Mostly Cheer and a Little Loathing at the IBMA Fan Fest

By Keith Wicker

It's the first week in October, and the International Bluegrass Music Association is in town. I call the Galt House to see if my friend Steve Chandler, recording engineer to such acts as J.D. Crowe and Allison Krauss and sound man for the IBMA Fan Fest shows, is in his room. Shaky answers. "Come right now and bring beer," he commands.

A short time later I'm in the west wing of the Galt house, room 718. After a few shots of Dickel and a couple of BBC beers with my friends Shaky and Grunt, Chandler (also known as "Biscuit") arrives with tickets to the award show and something called the "Winners' Reception" after the awards show. I opt out of the awards show but decide to come back later for the reception. I want to interview Rhonda Vincent if she should win, but I would settle for any of the winners.

I interrupt this narrative to list as many of the winners as I recall: Rhonda Vincent for Entertainer of the Year, Jerry Douglas for dobro, Chris Thiele for mandolin, Jim Hurst for guitar, Missy Raines for bass, and Michael Cleveland for fiddle. Michael is a graduate of Louisville's Kentucky School for the Blind.

The Winners' Reception is a stuffy affair. The "stars" are surrounded by so many well-wishers that I'm hesitant to run the gauntlet. Rhonda Vincent, a striking woman, is wearing a white, shiny, backless dress, and every man in the room would eat a thumb pick just for a chance to lick her up and down. I'm intimidated by her pack of sycophants. Finally, after eating two saucers of prime rib, downing two bourbons and water and circling the room several times like a bloated panther, I see Jim Hurst. He was once a truck driver; he still looks like a truck driver. He's talking to a woman who's swaying like a corn stalk in a high wind. She's one contender I figure I can deal with. I wait for my turn, shake his hand, compliment him and request an interview for the next day. He's glad to be asked. "Sure, I'm giving a guitar workshop at one o'clock. How about after that?"

On Friday I get up at ten o'clock and barely make the 11:51 bus. While black faces stare at me suspiciously, I jot down a few questions.

The guitar workshop is a treat. Six guys take turns picking and talking about their craft. Jim is the only one I know, but they're all top-notch players. (Interesting aside, only one of the six plays a Martin guitar.) Afterward, Jim steers me to the "artists only" room. I turn on my tape recorder, ask a question and sit back. He's as talkative as most English teachers. I have to interrupt to ask the second question because he's exhausted the first. It's a dream interview; he's insightful and kind. He gives me his home address so I can later send him copies of the article. I will also send him a tape of a few of my best songs, but I don't reveal that plan to him.

For the most part, I'm in bluegrass heaven the rest of the day. Bluegrass is great music. Nevertheless, there're a few things I don't like about it, starting with the banjo. It's my least favorite of the bluegrass instruments (an old joke says the only time a banjo is in tune is when it lands inside a dumpster), and swell bluegrass can be made without it. Second, bluegrass musicians all talk like they're uneducated hillbillies, when, in fact, many of them have been to college and hail from places like Ohio and Pennsylvania. Subject and verb agreement matters. What's the opposite of "putting on airs"? Third, the Christian overlay. Almost every bluegrass group feels they must do a gospel number, usually a cappella. Excuse me, but that's gospel; it "ain't" bluegrass. This year the `revival meeting' quality is compounded by tons of clichéd patriotism. Nearly everyone on stage has something to say about September 11 and how great this country is, blah, blah, blah. They pass around a tub to collect money for the Red Cross while Grunt and I confer and agree that someone should start a campaign to take God out of bluegrass and put some English grammar in.

The highlights of Friday's evening lineup are as follows: Larry Cordele and Lonesome Standard Time - their songs rise above the traditionally cornball bluegrass themes. "Black Diamond Strings" is a great song, and Cordele also wrote "Highway 40 Blues." Norman and Nancy Blake - the roots stuff, with Norman playing what he calls - as he constantly retunes - his "Martin barometer." No banjo in sight. IIIrd Tyme Out - the dumbest name in bluegrass, but the sweetest harmonies. Del McCoury Band - Ron, Del's son, makes every mandolin note sparkle. They cover songs from outside of the bluegrass genre. "Nashville Cats" is a toe-tapping sing along. They do a Richard Thompson song that is the climax of the evening.

The headliner, Ricky Skaggs, is without question a good musician. But I get the sense that he's just going through the motions. If rockabilly suddenly grew popular, he'd grow a pompadour. His band is many and strong, but the song choices are uninspired. Who really needs to hear "Shady Grove" again?

Saturday morning I admit my age and stay in bed. By the time I finally board the bus for the Galt House, I only have to pay half-price admission. I discover that Shaky and Grunt have made an early departure. I sit with Biscuit behind the board. Some of the artists do a skit, sort of a lampoon of old country music radio shows, complete with an Uncle Dave Macon impressionist. He doesn't do one of Uncle Dave's biggest hits, "Run Nigger Run," however. He probably could have if he had wanted because the nearest black folks are serving sandwiches in a room down the hall. Much is said from the stage by musicians such as the Whites (watch that irony) that the event feels like "family getting together." Biscuit and I decide that bluegrass desperately needs its version of Jimi Hendrix.

Just a couple of the bands in the Saturday evening lineup move me. Blue Highway is a young band with two excellent songwriters. They do a killer song about a murder. There can never be enough murder songs for me. For bluegrass, this is badass stuff! The aforementioned Whites deliver a competent and banjo-less set. This is the first time I've heard them without either Ricky Skaggs or Jerry Douglas, dobro wiz, but they're actually tighter than those other times. The only non-family member is a young woman who plays dobro and fiddle and handles both with studio-musician style. Although the White girls have had their teeth fixed, they won't be giving Rhonda Vincent any competition. Poor old Buck White, who is 70 and looks every minute of it, sometimes forgets where he is in the middle of a solo. But when he turns on that aw-shucks grin, I forgive him a missed note or two.

I don't stay for the final act. I'm a pretty large bluegrass fanatic, but I have bluegrass burnout - a condition in which all the fiddle tunes begin to sound the same and that G run just makes me yawn. I'm pretty sure the cab driver rips me off for the trip home. I sit up for a while and play my dobro, feeling exhausted, but pretty damn good.

The next day, the Fan Fest is still going on, but Sunday is pretty much all gospel, and I've heard the Lord praised enough to hold me for a couple of months. My wife says that after dinner she needs to go to the office and do some work, so I may take my guitar to Gerstle's for open mike. I may even play a bluegrass song.