Just before the lights came up at the start of Thursday night’s IBMA awards show at the Ryman Auditorium, Sam Bush turned his back to the audience and paid homage to Bill Monroe, whose picture overlooked the stage from behind.
“I was just remembering,” Sam said after the show.
Before the night ended, Bush had plenty of company in giving a nod to the Father of Bluegrass as a yearlong celebration of the centennial of his birth wrapped up. Some of the award winners were direct about it. “First, I have to thank that guy up there, because he gave me a chance,” Hall of Fame inductee Del McCoury said, waving toward the picture.
Others let their instruments do the talking about their debt to the man who made it all possible, through a series of stellar performances on the same stage once ruled by Bill and the Bluegrass Boys. And many of them not only played, but they walked across the stage to collect winners’ statues.
The Boxcars and the Gibson Brothers were the night’s big winners. The ‘Cars won four awards – banjo player of the year for Ron Stewart (in a tie with Kristin Scott Benson); mandolin player of the year for Adam Steffey; instrumental group of the year and, as improbable as it sounds, emerging artist.
Nothing against the Boxcars, who don’t make the rules that determine who is eligible for the emerging artist award. But this category, more than any other, needs to be changed to recognize newcomers to the industry, not just those who are in new bands.
The Gibson Brothers won just two statues, but they were big ones – vocal group of the year and album of the year, for their Compass Records release, Help My Brother.
Following on the heels of last year’s wins for song of the year and gospel song of the year, the upstate New York band has established itself as one of bluegrass’ hottest acts.
Michael Cleveland had his hand in two awards. He was a repeat winner for fiddler of the year and his band, Flamekeeper, had the instrumental song of the year, Goin’ Up Dry Branch. (In one of those ironic twists that crop up every couple of years at IBMA, membership in Flamekeeper has turned over completely since the album was recorded. Michael didn’t mention the players at all, but one of them made his own trip across the stage – Marshall Wilborn was voted bass player of the year).
Next year? It’s already shaping up as a wild one. The Gibson Brothers and Boxcars both are getting ready to record new albums, and Blue Highway and Alison Krauss and Union Station have already released impressive albums. Plus, Dailey and Vincent served notice from the stage that they’ll be back. After a strong showing last year, D&V was shutout this year. But they, too, are in the studio, working on an all-gospel project. The song they performed during the awards show was strongly rooted in gospel, but anything they do is guaranteed to get attention.
It’s shaping up to a strong year. As Del McCoury said as he joined bass and guitar pioneer George Shuffler in the Hall of Fame, “The state of bluegrass is better than it’s ever been.”
See the complete list of award recipients online.