At one point during Wednesday night’s announcement of nominees for this year’s IBMA awards, Jim Lauderdale caught himself reading the choices for female vocalist of the year for the second time, and Sam Bush kidded about having a déjà vu moment.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only such moment. We’ve seen pretty much the whole awards show before. Last year. And the year before that. And… There’s a sameness to the various lists year after year, with some minor exceptions.
But as long as voting is open to professional members of IBMA, there isn’t much that can be done about that. Each round of voting will always have the feel of a personality contest.
But there are some changes that IBMA can and should make.
For starters, new, specific guidelines for who is and isn’t an emerging artist are needed.
As it is, the category is a joke. By my reckoning, there is one true emerging artist on this year’s list of five nominees – Flatt Lonesome. I think Della Mae, Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen, the Spinney Brothers and the Darrell Webb Band are terrific bands, wonderful ambassadors for bluegrass and worthy of all kinds of accolades. But they’ve already emerged.
Meanwhile, other bands that are truly emerging get shut out in the popularity contest. One that springs immediately to mind this year: Dave Adkins and Republik Steele. In another year or two, they’ll probably pop up as a nominee. But they’ve emerged – first album, first appearance on Billboard’s bluegrass chart and so on – during the eligibility period for this year’s awards.
I don’t fault any of the bands that were nominated. It’s the rules, not them, that allow this unfortunate outcome. (Exhibit A for the misguided approach IBMA uses in this category will always be the Boxcars. Every member of that band is among the best in bluegrass on their instruments, and they all had experience in top bands before forming their superstar group. I love these guys, but if they were emerging artists the year the Boxcars were formed, then I’ve got a shot at being journalism’s rookie of the year after 36 years in the news business.)
Next, it’s time for more transparency and openness about the process of selecting nominees for the Hall of Fame and for IBMA’s special awards. They aren’t on the regular ballot. Nominees are chosen by a committee and the winners are selected by a special pool of bluegrass veterans. That’s all fine, but folks shouldn’t have to ask around to find out who serves on the committees. That information should be freely and openly disseminated.
Further, I think members of the screening committee and selection committee for the special awards should recuse themselves – in a public manner – from voting for themselves or anyone they’re in a band with or have a contractual relationship with.
Finally, I’d propose that any officer or board member of IBMA be ineligible for any special award. They’re insiders, and the award nominees are chosen by panels of insiders.
I’m not suggesting any hanky panky has or ever will take place. But the potential for or the appearance of a conflict of interest is often as problematic as an actual conflict.
Identify award committee members. Have a policy for who shouldn’t vote. Disclosure is never a bad thing, especially when there’s nothing to hide.
That said, here’s my disclosure: I’m a life member of IBMA. I’ve been proposed for the print person of the year award twice, but I’ve not been nominated and I’ve managed to survive. Oh yeah, and I’ve never been and never will be considered for emerging artist of the year, no matter how much they relax the rules.