Oh… so you think you’re special?

Chris JonesA question has arisen in the last couple of weeks about a growing IBMA mystery: what on earth happened to the Special Awards? If you’re not familiar with them, those are the awards that are given out during the Special Awards luncheon (the matching name is a pure coincidence) during the IBMA World of Bluegrass. They include awards for “Print Media Person of the Year,” “Best Graphic Design,” “Broadcaster of the Year,” and “Best Liner Notes Written For the Least Amount of Money.” During the awards show later that night, they’re announced with the traditional introduction, “in ceremonies held earlier today . .”

The main difference between the awards and the “special” awards is that during the acceptance speeches for the special awards, most people in the audience are chewing. They’re also chosen by a slightly different process, which I’ll detail below, if time allows (which time is unlikely to do).

Normally, the nominees for the Special Awards are announced when the non-special awards are, at the annual IBMA awards nomination press conference. This year, however, there was not a word about them. This is what led some people to recently come up to us at bluegrass festivals (usually while not purchasing a CD) and ask if we knew what had become of them. Apparently they thought that because my band contains current and past special awards winners, as well as a past IBMA board chairman, we might actually know something about the lost awards. Boy were they disappointed! They didn’t realize that we make it our business to stay as uninformed as possible about IBMA inner workings. I can say that I personally know about as much about it as I do about the summer Olympics water polo standings.

I’ll admit, though, that I had started to get a little curious about it. It turns out that the U.S. women’s water polo team are the defending champions, but they’ll have to look out for the up and coming Australians. I was also getting more interested in the Special Awards mystery. Knowing that the responsible thing would be to contact the IBMA office to get the direct story, I opted instead to consult the bluegrass rumor mill. I also asked our waitress at Perkins last week, while I was ordering corned beef hash and eggs. Here’s what I’ve learned:

The Special Awards are taking longer to find nominees for because the IBMA is trying to make them more special than in past years. In fact, a name change to “The REALLY Special Awards” is in the works. With a few exceptions, the types of awards given out will remain the same, but this year, candidates for these awards will have to go through a much more stringent selection process.

In the last few years, the nominees were selected this way: names were submitted by the potential nominees themselves, or by their supporters, friends, stalkers, or therapists. In the case of some awards, this was followed by a submission of sample material from the prospective nominee, or a list of the past year’s accomplishments in the field. These were then narrowed down to five nominees by a committee, whose members are chosen by the IBMA.

In order to serve on one of the special awards committees, you must meet the following requirements:

  • You must be an IBMA member.
  • You must be willing to serve on the committee.
  • You must have a pulse, at least some of the time.

Once nominees are selected, the winner is determined by a vote, but not by the general IBMA membership (that would make them less special). They’re voted on by the pool of members who vote on the Hall of Fame Inductees. Those are all regular IBMA members, too, but I think they’re just a little taller than your average member, and most of them have names beginning with the letter “B” (I’m not 100% sure about this, so please don’t quote me).

You can see how some might regard this process as only somewhat special. To make them really special, a new system had to be put into place, and it’s one that’s a little more time-consuming, hence the late awards nominations.

The new system attempts to screen candidates much the way banks screen loan applicants. It goes something like this:

  • A candidate for any special award must now submit no less than 8 samples of their work, at least one of which must be performed in person in front of the committee. For example, in the case of Broadcaster of the Year, the potential nominee must stand in front of the committee and recite a station ID. He or she is judged on vocal tone, clarity, posture, and color of pants. Extra points are given for dancing while giving the ID.
  • The candidate must also submit tax returns for the past four years, proof of residency, and proof of unemployment. He or she must also submit to a drug test, because performance enhancing drugs have become such a problem in the special awards, especially in the liner notes category. A hair sample must also be sent in, just because the committee likes seeing what your hair looks like under a microscope.

The committee selection process has become more elaborate, too: now each special awards committee must consist of 12 members. At least two members must be former members of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. All 12 members must know all the words to Drink Up and Go Home. The committee will meet in person three times: once in a bar or restaurant, twice in an aluminum auction barn. One of the three meetings will be a get-acquainted session, one will consist mainly of a poker game. The third one will be cancelled. The nominees will be determined at random during a later teleconference.

Now I think you can see why it’s taking a little longer this year. In fact, this year’s Special Awards may need to be given out next year.

The final winners will be determined by a coin toss backstage during the Special Awards luncheon itself. There’s sure to be lots of suspense. There’s also sure to be chicken with a side salad. That’s what my Perkins waitress thought, anyway. By the way, she never refilled my coffee.