Battle of the bands

This post is a contribution from David Morris, one of our 2010 IBMA correspondents. See his profile here.

Those attending IBMA’s Fan Fest Friday night in Nashville got a sneak preview of the battle for bluegrass supremacy that is likely to unfold over the next year when the Boxcars and Dailey & Vincent played back-to-back sets at the convention center.

To be sure, there are many other talented bands and players who will win rave reviews, sell lots of CDs and win awards. But IBMA voters tend to be creatures of habit, so don’t be surprised if Dailey & Vincent and the Boxcars, a new band with established all-star players, are the big winners at next year’s awards ceremony.

The stark differences between the bands were magnified when they played consecutively. If they were football teams, the ‘Cars would move methodically down the field, executing with near perfection on every play, then hand the ball to referee when they reached the end zone. Dailey & Vincent would be a bit less consistent from play to play, but would score often on incredible razzle-dazzle plays, spike the ball and jump into the stands to celebrate with the fans.

By strict definition, there is no contest between the bands when it comes to entertainer of the year consideration. Dailey & Vincent are entertainers at the top of their game. Jamie Dailey says he and Darren Vincent often give pep talks to the band before they leave the bus to perform, reminding them that the folks in the seats are there to escape their woes.

Friday night’s set was filled with those forget-all-my-troubles moments. The best came when Dailey and the band’s newest member, Christian Davis, traded vocal licks on Daddy Sang Bass, with Davis singing the “daddy” line with a booming bass and Dailey soaring on the “mama sang tenor” response. They turned it into a top-this challenge, singing through their parts a few times, then deciding to shift roles. Dailey seemed to struggle the lower his voice just a few notes, but Davis hit the “mama” part with ease. The second time was still a challenge for Dailey, but Davis went even-higher, putting nearby windows in danger of shattering. “Freak,” Dailey said, diving back into the rest of the song.

The edge on the musical side belongs to the Boxcars. Where Dailey & Vincent give pep talks about entertaining the crowd, it’s easy to imagine the Boxcars lounging around until one of them says, “Hey, lets pick a little.”

And, holy ghost of Bill Monroe, can they pick. If Adam Steffey wins mandolin player of the year many more times, IBMA should either retire the award or name it after him. And Ron Stewart is so polished that he was a nominee this year for player of the year on both fiddle and banjo. An extra dimension comes from Keith Garrett, whose singing and songwriting skills make him a double threat.

The playing skill was on full display in Friday’s set, especially on Steffey’s mandolin breaks. At this week’s awards ceremony, Steffey called his playing “vanilla.” If what he played Friday is vanilla, there’s no need for other flavors. Aside from introducing the band, there was little banter. They just stood there, playing and singing, with Steffey and Stewart occasionally exchanging glances and grinning at each other. Other than that, it was all about the music.

Two bands. Two approaches. One winner – those of us who get to listen.

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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.