Blue Yodel #45 – Cardwell Caroling Conspiracy Uncovered

With less than a week to go before IBMA’s World of Bluegrass, I believe I have evidence of a conspiracy so pernicious and heinous it forced me to look up those words.

This past Thursday I flew to Nashville to take part in an IBMA songwriter’s round at the Bluebird Café. My flight from San Diego got in at four and the show started at six, so Nancy Cardwell, IBMA’s new Executive Director and a friend, graciously offered to pick me up and take me to the venue, an offer I gratefully accepted.

Her kindness and ability to ensure things run smoothly is well known, so it makes what I am about to tell you that much harder to write.

While driving to the Bluebird, Nancy casually let drop (I don’t recall how we got on this topic) that she has led a professional caroling group for the past 20 years. We talked briefly about Christmas songs and four-part harmony. I didn’t think anything more about it until, as I got out of her truck, I noticed some flyers on the floor of the cab. I couldn’t be sure, but it appeared the “B” in IBMA had been scratched out and a “C” written over it.

If this were a movie, the background around me would appear to recede as I strike a pose like Munch’s The Scream. I instantly knew the significance of the replaced letter and, starting to sweat, I thanked her, grabbed my guitar, and headed into the venue while she parked.

The songwriting night went well (I was in the round with Becky Buller, John Pennell, and Brink Brinkman) and I stayed the night and next day with Jon Weisberger—nominated this year for Songwriter of the Year—and we wrote a song and started another one with Chris Jones.

But I couldn’t forget what I had seen. When I got home, I googled “Nancy Cardwell” and “caroling” and what I found will shake the foundations of the bluegrass world.

Briefly stated, I believe that Nancy Cardwell, starting as early as 1978, has navigated a steady course to work her way up the bluegrass ladder until now as Executive Director she intends TO TURN THE INTERNATIONAL BLUEGRASS MUSIC ASSOCIATION INTO THE INTERNATIONAL CAROLING MUSIC ASSOCIATION.

Now, some of you may be thinking this is yet another IBMA conspiracy theory from someone who is simply craving a little publicity. I resent that accusation and to prove it I’ve created a Kickstarter page to raise money to prevent the IBMA from becoming the ICMA. Suggested contributions of $1,000 are appreciated and for that you will receive a copy of my next CD, A San Diego Christmas: Surfing Santa Goes Bluegrass.

The repercussions of this plot are not at first readily apparent, but imagine a world where bluegrass jams are replaced by caroling, festivals only happen in December, and the only bluegrass song allowed is Christmas Time’s A Coming.

Winter is coming.

The signs were there if you looked for them. I called Nancy and under the guise of interviewing her for this piece, I learned the following:

She was recruited early into caroling when, as a child in Springfield, MO, she was allowed to open presents and sing carols at home. This quickly led to her joining various caroling cells where she went door to door spreading messages of “joy and peace”—code words for “joy and peace.”

She was obviously selected to bring down bluegrass because she first appeared on stage playing mandolin at the age of 7 in Branson with her father’s band, Marvin Cardwell & the Country Boys.

Her father was an instrument collector and musician and formed a family band when Nancy was 16. She had first taken up guitar at 11 years old (see photo). Also at age 11, Nancy organized the other girls in her neighborhood into something she called the Saturn Club, which apparently had no other purpose but to hone the leadership skills of the future Executive Director.

After graduating from Northwest Missouri State University with honors in Education—and where she first learned to play bass—she taught English and Spanish in Missouri high schools for several years, but then returned to bluegrass by joining the Wildwood Girls as a bass player in 1991.

Another piece of conspiracy evidence: she started her first caroling group in 1990, just one year before joining a national touring bluegrass act. Coincidence? I don’t think so. That caroling group was called the Coventry Carolers, a name she took with her when she moved to Owensboro in 1994, and to Nashville in 2002, using the same assumed name wherever she went.

Nancy was first hired by IBMA in 1994 as the Special Projects Director, a catch-all title that allowed her access to nearly every bluegrass boardroom in the country. She had positioned herself perfectly for replacing bluegrass with caroling.

Sure, she claims to “enjoy Christmas carols, making cookies, and sewing costumes,” but what else would an international conspirator say?

Other evidence? She plays the hammered dulcimer.

Working diligently for over twenty years within IBMA, and writing articles for bluegrass magazines, Nancy managed to find time to graduate from Leadership Bluegrass in 2000 and Leadership Music—an extremely demanding music-business program—in 2009. She won the Charlie Lamb Excellence in Country Music Journalism Award in 2006, and wrote a well-received book on the songwriting of Dolly Parton, The Words and Music of Dolly Parton: Getting to Know Country’s Iron Butterfly.

One of her most devious projects was the work she did to found the Bluegrass in the Schools program along with Tim Stafford, and then with Greg Cahill and Tom Kopp, co-produce the DVD, Discover Bluegrass: Exploring American Roots Music.

All the while, every December, she continues to practice and promote caroling by singing acapella with her quartet in every sort of venue from malls to nursing homes. And not stopping there, she is also interested in the musical traditions of Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Festivus.

To be fair (and because she saved me the price of a taxi), I am willing to allow Nancy to respond in an open forum to answer these accusations. But I think all it will take for her to betray her caroling sympathies is to pull out a pitch-pipe and give her a note. A true caroler cannot hear an “A” without launching into God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.

I hope this will not disrupt next week’s World of Bluegrass, but if you see Nancy, you might test my theory by approaching her and singing “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire.” Just to see what she does.

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About the Author

Chris Stuart

Chris Stuart is a writer and songwriter living in San Diego. He was the 2008 recipient of the IBMA Print Media Person of the Year award, co-writer of the 2009 IBMA Song of the Year, and past winner of the Merlefest Chris Austin Songwriting contest in bluegrass and gospel categories. You can follow him on Twitter @cvstuart, on Facebook, and at On Tuesdays you can find him having fish tacos at Roberto’s in Del Mar.