evening moments that stick in the mind most. When Larry Sparks was joined by Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski for a turn on his sweet standard “John Deere Tractor”, the influence of Sparks’ phrasing and presentation on Krauss’ vocal style was clear — and acknowledged. Leadbetter, vocalist Marty Raybon and Fiddler of the Year Stuart Duncan joined on the Merle Haggard hit “California Cottonfields” — by now a bluegrass standard, too. Blue Highway offered an ace instrumental featuring Rob Ickes’ hot dobro playing. Mountain Heart attacked their relatively traditional “Brand New Road” with an exuberance that, in this reviewer’s experience, is not always apparent from them; and Cherryholmes delivered their own “How Long?” with an exuberance that, in this reviewer’s experience, they always display. A teaming of Peter Rowan and Larry Rice on “You Were There For Me” was relatively flaccid.
Though the artists show up for this occasion in black tie and gowns, there were welcome dollops of lighthearted fooling around during a show that’s partly a sort of family reunion. Hosts Ricky Skaggs and Alison Krauss mocked the teleprompter-delivered award intros with some first-grade-level readings; Krauss was in enough of a wacky-side mood throughout that songwriter Harley Allen asked for a sample of “whatever Alison’s smoking, ’cause it’s working for her.” And comic bluegrass podcast interviewer Wichita Rutherford, looking dapperly peculiar yet somehow familiarly at home, showed up to take “glamour” snapshots of Dan Tyminski right onstage.
In more serious and built-to-last moments, the great Red Allen (“an entertainer when he was born and an entertainer when he died,” his son Greg noted) and versatile fiddler Benny Martin were inducted into the bluegrass Hall of Honor for their lifetime achievements.
Bluegrass has always been, at heart, about a mix of the traditional and the new. This night did it justice in avoiding the same ol’ same ol’ — with spirit.