It started as a lark. John Lawless and Brance Gillihan would find themselves talking about politics and the 2004 presidential election during their spare time working on bluegrass music teaching videos for John’s company, AcuTab. Sometimes the conversation drifted to a then-new tool for disseminating news – a blog.
“That was the year that blog became a cool word,” Lawless recalled the other day. “One of us said, ‘You know what, we could have a blog.” And so, in 2005, the Bluegrass Blog was born.
Today, 12 years, a major rebranding to Bluegrass Today (in 2011), and countless words, photographs and videos later, the site that Lawless and Gillihan created was announced as a winner of IBMA’s Distinguished Achievement award. The official presentation will be made at IBMA’s World of Bluegrass in Raleigh in late September.
“When I first heard about this, it really shocked me,” Lawless said. “It’s an honor to be recognized by your peers.”
In the early days, the blog lived on a shared server, and John and Brance would each add an item or two before work. On days that they had a big story, traffic would spike and the server would crash. Today, a small but dedicated band of regular correspondents and occasional guest contributors posts items throughout the day, reaching a global audience.
The blog – once the founders explained what a blog was to the bluegrass masses — gained immediate acceptance among many in the industry, probably because the founders were known for their video work with bluegrass artists — John through AcuTab and Brance for running Clear Blue Production. They were also accomplished musicians, and in one of the earliest posts on the blog, poked a bit of fun at their lack of journalism credentials.
John and Brance did most of the writing in the early days, but correspondents were added and coverage expanded. (I was fortunate enough to come aboard in 2010. I won a video contest about the difficulties of hauling around an upright bass that was co-sponsored by the Blog and AcuTab and was judged by Barry Bales. When John interviewed me and found out about my extensive journalism background, he invited me to help cover that year’s World of Bluegrass conference in Nashville. I’ve been on the masthead ever since.)
By 2011, Brance heeding a call to the ministry, moved his family to the Boston area and entered divinity school. Around the same time, syndicated bluegrass broadcaster Terry Herd started talking with John about the need for a new bluegrass music chart. A new partnership was formed and Bluegrass Today – think the blog on steroids – was born, just in time for the World of Bluegrass in 2011.
It’s a site run by and written by bluegrassers, but it’s not all about cheerleading. If there’s a serious story to tell, we tell it. The Blog and Bluegrass Today have tackled a number of serious subjects over the years, including the flap about the Navy band Country Current playing service anthems during an awards show (still talked about years later), IBMA’s finances and leadership, and declining revenue streams for both artists and songwriters.
But the staples remain a key focus: News about personnel changes, industry trends, new products and reviews of new music. Musicians, record labels and gear sellers also benefit from a strong advertising program spearheaded by Herd, and bands are quick to herald their successes when the Bluegrass Today chart comes out every Friday morning.
A handful of Bluegrass Today regulars – Chris Jones, Terry Herd, John Curtis Goad and yours truly – have made appearances on that chart. They also pop up on lists of IBMA awards nominees. Lawless, Gillihan and Jones have been honored as IBMA’s print reporter of the year, and Goad, Morris and Daniel Mullins have been nominated. Herd is also a four-time winner of the IBMA Broadcaster of the Year award.
We don’t do it for awards, of course. We do it for those of you who love bluegrass, and we do it because WE love bluegrass.
You may not always agree with what we write – Lawless takes great pride in allowing contributors to show their personalities. “Part of the fun is the different voices,” he said.
And we won’t always get it right. But we will admit when we are wrong and correct our mistakes. (I own perhaps the most boneheaded blunder in the history of the two sites, prematurely killing off Sonny Osborne in a review of a Bobby Osborne CD a few years ago. We corrected the error almost immediately, but not before a reposting on Bobby’s site prompted a number of inquiries about poor Sonny’s demise.)
But we have tried, and will continue to try, to report on news about bluegrass news quickly and fairly.
Lawless says he has dreamed about this day – being honored by his peers – since he was 20 years old. In those early daydreams, though, he anticipated the accolades would be for his banjo playing.
Unfortunately, he notes, “Bela Fleck came up at the same time, and he was lapping me every year.”
Fortunately, though, John and Brance, and now John and Terry, have found a more lasting legacy, and a number of us have been lucky enough to come along for the ride.