Here it is – the first day of World of Bluegrass and Fan Fest week and folks have arrived from all over the world to take in one of the most popular events on the bluegrass calendar. Between the conference sessions, networking, music-making, after-hours showcases and of course, the big awards show on Thursday, if we appear to be a bit bleary-eyed on Sunday, please understand, and speak to us very softly.
Having never been to WOB before, I know I can expect to hear a lot of good music, pick up a lot of good information and meet a lot of good people. But what is it going to be like there? How does it actually all happen? And beyond just being the international organization for bluegrass lovers, just what exactly is the IBMA, and where did it come from? I had the opportunity to speak with new Bluegrass Hall of Fame inductee Doyle Lawson, who is also one of the founding members of the IBMA, and he helped enlighten me about the Association, its history, that change is a good thing, and how a newbie can best enjoy WOB.
Q: What would you say to people who are attending World of Bluegrass week for the first time? What can they be doing to get the most out of it, to really take it all in and enjoy it in the best way?
“Well, it depends on to what degree you want to participate in all facets of the music. If you come for the music and you’re just there to enjoy the music, then the seminars, artists, bookings and all of that part probably wouldn’t interest you. But the good part is that there’s music all the time. I mean, there’s music all over Nashville, but then you have the showcases at night, and promoters will listen to new groups and hopefully generate work. You’ll have all types of things like that to go on. Then, away from the convention center, I think Ernest Tubb’s [Record Shop] is gonna have a couple nights of bluegrass there down on Broadway.
The thing I enjoy, though, is going down to the trade show. I like to see it, because you get to see some of the luthiers that display their work and see the beauty of the instruments that they craft. Of course, you have the stalwarts – Gibson will be there, Martin guitars, all those places. But then there are these people that are independent luthiers and they’ll have their works displayed as well. It’s really exciting for me to go into the trade show and just walk around and look at all the stuff that I can possibly do. I encourage people to go and do that.
The Fan Fest starts on Friday and you’ll have a lot your major acts, myself included, there to play. I’ll be there on Friday. I mean, it’s a hopping week if you go. If you’re gonna spend the whole week, there will be something to see, I guarantee it.”
Q: When the IBMA was established, why was it originally decided to form an organization for bluegrass lovers, and how did the process happen?
“Well, the whole thing started from a phone call from Lance LeRoy. Lance, of course, had a booking agency. Back in the early days when Lester and Earl were together he traveled with them, then later Lance wound up booking Lester. So we got a call from Lance, who said he wanted to have a meeting in Nashville and have a few words about an association or an organization. The gist of the whole thing was that we felt that it was time, or actually overdue, for an organization to be formed that would promote our music as well as preserve it.”
The meeting was held at the BMI building on Music Row in Nashville. Joining Lawson on that fateful day in 1985 were Sonny Osborne, Ray Hicks, Bill and James Monroe, Joe Carr, Randall Hylton, Len Holsclaw, Peter Kuykendall, Larry Jones, Allen Mills, Jim and Jesse McReynolds, Milton Harkey, John Hartin, Mac Wiseman, Larry Jones and Art Menius, who ended up being the association’s first leader.
Lawson goes on to explain the goals of that first meeting:
“One thing we did all agree on, was if we put this thing together and relied on it being operated solely by musicians, we would probably not see it come to fruition. We were all smart enough to know that our expertise was first and foremost in the music. We knew that we needed to find people with expertise in marketing, promotion, business and so forth. That’s how it came about.
We invited the pioneers of the music to come to the early sessions and a few of ’em did come and were supportive. We wanted to make it clear to them that this was not anything that would shut out our pioneers. The fact is, we were very concerned about the preservation and respect for the guys that blazed the trails, you know?
Terry Woodward from Owensboro, Kentucky, came down and offered us a home. The base first was there in Owensboro. Then, Allen Mills, the late Randall Hylton and I constructed the first set of bylaws. Obviously, there’s been amendments along the way, as there should be, because there’s gonna be some change as you progress. We interviewed and hired Dan Hayes as director, which was a real plus for us at that time. Dan served us well for over 20 years. I, for one, was sorry to see him go, but I feel very confident that Nancy Cardwell will do an excellent job. She’s been there for a long time, she’s well versed in how the organization is run and she has a deep love for the music.
So, we saw our plan come to fruition. As we evolved, the awards show started and we added the Hall of Fame. It was a dream of ours and in the last 20-plus years, our music has become internationally known. It’s still minority music, but we’re light-years ahead of where we were when we started the IBMA. It is good to see it grow and obviously, any one organization can’t be all things to all people; I know that. We all know that, but I don’t know of any other place that tries to be as accommodating to everybody as humanly possible, I can say that.”
Of course, one of the constant conversations in bluegrass is whether or not the music should be expanded upon with new influences, the so-called “newgrass,” “jamgrass,” “jazzgrass” or any of a myriad of “grass” terms that attempt to describe the stretching of the traditional sounds of the music. There will always be the purists, who believe that bluegrass should always remain within the framework of the traditional five-piece band, and the new crowd, ready to take the old, sprinkle in the new and come up with an entirely different concoction.
Lawson believes there is room for everybody, and even points to the past to evidence his argument.
“With music, you want to be ever-moving, trying to grow. I know the music the young folks play today is obviously different than what I grew up with, or different from the first generation. But innovation has always been a very important part of our music, and I don’t think anybody today was any more innovative than Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Now they were innovators. They were playing things that nobody else had ever done. It was that different, it was innovative, it was thinking outside the box, and they weren’t afraid to do that.
Growth is important. One thing about growth is change. The youth today, the young pickers come along and they live in a different world than I did when I started playing, or that Mr. Monroe did when he started. The world changes a lot. You look at your baby pictures, then you look at your five year-old pictures, you look at your 15 year-old pictures and look at yourself now, and you’ll see a change. You’re still the same. But time changes you. Music is very much like that.
I have always stressed that growth is good and change is acceptable so long as we don’t lose sight of the values and the traditions in this music, the music I love better than any music in the world. If we are careful to keep that intact, and to be mindful of the people that blazed the trail and have respect for the music that started all this, then accept the young people’s innovation. They’re being innovative just like I was when I was when I came along. I always liked to try different things and so did Monroe, so did Jimmy Martin and the Osborne Brothers. Yet, after all the innovations and changes, after all the evolving that has sculpted our music, it’s still the best.”