Carrying on the Tradition at SPBGMA

Alan Tompkins playing an RB-75 at Gruhn’s during SPBGMA week 2020 – photo by Gerald Jones

This additional SPBGMA 2020 reflection comes from Alan Tompkins, a Dallas-area attorney, festival promoter, and bluegrass musician. He is also a recent graduate of the online bluegrass degree program at Glenville State College.

Most people don’t look forward to January all that much. Back to work, dealing with cold and ice, tax forms start rolling in, and holiday credit card bills hit like a ton of bricks. But for bluegrassers, it’s a time to look forward to one of the best weekends of year.

SPBGMA (the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music in America, in case you were wondering), takes over the Music City Sheraton one weekend each year for its annual National Convention and Bluegrass Music Awards Show. This year was the 46th annual event. If you love bluegrass music, non-stop high-energy picking and jamming, hallways with some of the finest people you could ever hope to meet, spending time playing outstanding new and vintage bluegrass instruments, visiting with old friends (and making new ones), and checking out dozens of vendors who sell the stuff that we use to make music, then this is a don’t-miss weekend experience.

Sure, any great event has a few challenges. Parking can be hard to find in the evenings, and the Sheraton food service is so slow that you’ll want to consider ordering dinner at the same time you order lunch. But hey – it’s nothing compared to the fun we all have!

One of the bright spots for the past couple of years at SPBGMA has been the busload of college students and their families from Glenville State College in Glenville, West Virginia. Dr. Megan Darby, director of the GSC Bluegrass Program, and her trusty sidekick Nick Blake have done an amazing job building the bluegrass music program at GSC, and settling it in its new home, The Pioneer Stage Music Education Center. The program focuses on traditional bluegrass and, by making the trip to the SPBGMA National Convention, the students and their families get an up-close high-intensity dose of the energy, fun, and fellowship of our bluegrass family.  

The GSC bluegrass band had the opportunity to play a showcase on Friday night, giving the students valuable performance experience in front of a new audience. I’ve been taking online classes through the GSC bluegrass music program the past couple of years and enjoyed the chance to meet some of the “stars of tomorrow” who made the trip. It’s a thrill to see the eyes of these young people light up when they encounter so many enthusiastic bluegrass players all gathered in one place – and to know that they will remember the experience for a lifetime.

Another great part of the trip to SPBGMA (for a banjo player) is the chance to spend time with Steve Huber and the crew at Huber Banjos, whether in the SPBGMA Huber Suite (on the 4th floor) or at the shop in Hendersonville. The banjos are outstanding, but the camaraderie there is better. And you never know when a great player like Russ Carson will stop by!  

Of course, no trip would be complete without making the pilgrimage to Gruhn Guitars and Carter Vintage Guitars in downtown Nashville to check out the incredible collection of new and vintage guitars, banjos, and mandolins. My accomplices, Gerald Jones and Matt Tessier, went along with me to spend some time with IBMA Distinguished Achievement Award winner Curtis McPeake at his home in Mt. Juliet. Matt was fortunate to get to play Curtis’s historic 10-string banjo and didn’t quit smiling for hours after! Another one of the moments that seems to happen nowhere but SPBGMA was a reunion of rare old American Standard basses. My friend Russell Rollo owns the 1936 American Standard #23, and I own #42. We stood them up next to each other in the hotel room for a quick picture – two old basses looking good (and sounding great) after more than 80 years of heavy use!

In summary, I’m grateful that the Stearman family continues to host the SPBGMA National Convention in Nashville each year, providing bluegrass music fans – young and old – with the opportunity to gather and celebrate our music. You should make the trip next year – you won’t be disappointed.  I’ll see you there!