John Lawless addresses the audience at the 2017 IBMA Special Awards ceremony – photo by Frank Baker
For John Lawless, editor and co-founder of Bluegrass Today, receiving an IBMA Distinguished Achievement Award “was a bit surreal.” According to Lawless, being at the ceremony and watching all of the other award presentations made him feel a bit unworthy of the honor. “It feels a bit soon for such an award,” he said, “given how Bluegrass Unlimited received one after 50 years!”
Nonetheless, the site, which is visited by about 85,000 individuals each month and generates close to 2.5 million page views each year, has become extremely popular and well-respected in the bluegrass community since its founding in 2011. Many musicians and fans know the site as the premier online source for bluegrass and roots music news. However, Lawless, who also received IBMA’s Print/Media Person of the Year at this year’s Special Awards Ceremony, didn’t necessarily begin his bluegrass career with an eye toward being a journalist.
His first interest, and main focus for many years, was the banjo. As a child growing up in Norfolk, Virginia, he fell in love with the instrument watching Mr. Greenjeans on Captain Kangaroo. Later on, Flatt & Scruggs’s appearances on The Beverly Hillbillies hooked him even more. “No turning back!” he said. When he was 18, he began teaching banjo lessons and working at a local music store. A few years later, this led to him opening his own music store with a couple of partners.
Lawless said that’s he tried just about every aspect of the music business, and has only ever worked a few months here and there outside of music-related ventures. “Since the goal was to support myself in music, I took advantage of opportunities that presented themselves,” he said. “I worked in bands for many years, but never had what it took to jump to the next level.” In the 1990s, he founded AcuTab Publications, which produced a successful series of instructional bluegrass DVDs. In the first decade of the 2000s, when blogs had become a popular part of the Internet, he and Brance Gillihan began The Bluegrass Blog on a lark. Its popularity grew and grew, and when Gillihan left the blog in 2011 to attend divinity school, Lawless entered into a new partnership with Terry Herd, who had the vision to create a full-service bluegrass news website, complete with weekly radio airplay chart.
Lawless, who now resides in Roanoke, Virginia, says receiving the Distinguished Achievement Award is “more than I ever expected.” Though he met the news that Bluegrass Today had received the award with disbelief, he says that recognition for a job well done is always an honor. He says he hopes that Bluegrass Today continues to grow in the future and continues to serve its audience. Overall, he hopes to be remembered as someone who loved and understood bluegrass music. “There is something so real and tangible about it,” he said.
Lawless encourages those just starting out in bluegrass to try new pathways, even if it’s not where they had originally planned. “Don’t try to be someone who’s already here. You’ll always be better at being yourself,” he said. “Look for a niche that’s not being filled. Don’t be afraid to go where opportunity leads.”
Congratulations on receiving the Distinguished Achievement Award, John, and congratulations to Bluegrass Today!