Random thoughts on a new bluegrass season

Our roving correspondent David Morris shares a few loosely-related thoughts as we move forward into the 2011 festival season.

THE GIBSONS SOAR. Could this be the year of the Gibson Brothers? A year after Ring the Bell won song of the year and gospel recording of the year from IBMA, the Gibsons are climbing the charts with their latest release, Help My Brother.

If Saturday’s closing set at the D.C. Bluegrass Union Festival in northern Virginia is any indication, folks who catch the act at festivals this year are in for a treat. The harmonies from Eric and Leigh Gibson, always strong, are sublime on the recording and were just as sweet in their live performance. Add the fine fiddling of Clayton Campbell and the exquisite rhythm section of Joe Walsh on mandolin and Mike Barber on bass, and the Gibsons are clearly ready for a strong run toward the stage at this year’s IBMA awards.

Help My Brother will get plenty of support for album of the year – yes, it’s that good – even though the field will be crowded and will, for the first time in several years, include a bluegrass project from Alison Krauss, Paper Airplane.

And Talk to Me, written by Leigh Gibson, is my early favorite for recorded project of the year. It’s a stirring call and response, with the younger Gibson brother and Claire Lynch trading plaintive verses. Those who attended Saturday’s festival got a rare chance to hear a live version by the original lineup, since Claire was backstage after finishing a strong set with her band.

The pickers may be boxed out of individual awards, but not for lack of talent. Adam Steffey practically owns the mandolin trophy and the Boxcars are making a lot of noise with their debut disk, and perennial fiddle winner Michael Cleveland is in top form touring in support of Flamekeeper’s latest, Fired Up. Still, don’t be surprised if at least one of them makes the final ballot as more people hear their work on Help My Brother.

MONROE MOVIE. Ironically, the Gibson Brothers best recorded performance of the year might not be on their CD. As part of the soundtrack for Blue Moon of Kentucky, the much-delayed movie about Bill Monroe, Leigh and Eric recorded the Blue Sky Boys’ Happy Sunny Side of Life. The luckiest fans at Saturday’s DCBU festival got to hear it twice – once in a singing workshop and again on stage. The arrangement is stellar.

The soundtrack, co-produced by T-Bone Burnett and Ronnie McCoury, is in the can, with Del McCoury singing the Bill Monroe parts. Other participants include Earl Scruggs, Ricky Skaggs and Patty Loveless.

The movie itself is coming along more slowly. Filming has been delayed a couple of times, forcing Peter Sarsgaard to back out of playing Monroe because of scheduling conflicts. Sarsgaard’s wife, Maggie Gyllenhaal, is still on tap to play Bessie Lee Mauldin, Monroe’s lover and sometimes bass player. No word yet on the new Bill.

CROWDED FIELD. The voters for bass player of the year will have a tough time picking a winner in 2011. The new Alison Krauss project puts Barry Bales back on stage, and in people’s minds this year, automatically making him a contender. But last year’s winner, Marshall Wilborn, is touring heavily, too, as Flamekeeper pushes Fired Up, and the underappreciated Harold Nixon should receive some attention because the Boxcars are winning so many fans. Add Mike Bubb, seven-time winner Missy Raines and Darren Vincent and the ballot is past capacity.

In fact, the field is so crowded that one of the best bassists in any genre, Mark Schatz of the Claire Lynch Band, may not even make the final ballot. As a technician, Schatz is one of the very best. As an entertainer, he is without peer. But when it comes to IBMA voters, Schatz gets little respect. He deserves a second listen.