IBMA 2005

By Bob Mitchell

The International Bluegrass Music Association trade show and fan fest was moved from Louisville to Nashville this year. For the past few years, Louisville hosted the prestigious event, also known as "World of Bluegrass." Although Nashville was not a "fan-friendly" or as "artist- friendly" as Louisville's Galt house, an award show in the historic Ryman Auditorium is difficult to match for emotional excitement. Although I never believed the event should be moved from Kentucky to Tennessee no one asked me. This article is based on my week's experience as well as unsolicited remarks overheard in elevators, hallways, exhibit areas, hotel lobbies, etc.

Jamming was always one of the most vital and enjoyable aspects of IBMA at the Galt House. It was difficult to walk anywhere without hearing the joyful sounds of bluegrass music and looking at a sea of happy faces. The Nashville hotel that connected to the Convention Center, made it clear that lobby pickers were not welcome. There were "No Jamming" signs located throughout the Convention Center and Hotel. I saw a group ignore the signs and start to play music. Almost immediately, a hotel guest picked up a "No Jamming" sign and sat it in front of the band! By Friday and Saturday, pickers decided to play anyway and it sounded wonderful.

The "after hours" jam sessions and band performances in the Galt House were packed with fans and filled with excitement. You could sit on the floor in a room or suite for an hour or more and hear a dozen of the best-known artists in the business or listen to a new group trying to make a name for itself. In Nashville, the connecting hotel and two areas in the convention center were set up as small to medium size theatres with rows of chairs. Scheduled bands were provided about 25 minutes. Often, it was necessary to walk a block or more between locations in the same building to hear the bands of interest. Numerous complaints were heard not only from fans but also the artists who had to carry their instruments from building to building. Bigger is not always better. Interestingly, the official IBMA program contained this statement, "Despite their social purpose, the hospitality suites, hosted this year in meeting rooms, often serve as an informal place for business discussions to take place. Please help your host by not blocking the entrance to their suite, respect everyone's need for quiet time ..."

Many fans and artists could not afford the cost of a room and food the "main" hotel and stayed in hotels as far as a mile or more away from the center of activity. My hotel was about five blocks from the Convention Center. Daily cab rides were expensive, so many artists and fans carried their instruments long distances as late as 1:30 in the morning, thus placing the individuals and their instruments at risk. The weather was cool but pleasant. However, cold and rainy weather would have made a difficult transportation situation even more difficult.

Several times, the on-stage emcees attempted to obtain enthusiastic approval for the event in Nashville by asking the audience, "Isn't it great here in Nashville?" The responses I heard were always minimal to lukewarm. Several times someone would shout, "We miss the Galt House!" After repeated and unsuccessful attempts to get a more positive audience response, someone on the stage said to the audience, "You'll get used to it." I was especially concerned about frequent incorrect references from the stage, i.e., "Nashville is the birthplace of Bluegrass." Wrong. Bluegrass was born in Kentucky.

The trade show area in the Galt House was always filled with conversations, laughter, networking and music. Music, believe it or not, was not permitted in "Music City USA" because it might be distracting to potential business deals. Visitors were permitted to "try out" an instrument in the exhibit area but "more than three individuals" playing music at the same time was considered "a band" and not "encouraged." Countless numbers of remarks were made about the missing music. IBMA did set up a small stage area at the far end of the convention center but the sound was directed into a small and specific area of the building. Numerous artists complained no time slots were available when they attempted to obtain stage time.

This year exhibitor spaces were located in an area that felt and looked like a very large warehouse. The warmth, closeness and family atmosphere of the Galt House was replaced by a sterile convention center that often required participants to walk the equivalent of a block or more from one event to another. There were frequent comments from exhibitors, artists and fans about the increased costs of being in Nashville. By the second day, one exhibitor was heard to say the cost was already more than twice the cost in Louisville and yet the Nashville convention center also charged extra for a power cord, a rug to soften the concrete floor and an internet on-line connection. Two former exhibitors said they chose to invest their money in current and potential clients rather than exhibit space.

In the course of a week, I heard a lot of good music and met outstanding new groups. The Lovell Sisters, based in Calhoun Georgia, displayed tight harmonies and enthusiasm. Hit and Run Bluegrass, an extraordinary band from Colorado, showcased during the annual brunch and their concert was phenomenal. Both groups are loaded with talent and if they get the right breaks, you will be hearing their names in the years to come.

A major highlight is the awards show and it was no different this year. Being in the Ryman Auditorium made it even more exciting. Cherryholmes took home their first ever Entertainer of the Year award. They were also the first group in the history of the awards to be simultaneously nominated for Entertainer of the Year and Emerging Artist of the Year.

Hosted by Alison Krauss and Ricky Skaggs, the evening featured exciting live performances from award nominees who played for a sold-out crowd and worldwide radio audience, celebrating the 60th anniversary of bluegrass music.

Larry Sparks received his second award in a row for Male Vocalist of the Year and also took home Album of the Year and Recorded Event of the Year honors for 40, an album celebrating the span of his legendary career. (Editor's note: this recognition was predicted in Mitchell's Louisville Music News review in the March issue.)

Rhonda Vincent broke her own record by accepting her sixth consecutive Female Vocalist of the Year award, more than any female in history. Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver were recipients of their fifth consecutive Vocal Group of the Year award in addition to Gospel Recorded Performance of the Year for "Praise His Name."

Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder won their seventh win for Instrumental Group of the Year. Instrumental Album of the Year went to the work of Wildfire band member and Dobro player Phil Leadbetter for his album Slide Effects. Leadbetter also became the new reigning Dobro Player of the Year. Fiddle player and Nashville Bluegrass Band founding member Stuart Duncan was named Fiddle Player of the Year, his eighth career win in that category, having last taken home the honor in 1996. Guitar virtuoso Bryan Sutton received Guitar Player of the Year nod for his fourth career win since 2000. Adam Steffey, a member of Mountain Heart, took home the award for Mandolin Player of the Year for the fourth year in a row and the Bass Player of the Year award went to longtime favorite Mike Bub, his fourth overall career win. Kentucky Thunder banjo player Jim Mills received the Banjo Player of the Year trophy, the fifth such honor of his career. The Song Of The Year was "Me and John and Paul," as sung by The Grascals, who also won Emerging Artists of The Year.

The 2005 IBMA Bluegrass Hall of Honor inductees were the late Benny Martin and the late Red Allen. During a colorful career spanning over five decades, Martin left a legacy as one of bluegrass and country music's most creative and exciting instrumentalists and vocalists. His robust voice and flamboyant style of fiddle playing placed him in a class by himself. He played fiddle with Flatt & Scruggs in 1952-53 and Johnnie & Jack in 1954-55. Harley (Red) Allen, with Bobby and Sonny Osborne, formed the trio that conceived and first recorded in the "high lead" vocal harmony format in 1956-58. Their recordings are recognized as among the most emulated and significant in bluegrass.

No event anywhere or anytime can match the quality and excitement of IBMA's "World of Bluegrass." It is a phenomenal event that defies description. I have always felt proud and fortunate to be part of it. IBMA staff always work countless numbers of hours in an effort to promote bluegrass but the music was born in Kentucky and "WOB" belongs in Kentucky. I have been a fan since 1945 and I remain hopeful the best Industry event of the year will return to Louisville with its new convention center, new Marriott Hotel and the ever-popular Galt House.