Hooray for Hazel, and Other Musings

A few decidedly subjective thoughts about yesterday’s awards announcement. These sentiments may or may not be shared by anyone else at Bluegrass Today, or maybe even by anyone else in bluegrass today.

First and foremost, congratulations to the newest members of the International Bluegrass Hall of Fame – Bobby Hicks, Roland White, Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard. All are richly deserving, as are a number of fine candidates who were finalists but didn’t get in this time.

It’s especially gratifying that Hicks, White and Gerrard are still among us to bask in this honor.

I wish the same could be said for Dickens, a pioneer who helped pave the way for Claire Lynch, Dale Ann Bradley, Della Mae and many other women-led bands. As regular readers of Bluegrass Today are aware, I’ve been on the Hazel for the Hall bandwagon for a number of years, and I’m proud that the Leadership Bluegrass Class of 2016, of which I was a member, adopted Hazel’s cause.

Hazel died in 2011. Last year, she didn’t even make the final ballot of Hall of Fame contenders. This year, paired with her longtime duet partner, she’s finally getting her due.

There are some Hazel disciples who are dismayed that she’s getting in as part of the Hazel and Alice package rather than on her broader individual accomplishments as a songwriter, mentor, bandleader and stereotype shatterer.

I’ve always said that Hazel’s accomplishments are worthy of singling out, but that’s water over the dam now. There are far too few women in the Hall of Fame, so the addition of two this year should be celebrated, not minimized.

None of the above is meant to devalue Hicks and White in any way. Both are not only super talents – as is everybody who makes the Hall’s short list – but they are gentlemen and accomplished teachers.

I had the privilege of taking a bluegrass mandolin class with White and sitting in on a master class for fiddlers taught by Hicks in recent years, both during Common Ground on the Hill’s traditions weeks. After holding students and teachers alike spellbound during his class, Hicks joined the rest of the instructors on stage that night for the staff concert.

As Hicks was introduced part way through the show, I saw Missy Raines duck off stage for a moment, then reappear with a portable recorder to preserve that magic of what was about to happen.

That’s when it hit me: Even stars – Missy Raines is one of the best roots music bassists on the planet – get stars in their eyes.

If I were king of the bluegrass world – don’t worry, I have a better chance of becoming the first Methodist pope – I would eliminate the emerging artist category from the IBMA awards lineup.

Efforts to change the category guidelines are frequently made, but nothing sticks, so we end up having the same argument every year – Is (fill in the blank of a new band that includes some stars) really “emerging?”

The concept seems simple enough: Honor an upstart band and let them share the stage with established stars on the big awards show night in Raleigh. But reality tarnishes the good intentions.

This year, the finalists for emerging artist include three established acts: Sister Sadie, Volume Five and Front Country. All are top notch bands worthy of your ears and some of your hard-earned dollars. But they’ve already emerged. The craziness of the category was even more evident in the recent past when the Earls of Leicester “emerged.”

So if it’s broken and can’t be fixed, why not just throw it out?

Finally, as a songwriter, this one is personal. It’s time for IBMA to recognize the importance of songwriters on their own during the awards show. Without songs, there would be no artists or CDs to give awards to.

The award for songwriter of the year is announced, along with other special awards, at a luncheon during World of Bluegrass, not at the awards gala. That should change.

In a perfect world, all of the special awards would be presented on the big stage, but I get that there are time restrictions.

So why do I suggest an exception for songwriter of the year? Think about this: Can you have a terrific music project without liner notes, cool graphics, awesome reviews or even DJs and festivals? You might not enjoy bluegrass as much without any of those thing, but you could have music without them. Can you have a terrific music project without songs? Obviously not.

That’s my two cents. I’d love to hear your take in the comments.

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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.