IBMA vs. Bluegrass Gospel?

IBMAIs there a bias against bluegrass Gospel music at the IBMA’s World of Bluegrass convention? Are Gospel groups effectively blackballed as potential invited showcase artists?

I have personally been aware for many years that there is a subset of the bluegrass world that does not like Gospel music, and there may be as many reasons as there are non-fans. Some report not liking to be “preached to.” Others, particularly observant Jews, may be uncomfortable with the triumphalism that they find in many of the songs, and some folks who live secular lives may resent the intrusion of “the faith discussion” into their musical enjoyment.

And some people find political disagreements with the Southern Baptist tradition which informs a great deal of bluegrass Gospel. Even absent such overt references, they may simply turn away when words of faith hit their ears.

Many bluegrass radio programmers simply avoid the issue by playing little or no Gospel music, though there are also hosts who play nothing else.

But does the IBMA actively overlook bluegrass Gospel groups when choosing showcase acts?

These questions have come to a head in the past few weeks, in the persons of Jonathan Bucker & Chosen Road whose experience applying for a showcase spot at this year’s event brought such speculation to the fore. It seems clear that such charges against the IBMA are overblown, at least in part, and that the reaction to Buckner’s somewhat muted allegation of such a prejudice has brought a swift, immediate, and long overdue correction from the leadership of the organization.

Here’s what actually occurred…

Each year dozens of bands apply to be considered as invited showcase acts at World of Bluegrass. Being selected can be a tremendous boon to a band, from pre-event publicity to the exposure received performing at IBMA-sanctioned showcase events during what is now billed as the Bluegrass Ramble. These shows are held during official functions in the main convention center, and at a variety of smaller venues in the immediate vicinity, during the day and into the late night.

Chosen Road was among the groups to submit for 2015, and like many before them, did not make the cut. There are plenty of bands who try and fail to be among those chosen each year, and it is impossible to quantify why one act makes it and another doesn’t. But Jonathan sought out additional details from the selection committee to help discover what they might do to improve their chances, and what he was told threw him for a loop.

“We were told by a member of the selection committee, who was a fan of bluegrass Gospel music, that it was nearly impossible for an all-Gospel band to be selected to showcase.”

This came as quite a shock to Buckner, and as he shared this response with his Facebook friends, a decent bit of outrage ensued. Many of his friends, and fans of the band, couldn’t believe that such a thing could be true, but before it could go too far, Tim Surrett, bass player with Balsam Range and Vice Chair of the IBMA Board, jumped in to quash that thought.

Tim also contacted Paul Schiminger, the new Executive Director of the organization, and got plans started to host a special Gospel bluegrass showcase during this year’s convention. It wasn’t a simple task, since most of the scheduling had been completed, but it looks like a way may have been found, and Jonathan is soliciting other bands and potential sponsors who might wish to be involved.

So… all’s well that ends well?

From Buckner’s standpoint, it appears so. He told us that his concern was primarily that people who loved bluegrass Gospel should feel as much a part of the IBMA as followers of any other variant of the style.

Jonathan Buckner“We personally just did not feel that the Gospel side of bluegrass was as welcomed as it should have been. It is no secret that our passion is Jesus Christ. We use the music that we love to tell people about His loving grace and mercy. That is and always will be our first priority. However, the awesome thing is that we get to share the music that we love (bluegrass) with thousands of people every year who are not bluegrass fans!!! Literally, thousands of people who would never buy a ticket to a bluegrass festival or come to IBMA. They don’t have a clue as to what IBMA even is.

At every single date we play people come to the table and say, ‘You know,  I was not a fan of bluegrass but…….’ We love introducing them to the music we love, and we want to be able to invite them to be a part of the bluegrass family, IBMA. We are just one bluegrass Gospel band that does this, and we know there are more. In order to invite them into the IBMA family, we have to be a part of it. That’s all that we want is for bluegrass Gospel to be accepted, and respected for the important role that it DOES play in bluegrass music.”

When we spoke last week with Schiminger, he was adamant that no such criteria against including Gospel music exists in the IBMA, either written or understood. In fact, he mentioned that the only formal disqualification involves an act that had showcased before, absent substantial changes to the group.

Paul J. SchimingerPaul explained that these invited showcase acts are chosen by a four person committee. This year, for example, they had to pick 30 bands from among more than 150 submissions. Initially, each member posts a grade for each act based on a scoring system for overall quality, professionalism, originality, and preparedness for taking the next step in their careers. Often, some negotiation between committee members is required when acts are tied in the scoring, but typically, the showcase artists are chosen by these scores.

The committee for 2015 consisted of a pair of talent buyers, one radio host, and one artist. Schiminger made the point that it is something of a difficult and grueling experience having to rate other professional acts, in such quantity, on an objective basis. Committee members are not paid for their service, though the organization does charge a fee to cover mailing costs.

And don’t forget that in addition to the 30 invited showcase artists at World of Bluegrass, there are a number of showcase acts that are sponsored to appear, and that these are chosen outside the normal selection process.

In the end, Buckner is pleased that he helped bring this question to the fore, and bears no ill will to anyone in the IBMA. He especially wants to stress that he didn’t launch this discussion to benefit his career.

Jonathan Bucker & Chosen Road“We want people to understand that Chosen Road is not seeking recognition by IBMA to garner awards, more festival dates, etc. We just want to see evident changes that benefit the bluegrass community as a whole, and a vital part of that community is bluegrass Gospel music.

We have been blessed to be on the road now for seven years. We have played music in all four corners of the United States. By the end of this year, we will have played two hundred and forty-two dates. Our success has not been because of anything that we have done. All credit is owed to Jesus Christ, and what he has done through us.

The amazing part of what we do is that He allows us to tell others about His love. Then, He allows us to share the music we love with thousands of people who have never given bluegrass music a chance. Thanks to everyone who has helped us on our mission to share Jesus Christ, and to promote and preserve bluegrass music!!!”

Perhaps following this year’s Gospel showcase we can all be aware of what inclusiveness and a “big tent” really mean. If we want IBMA to showcase the rich variety that exists within the loose boundaries of our music, there has to be some Gospel singing going on.

Jonathan invites any bands or sponsors wishing to participate in this year’s Gospel showcase to contact him on Facebook. More details will be announced soon about the time and location of the event.

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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.