There’s really a lot to love, from the obscure acronym (understood only by insiders), to the wide open jamming, to the band contest (won in years past by Alison Krauss and Union Station and other acts who later became household bluegrass names), to their defiant holding of an awards show opposite the Super Bowl.
So thanks to the Stearman and Jones families (no relation) for keeping this event running. It’s our Nashville cure for the midwinter bluegrass blues.
It might be the atmosphere that I like best of all. It has some of the flavor of the old Owensboro IBMA World(s) of Bluegrass, where all the action was in one relatively small hotel, though even Owensboro couldn’t match the wall of bluegrass sound that greets you when you enter the Sheraton Music City. I realize that the sound of 27 different jam sessions playing in 8 or 9 different keys, all at top volume, has probably caused many an innocent Nashville tourist to flee, terror-stricken, out the lobby doors, but there weren’t any rooms available for them anyway. We love it. The louder and scarier the better!
And, though the event takes place in Nashville and attracts many Nashville musicians and fans, it’s notable for being free of the usual Music City factors that can ruin a good music event. Those are the factors that just cause a certain oily Nashvilly-ness, now painfully captured by reality television: songwriters pitching songs (to each other), people bragging that they have songs “on hold” with country artists you’ve never heard of, and people dropping the names of stars they go to church with. Even Nashville pickers and writers who engage in that kind of behavior go to SPBGMA to escape all that.
Then there’s the consistency of it. Maybe it’s because I have such fond memories of SPBGMAs past, but I even like some of the things people complain about, like the sometimes futile search for parking (this just means the hotel is full and the jamming is going to be good), or the occasional blizzard or ice storm. These are character-building, and just add interest and a sense of adventure to the weekend.
After 9/11, when the NFL discovered that two weeks of pre-Super Bowl hype was better than one, and they stuck with the first Sunday of February as the date of the big game, it has conflicted with the SPBGMA awards show. The NFL has apparently not returned the phone calls requesting that they respect the long-established SPBGMA date and move the Super Bowl, so the events have run opposite each other since 2001. You can’t get more consistent than that. SPBGMA had the date first, so why should they move their show? Besides, you can tape or “Tivo” the Super Bowl. If you want to see Little Roy Lewis impersonating a trophy, or dressing in a diaper, you’d better be there in person.
Personally, I’ve had a lot of special things happen to me at SPBGMA that couldn’t have happened anywhere else, so I may be biased: Thanks to playing in the band contest with Weary Hearts, I can say that I was once with a band that literally won a garbage bag full of money (ask Mike Bub about that one). I had Jimmy Martin and Paul Williams sing What Would You Give in Exchange for me a capella, standing in the Sheraton hallway. I even had Jimmy Martin yell at me on stage there (the closest I ever got to being a Sunny Mountain Boy). Those, and other fond memories wash over me as I walk through those revolving doors every year.
The IBMA World of Bluegrass and SPBGMA are very different events serving different needs, but in some ways SPBGMA has a lot of the qualities that people thought were lacking in the Nashville version of the IBMA World of Bluegrass: sense of togetherness, informality, hotel rooms under $200, busloads of people from Missouri, and 400 banjos in one lobby. Now that the IBMA has moved to Raleigh, though (to great reviews), SPBGMA’s Nashville weekend should be cherished more than ever.
Finally, just to clear up some confusion, SPBGMA does not stand for the Society for the Policing of Bass Guitar by Mature Americans, it stands for the Society for the Preservation of Blue Grass Music of (not “in”) America. Long live it!
[Editor’s note] There will be no Chris Jones cutbacks at Bluegrass Today.