Giving thanks, bluegrass edition

I’ve never celebrated Thanksgiving in my own home. That means 64 holidays at my parents, my in-laws, a West Coast dinner out with an uncle, and a long weekend with my college girlfriends family in Pittsburgh.

That string will be broken tomorrow, when my wife and I dine alone, with the dog patrolling the perimeter of the table in case any food fumbles occur.

It would be easy, given the pandemic, to bemoan not being able to gather together with friends and loved ones, but what’s the use? Instead, we’ll celebrate the birth of a new tradition – Thanksgiving at OUR house. And we’ll look forward to continuing it next year, in the new place now being built in northeastern Pennsylvania, much closer to our families.

The same goes for bluegrass. I know that some bands, players, and venues didn’t survive the shutdown and the upending of an already shaky business model. I mourn those losses.

But 2020 also gave us much to be thankful for in the bluegrass world.

In no specific order, I’m especially grateful this year for:

IBMA. I was skeptical when the association announced plans for a virtual World of Bluegrass in place of the annual gathering in Raleigh. But Executive Director Paul Schiminger and his small but talented staff pulled it off, making it one of the best of the 11 annual gatherings I’ve been part of. 

With few technical glitches and lots of extra preparations, it would have been easy for an outsider to believe IBMA has been living in the digital space all along. The awards show was spectacular. An added bonus was being able to watch the workshops when I had the time. If there are two simultaneous sessions during an in-person World of Bluegrass, you’re out of luck for one of them.

That said, I’m eager to see a lot of old friends and make some new ones face-to-face next year in Raleigh.

MY FRIENDSHIP WITH STEVE GULLEY. During my second IBMA, in Nashville in 2011, Steve Gulley changed my life. As a panelist at a songwriting workshop, he scoffed at that notion that I was only a lyric writer, not a musician. He made me believe in myself and my limited guitar playing, to the point that I attended a song circle that night and wobbled through one of my creations. I met Dawn Kenney in that circle, and we’ve been writing together for years.

Steve and his wife Debbie demoed one of our songs. And Steve and I planned to write together. Those plans were cut short by Steve’s death this year, but he’ll always be in my heart for that little nudge he gave me.

THE PIONEERS. We owe so much to Bill Monroe, of course, but also to Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Ralph and Carter Stanley, and so many others from the first generation of bluegrass. They paved the way for every note that’s played in bluegrass today, even those that can’t be shoehorned into the traditional definition of the genre.

THE INNOVATORS. Sam Bush, John Cowan, the Steep Canyon Rangers, Béla Fleck, Missy Raines, Molly Tuttle, the Infamous Stringdusters, and others sometimes think way outside the bluegrass box. The result is some of the most refreshing and inventive music I listen to these days. Bluegrass, to me, is just like Thanksgiving, a feast of many tasty dishes.

THE LEGENDS. I never met Bill Monroe or heard him play, but I’ve been lucky enough to be able to see and hear some incredible Hall of Famers, and others who will be, play the music I love: Doyle Lawson, Del McCoury, Larry Sparks, Lynn Morris, Tom Gray, Dudley Connell, Dale Ann Bradley, Ricky Skaggs, Joe Mullins, Hazel Dickens, and many more. 

THE BANDS YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF. While the folks in the previous three categories get nearly all of the attention, bluegrass is home to dozens and dozens of local and regional bands waiting for their big break. For many, that break will never come. But they play on, for the love of the music. One reason I’m eager to get back on the festival circuit, hopefully some time next year, is to discover some of these bands in jam circles and during the non-peak performance hours on stage. Their devotion to the music always sends me away feeling optimistic about the future of the genre.

THE DJs. As a songwriter, I’m obviously indebted to the radio personalities who play the songs I’ve written for others to perform. But I’m also grateful for some of them being traveling companions for many hours on the road in years past (and years to come). Some of them make a living at it. Some of them do it for little or no money. But they’re all important in keeping bluegrass alive and well, especially this year.

YOU. If you’re still reading, you either love bluegrass or need a new hobby to get you through the rest of the pandemic. I’ve been fortunate to write about music since 2010, first for The Bluegrass Blog and, since 2011, for its successor, Bluegrass Today. We’ve shared a lot of highs and lows, laughter and tears, and some fantastic music over those years. I’m grateful to all of you (and to my editor, John Lawless), and look forward to sharing more thoughts and music with you down the road.

Be safe, everyone. Hope to see you soon.

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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.