Since 1927, Time magazine has named bestowed the honor of Person of the Year (formerly Man of the Year) to an individual, group, or idea that “for better or for worse…has done the most to influence the events of the year”. Winners have included presidents, queens, and dictators, alongside soldiers, activists, scientists, and even YOU! (Yes, YOU won Person of the Year in 2006. Be sure to add it to your resume.)
The allure of this incredible honor, caused me to ponder: why don’t we name a Bluegrass Person of the Year? The title will be placed on the individual or group who made the biggest impact on the bluegrass world over the past year. Keep in mind, this is all a matter of opinion (my own), and I would love to hear your thoughts and suggestions in the comments below.
The Cox Family
After having been largely absent from the music industry at large over the past fifteen years, The Cox Family made a triumphant return this year with the release of their latest album, Gone Like The Cotton. The record was eighteen years in the making, and for me, was truly the “feel good” release of the year. While the album would not be mistaken for bluegrass, the family harmonies and simple purity of their music reminds everyone why they were one of the top bluegrass bands of the nineties. Just listen to the striking beauty of the album’s title track, and you’ll know why the music world has been abuzz since its October release. The Cox Family’s return has excited everyone, and bluegrass fans are anxious to see what 2016 may hold for the musical family from Cotton Valley, LA.
After one of the tumultuous periods in the history of the International Bluegrass Music Association, Paul Schiminger accepted the position as the organization’s Executive Director in 2015. Charged with healing the association after an exhaustingly bitter few months, while being severely understaffed, Paul rose to the occasion. Tackling this daunting task with confidence, poise, and dignity, he weathered the storm in Raleigh (quite literally as a hurricane forced the Wide Open Bluegrass festival to move indoors), and the organization came out better for it. His charge to IBMA’s members to not just “buy a book, but write a chapter” spoke to all. Well done, Paul.
Dailey & Vincent
What a year it has been for Dailey & Vincent! Dubbed “The Rockstars of Bluegrass” by CMT, D&V took their brand to the next level this year. Capitalizing on the energy and excitement of their popular live shows, the band released a live CD, DVD, and PBS television special in the first half of the year, all of which was merely a precursor to their biggest announcement: the premiere of The Dailey & Vincent Show on RFD-TV. The program has featured a variety of guests from the world of bluegrass, country, and Gospel music, including Vince Gill, Dan Tyminski, Steve Wariner, and Flatt Lonesome. The show has already developed a loyal following, and is scheduled for a star-studded Season 2 in 2016. Thanks to Dailey & Vincent for delivering bluegrass entertainment nationwide every weekend on RFD-TV.
While he no longer pitches his tent exclusively in the bluegrass camp, Chris Stapleton has still brought much attention to the genre in 2015 due to his breakthrough year in country music. After sweeping the CMA awards, winning Best New Artist, Best Male Vocalist, and Album of the Year, Chris Stapleton instantly became a household name. His album, Traveller, shot to number one on iTunes and Billboard, and his performance with Justin Timberlake made headlines. (I would assume he holds the distinction of being the only bluegrass artist to perform with JT?)
His success generated a renewed interest in bluegrass, and not just in his former band, The Steeldrivers. The music industry has taken notice to Chris’s bluegrass roots, resulting in some country artists to strip it down and (hopefully) begin to steer away from the pop-infused bro-country drivel. Heck, I even heard Chris’s song, Parachute, on ESPN last night while watching college football, a nice change of pace from Luke Bryan (who, ironically, happens to be one of Stapleton’s biggest fans). Only time will tell if Chris will become this generation’s Ricky Skaggs by coming from bluegrass, dominating country, and ushering in a new new traditionalist movement. One thing is for certain though, it only helps bluegrass to cheer Chris on in his newfound popularity. Here’s to Chris sweeping the Grammys, with his nominations for Best Country Album, Best Country Solo Performance, and Album of the Year. (The dude is straight killin’ it!)
