What Next for IBMA?

Sunday afternoon often has an air of loneliness and finality for me, as the unstructured fun and fellowship of the weekend starts to fade with the advent of the renewed routine of Monday morning. A week ago Sunday was especially so for me as I drove, alone, back from Nashville to my corner of southwest Ohio after spending Thursday through Sunday at the IBMA Awards Show and Fan Fest.

I have attended all or part of all but a couple of  IBMA weeks since my first one in 1999, and usually come back home in a better mood, having made more new friends and contacts and discovering good new bands and musicians. And though my life—and outlook on it—is much better than it was a decade ago, this year was different, and I’m not entirely sure why. But I have a few ideas.

First, is the law of diminishing returns. The more times you experience something, the less pleasurable those experiences tend to become. My first couple of forays at the Galt House in Louisville were a rush: riding an elevator with Larry Cordle, shaking Tony Rice’s legendary right hand in the lobby, happening upon Ricky Skaggs singing The Darkest Hour is Just Before Dawn in an almost-empty penthouse suite, harmonizing with Del McCoury on the chorus to Down the Road at the jam session that bloomed from Ricky’s late-night solo strummings, hanging out with Leroy Troy, discovering the Old Crow Medicine Show and King Wilkie before they were any good, and becoming great friends with the members of the latter outfit. All moments that could only happen at IBMA.

Fewer of those moments have seemed to happen at Nashville, maybe because things are a little more spread out there. Also, I haven’t been able to spend as much time at the World of Bluegrass portion in the last few years.

Another reason may be something that Chris Pandolfi referred to in a panel discussion on Saturday at this year’s Fan Fest: the bluegrass universe is still relatively small, and there comes a time when you’ve simply made all the contacts you’re likely to make. I definitely felt that this year at Fan Fest. It seemed the same bands, most of them very good, of course, were on the Fan Fest lineup, and mostly the same exhibitors were there. It’s kind of sad that the appearance of a 5-hour Energy booth was enough to prompt comment.

There was a lack of demographic diversity, as well, another challenge that we’ve long puzzled over how to confront. With the Monroe centennial and the IBMA Hall of Fame induction of Del McCoury—bluegrass music’s prime mover for the last two decades—there’s the feeling that the torch is ready to be passed, but not a clear idea of who is to receive it.

So what can we do to shake things up a little?

Most obviously, to me, is to reconsider the current Nashville site when the IBMA’s commitment to it expires in a couple of years. On a basic level, one hears much justified grumbling about the  Renaissance Hotel and Nashville Convention Center for its prices, for painfully high fees for Internet access, and positively inedible and ridiculously limited on-site food options.

Nashville is the geographic center of bluegrass nation, but the importance of its status as center of the country music industry is becoming less relevant to us every year. Music distribution is rapidly decentralizing, and it’s never been clear to me why the bluegrass industry would want to position itself as the kid cousin of a Music City culture that is antithetical to what is best—and most marketable—about our music. Nashville country is Budweiser, bland taste and big marketing. Bluegrass offers an infinite variety of microbrews, with each act seeking out its niche in the marketplace with those with more discerning palates.

That said, the geographic advantage of Nashville may yet trump other concerns. Let’s at least consider places like Louisville, Cincinnati, Charlotte or Atlanta, if only to leverage a better deal in Nashville.

Another idea is to take to heart some of the things Pandolfi said in his keynote address. While there are few who are more reactionary when it comes to answering the “What is bluegrass anyway?” question, I didn’t see much that was radical in what Pandolfi had to say. He’s right in saying that traditional bluegrass doesn’t need to be preserved by an organization like IBMA. Artists who offer the pure stuff will always find their fans—I think more easily in the coming decade—just as Pandolfi’s Infamous Stringdusters will find theirs. In a free market, one’s success does not crowd out the other.

But IBMA can help foster cross-pollination with artists and genres of all kinds—from progressive bluegrass acts like the Stringdusters to the worlds of jam bands, folk, traditional country, Southern gospel, black gospel, blues and beyond—by partnering with other music trade groups and festivals and inviting outsiders to our showcases, festivals and awards shows. Monroe added spice to his music to come up with the blend we now call pure. Different, stronger strains of his music—which is ours now—will result  from the unforced interactions that start with open ears.

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About the Author

Aaron Keith Harris

Aaron Keith Harris writes for and edits The Lonesome Road Review. From 1999 to 2003, he hosted Bluegrass Breakdown on WYSO radio in Yellow Springs, Ohio. He co-wrote the 2013 documentary film Of By For, and has worked as a news reporter on radio and in print, including a reporting residency with Associated Press Jerusalem. His reporting and commentary as appeared in The Washington Post, USA Today, Bluegrass Unlimited and National Review Online. He is a freelance writer who also serves as central committee chairman for the Libertarian Party of Ohio. In 2011, he was commissioned a Kentucky Colonel. aaronkeith@gmail.com twitter: @aaronfairborn