Craig Havighurst with Dale Ann Bradley and C.J. Lewandowski at the WOB Keynote Address – photo © Frank Baker
Dale Ann Bradley grew up in a Primitive Baptist Church where her father was the preacher and musical instruments were not allowed. Then one day, she recalled, “I heard the banjo,” a moment that “changed my whole life.”
The result, she told attendees at IBMA’s 2022 World of Bluegrass, caused “a gulf, not only with my dad but with the church.”
Fortunately, dad softened and Bradley went on to a career that so far has brought her six female vocalist of the year awards, and will likely lead one day to induction in the Bluegrass Hall of Fame.
Bradley’s comments were part of an innovative keynote presentation marking the kickoff of the IBMA conference’s 10th year in Raleigh. Instead of a conventional speech plowing familiar ground, Bradley and C.J. Lewandowski were interviewed by veteran journalist Craig Havighurst.
The stage resembled the set of a television talk show, except for purple lighting that challenged still and video photographers. Havighurst guided Bradley and Lewandowski adroitly, keeping the discussion moving with well though-out questions. He also stayed out of the way, a challenge many moderators fail to meet.
From the early how-I-got-started moments of their careers, which reminded everyone that even the biggest stars started out as beginners, to getting back to business in the post-COVID world, the new format made for a presentation that was both entertaining and informative.
Lewandowski, though a generation younger than Bradley, also had his first exposure to music in church. Then one day, he and friend snuck off to see a movie. O Brother Who Art Thou. They both, in his words, “got bit by that bug.” His friend was given a banjo. C.J. bought a fiddle, but after seeing a photograph of Bill Monroe and coming to realize that “the bow is your enemy,” he traded the fiddle for a mandolin and started to perform.
The Po’ Rambling Boys came into existence in 2014, at a time when the debate about what was and wasn’t bluegrass was in full swing. In that environment, Havighurst wondered, why the band chose to hang its hat on traditional bluegrass. “That’s all we knew how to do, man,” Lewandowski said. “We didn’t choose to traditional music. I think traditional music chose us because of how we were raised.”
After the hard, dark days of COVID shutdowns, social distancing and vanished bookings, both of the panelists see an improving landscape.
“I think we’re getting fans who may have never heard bluegrass before,” Bradley said. “People are looking for something genuine.” Lewandowski added, “I think we’re in a really good position right now.”
And after years of traditionalists and new grassers bickering, Lewandowski is ready to declare an end to the war about who is in the tent and who isn’t. “What we now call traditional was progressive” when Bill Monroe fathered bluegrass. “The boundaries are gone now. Individuality has come back.”