J.D. Crowe played his banjo publically for the last time in 2015. He had retired from maintaining a touring band a few years ago, but had maintained a light schedule of special event performances since 2012, primarily with Doyle Lawson and Paul Williams. However, per doctor’s recommendations, J.D. was told to enjoy a full time retirement beginning this past summer. A member of the Bluegrass Hall of Fame and arguably bluegrass’ most influential banjo player since Earl Scruggs, J.D.’s legacy is one of the largest in bluegrass. His hard-driving banjo helped define the sound of Jimmy Martin’s Sunny Mountain Boys, and as a bandleader, he helped shape contemporary bluegrass. Forty years after the release of one of (if not the) most influential albums in bluegrass history, his 1975 release J.D. Crowe & The New South is still one of the most talked about and most beloved albums in bluegrass (and about the only one known by its stock number: Rounder 0044).
How fitting that four decades after the album that changed bluegrass was released, J.D. Crowe would go out still on top! He retired with nothing to prove, and today’s artists can learn from J.D. how to retire gracefully and preserve your legacy. There is a false assumption that there is dignity in legends performing even after time and health conditions have severely taken their toll; unfortunately, these circumstances all too often result in a very disheartening experience for longtime fans and an inaccurate representation of an artist’s true impact to those who are new to the music. We should all respect J.D.’s choosing to step away and leave us still wanting more! Long live, J.D. Crowe!
2015 was the year that the rest of America caught up to the bluegrass world; we had long known of the immense talent which Mountain Faith possessed, but what a thrill it was to see America fall in love with this youthful North Carolina band. Their run on America’s Got Talent was one for the ages, making it all of the way to the semifinals, and bringing a newfound respect to bluegrass from the nation-at-large along the way.
Weeks after their elimination from the country’s biggest talent show, Summer McMahan won a Vocalist Momentum Award at the IBMA’s in Raleigh, while the band was nominated for Emerging Artist of the Year. Mountain Faith has developed a sound of their own, that is both fresh and appealing to fans of all ages and musical backgrounds, and is well-represented on their new album, That Which Matters. Their stellar 2015 was topped off by performing the national anthem at last week’s NFL battle between the Carolina Panthers and the Atlanta Falcons, as well as a halftime performance, a rare treat for any band, but especially for a family bluegrass band! Easily the most-talked about and most-watched bluegrass band of the year, Mountain Faith has represented bluegrass with class, dignity, and professionalism on a national stage this past year, and we are all the better for it.
2015 Bluegrass Person of the Year
2015 was the year of Larry Sparks. More than five decades after he first began his bluegrass career with The Stanley Brothers, Sparks is still “the man.” Being able to see a legend of his stature, with no signs of slowing down any time soon, is remarkable.
What helped Sparks dominate bluegrass in 2015 is his current lineup of the Lonesome Ramblers. He has gathered together a stellar group of young talent around him, all of whom are hungry to succeed and eager to learn from a bluegrass icon. Not only have the latest rendition of the Lonesome Ramblers properly accentuated the Sparks sound, but they have Larry excited and ready to outshine these talented young whippersnappers, and show them that he has still got it because he’s never lost it.
Few living legends still generate the excitement and allure at a bluegrass event that Larry Sparks does. Everytime he is on stage, you can bet that the first few rows will be filled with artists watching one of their heroes. When he steps off stage, the first folks asking for pictures aren’t screaming fans (although there are still plenty of those), but modern luminaries who realize how great he still is.
What an honor to be in attendance at this year’s IBMA awards show, and to see Alison Krauss induct Larry Sparks into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame. To see the the most Grammy-awarded female of all time present one of her biggest heroes and inspirations with bluegrass’ highest honor provided one of the most poignant moments in the award show’s history. Alison then joined Larry and The Lonesome Ramblers on stage for a powerful medley of some of his signature songs, and in true Sparks fashion, there was no question who was in charge. He brought the Duke Energy Performing Arts Center to its feet, and it was the most talked about moment of this year’s show. Many young folks left the theater blown away, as they had never been succumbed to the power of Sparks before. “That was amazing!” “Why have I never seen him before?” “All I can say is, ‘Wow!’” were some of the many phrases uttered by fans exiting the awards show, and those thoughts maintained throughout the weekend.
Few artists of Sparks’ generation are still with us, and even fewer are still performing on a regular basis. To be able to see Larry Sparks perform at this high of a level and generate this much buzz, five decades plus after he first stepped on a bluegrass stage, is remarkable. A newfound excitement and respect around Sparks and his music permeated 2015, and it culminated with his beautiful Hall of Fame induction.
There was really no other choice for 2015 Bluegrass Person of the Year.