A New Boss with Big Plans

IBMA at the Crossroads

Registration numbers for IBMA’s final World of Bluegrass week in Nashville are down slightly from last year, but Executive Director Nancy Cardwell is pulling out all the stops to try to finish on a high note before next year’s move to Raleigh, N.C.

There’s still time to close the gap, but even if the numbers continue to lag, Cardwell is implementing plans to strengthen IBMA going forward, including cross-promotion efforts with the Folk Alliance, membership phone-a-thons and a first-ever Youth Council aimed at bringing bluegrass to new generations.

“I’m very interested in the future of this organization and the future of bluegrass music,” she said in an interview shortly after her official promotion to executive director after serving for most of the year in an acting capacity. “We have to reach younger folks.”

The Youth Council idea, which Cardwell pitched to the IBMA board of directors in March, is based on a similar effort at Wintergrass. The council will include 10-20 high school and college students with a passion for bluegrass. They’ll offer input for World of Bluegrass activities and programs that will appeal to new, younger fans.

Registration for this year’s business conference remains open until Sept. 7, but walk up registrations can be purchased at the Convention Center starting on Sept. 24. Cardwell attributes the drop off  from last year’s sales “to the economy, mainly.” But while registrations are down, Fan Fest tickets are selling well, with reserved seats already sold out.

Cardwell and the staff will announce some World of Bluegrass changes in a week or two. But she did say there would be a dedicated jamming area for Old Time music and, for the first time, Fan Fest performances will be recorded and televised on Jubilee, a Kentucky-based roots music and bluegrass program.

Beyond World of Bluegrass, Cardwell’s main challenges as executive director will include trying to expand the membership base and balancing the organization’s budget. IBMA’s expenses have outpaced revenues since before the economic recession began in 2008, forcing the association to dig deeply into its reserves.

IBMA President Stan Zdonik and the board have pledged to erase the red ink, but specific steps haven’t been spelled out. Cardwell said all aspects of IBMA will be examined. “Every year, we need to reevaluate what we are and what we’re doing,” she said.

Membership is stable at around 2,100, with members in all 50 states and 30 countries. Some factions of IBMA argue that expanding the membership requires broadening the music. But others say existing members will be driven away if IBMA continues to open showcases and other events to bands that don’t play traditional bluegrass.

Cardwell says she sees an IBMA that has room for everybody. “Some people live on Main Street. Some people live on the edge of town. Some people live in the next country,” she said. “But it’s all bluegrass music.”

She also expressed a willingness to listen to any IBMA member with ideas or concerns.

“You learn from your critics,” she said.

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About the Author

David Morris

David Morris, an award-winning songwriter and journalist, has written for Bluegrass Today since its inception. He joined its predecessor, The Bluegrass Blog, in 2010. His 40-year career in journalism included more than 13 years with The Associated Press, a stint as chief White House correspondent for Bloomberg News, and several top editing jobs in Washington, D.C. He is a life member of IBMA and the DC Bluegrass Union. He and co-writers won the bluegrass category in the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest in 2015.