Dear IBMA, please do a better Awards Show

There was a lot to like in last night’s IBMA Bluegrass Music Awards, the 33rd uninterrupted running of the annual event.

It’s always fun to observe our bluegrass stars done up in all their finery, with spouses and families in tow. On stage especially, our female artists all looked like models with the careful attention to hair and makeup that isn’t usually part of the bluegrass scene. I hope they all felt as lovely as they looked.

Hosts Dan Tyminski and Ronnie Bowman were charming and affable throughout. Their true friendship and deep fondness for one another came through at several points, and their unscripted banter between segments was light and charming.

Seeing Béla Fleck so warmly received by the IBMA voters for his return to bluegrass made everyone feel good about our wider community. He had done an interview earlier in the day with Joe Kendrick and WNCW radio in the Media Room where I was set up, where he talked about how he hasn’t even been nominated since he was named Banjo Player of the Year in 1990. Seeing him get a chance for a do over after his somewhat flippant acceptance remarks 32 years ago showed a very appealing side of Béla’s personality that fans don’t often get to see.

The Entertainer of the Year performances are worth the price of admission on their own, and this year proved the rule. With Ronnie Bowman stepping in since Billy Strings was unavailable, we had fine songs from Sister Sadie (their new single, Diane); Po’ Ramblin’ Boys, who blew the doors off the building with Blues Are Close At Hand; Béla Fleck with one of his many settings for My Bluegrass Heart playing Vertigo from the album; and the Del McCoury Band, who played just before Fleck, singing the title track of their new album, Almost Proud.

But technical issues marred the moment on several occasions, unforgivably so. Katy Daley, who carefully prepared recorded readings of the nominees in each category, heard her voice blasting into the hall over top of the presenters before their time, and during the poignant prepared remarks by Dan Hays inducting Paul “Moon” Mullins into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame, he twice paused for a video or audio snippet to be played, neither of which materialized.

Also disconcerting was watching the live stream on Facebook, where the camera switching during musical performances followed the pattern we have come to expect from directors and crews who don’t know the music. Several times the camera would switch to the wrong person as a solo began, or we saw a banjo closeup while the fiddler was delivering a fiery solo. I know that a technical rehearsal is held prior to the show each year, so this should never happen.

And what in the world was happening between Doyle Lawson, Ronnie Bowman, and Dan Tyminski ahead of the Song of the Year presentation? They seemed to be stretching for time for several minutes – at least it felt that long.

The IBMA is a highly professional organization, and exists largely to burnish the image of bluegrass as a serious form of contemporary entertainment. If they are still using volunteer staff to produce this show, it may be time to bring that practice to an end. The many people online who watched the livestream, or will see it on Facebook or other social media over the coming months, will have no explanation for why these things went wrong, small in the overall course of bluegrass history, but all controllable and preventable. It’s not a good look for our industry.

Pat Morris, Executive Director of the IBMA, shared his frustration as well, but expressed his thanks to everyone who smiled through it all.

“The IBMA Bluegrass Music Awards show is important to all of us as a community, so a lot of hard work and preparation takes place for months leading up to the show itself. The tech issues we experienced last night were disappointing, but we’re grateful for the artists who provided stellar performances, the show’s hosts who kept the evening moving with great humor and energy, and the audience who joined us in celebrating an amazing night of music.”

It also bears mentioning that the length of the show continues to be an ongoing concern, and tightening here and there can never fix the problem as long as the Hall of Fame inductions remain a part of this program. Meaning no disrespect to the inductees year after year, but if we have a Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame as a separate institution, why not do these presentations there at a different time? The Museum has a theater with a high degree of technical capability, and a Hall of Fame induction on its own could allow for even more time to truly honor each recipient of the honor.

I have heard the response many times that the organization wants to take advantage of this many artists being available at the Awards Show. It’s a fair point, but if the Hall of Fame induction were to become a can’t miss event like the Awards Show, that problem resolves itself.

Final quibble…  the giant cluster pluck at the end of the show has been done to death. Let’s try something new.

Bottom line, the rich legacy of bluegrass music, and the hard won reputation of the IBMA as a professional institution, demand better.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.