For most IBMA members, this year’s World of Bluegrass convention will be their first chance to meet Pat Morris, the newly-installed Executive Director of the organization who took over for Paul Schiminger in June of this year. These first few months have been busy ones, with planning for the convention, awards show, and weekend festival, not to mention new protocols for health concerns next month in Raleigh.
We had given him some time to get his feet wet before requesting an interview, and had an opportunity to finally meet with Pat by phone recently, where we found him to be an affable, capable, and experienced administrator who cares deeply about bluegrass music, and the future of the International Bluegrass Music Association.
Though not much of a musician himself – he plays some guitar – Morris has had his eye on bluegrass since he was in college.
“I grew up in Newport News, VA, and worked at Busch Gardens until I graduated Christopher Newport College and went into the Marine Corps. I worked in the barbecue shop in the French-Canadian part of the park, and befriended the guys in the Wahoo Review, which included Jim Lauderdale and Gene Wooten. I went to high school with Steve Smith of Hard Road Trio, and the other Wooten Brothers, Victor’s older siblings. I bought my first guitar, an Ovation Balladeer, from a store in Norfolk because Curtis Burch was playing one with New Grass Revival.
I feel like I’ve kind of come full circle, since after the Marines I went into Association Management. Now I’m back in bluegrass.”
That career in Association Management involved heading up some very large and diverse organizations, including serving as Chief Executive Officer of ACA International, President and CEO of the Association for Corporate Growth, and the Executive Director of the InterNational Committee for Information Technology Standards.
“I’ve had a passion for bluegrass ever since my time at Busch Gardens. Part of me feels like I stumbled into association management, so now bringing these two things together has been fantastic. When I saw that Paul was retiring, I looked into being a part of IBMA.”
The move to Nashville was an uncomplicated one, as his children are grown, though there is still a daughter attending James Madison University back in Virginia.
“It was just me and a fiancé. But really the whole town is sort of a big music family.”
Morris said that he likes the way the organization avoids pinning a clear delineation of the boundaries of bluegrass music.
“IBMA has done a great job saying that it’s not just open to all, but you are all welcome here. I’ve gotten a strong sense that IBMA has been very careful about not defining bluegrass. I saw this debate going on in the early ’70s about whether the Earl Scruggs Review belonged in bluegrass. The best way to go is to focus on the music.
Here is the big question… All across non-profits we see it asked, ‘Why aren’t more people joining who are involved in this industry?’ The best focus seems to me to be finding out how to provide value to the people you hope will be part of the organization. There can be a ton of benefits, outside the networking value. It is getting more challenging as technology gives people more opportunities to find information.”
So we wondered why he thought the IBMA Board of Directors selected him for the job, and what his primary task should be.
“I think being able to level the association executive experience and those best practices, and my experience with many other groups we can learn from about education, hosting events, and advocacy. They said that me having been a CEO at larger non-profits was something they wanted to take advantage of.
It all comes back to the music, and how it sounds. We want to look at ways to make IBMA better, and have better ways for members to take advantage of it.
I don’t want to come in with the answers, but look at the history, how things are being done, and talk to members and the original founding members. I’m mostly listening and learning at this stage, and getting fully immersed in World of Bluegrass. I have never been, but am really looking forward to it this year. I have done large shows like this before, and there are so many people I want to meet and hear.”
So how does he feel a couple months in?
“You don’t get many opportunities to marry two things that you have a strong passion for. I was exposed at an early age to bluegrass, and spent time learning to play guitar, writing songs, and then serving as CEO of associations. I look forward to applying what I’ve learned about running larger organizations to my work at IBMA.
One of the cool things I’ve found in bluegrass is not just a passion for the music, and playing it well, but also the close connection with the fans. That line between performer and fan is so loose, that you don’t feel like a stranger.
Everyone here has a similar passion for the music. It’s a really, really great thing, and I’ve been warmly welcomed into the family.”
Like Pat, we look forward to seeing everyone – at least the top part of their faces – at World of Bluegrass next month.
Best of luck to him and the IBMA!