Doyle Lawson rose slowly to his feet, humbly taking off his trademark hat in response to the thunderously spontaneous applause that threatened to lift the Loveless Barn just outside Nashville off its foundation. It had just been announced that he was being inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame, the pinnacle of a 50-year career that started professionally with a banjo gig with none other than Jimmy Martin and the Sunny Mountain Boys.
His hat is white for a reason; Mr. Lawson is truly one of the Good Guys of bluegrass, and the news that he was being included into that august group of legends seemed overwhelming for a moment as he stood literally in the middle of the crowd, trying to take in the admiration heaped around him, but one had to wonder if the whole notion had still yet to hit him by the time he had his morning coffee.
The crowd of 100-plus industry professionals, friends, family, journalists and fans had turned out on this warm Wednesday evening (August 15) to learn the final nominees of the annual International Bluegrass Music Association Awards, the annual honors granted to the absolute finest bluegrass music has to offer. There were many reasons to be excited. While a couple of the nominations leaned towards the middle of “newgrass” territory, most were firmly rooted in the traditional sounds of old-time bluegrass, which should allay the fears of anybody who may be concerned that Bill, Earl and Lester might be forgotten anytime soon.
The late Ralph Rinzler, who wore hats as varied as musician, writer, mentor, teacher, disciple, promoter, manager and Grammy-winner, was also named to the Hall of Fame. Mr. Rinzler helped flatpicker Doc Watson gain national recognition and later served the Smithsonian Institution as curator of American art, music and folk culture. He dedicated his life to the growth and expansion of bluegrass and folk music and culture around the world. He died in 1994.
Other than Mr. Lawson, the person with the biggest smile in the room might have been Russell Moore. He and his band, IIIrd Tyme Out, received no less than nine nominations for group and individual achievement, including Entertainer of the Year; Vocal Group; and Instrumental Performance for the fiddle classic, Carroll County Blues. Their cut of Pretty Little Girl from Galax, written by Milan Miller, was nominated for Song of the Year, and mando player Wayne Benson was nominated for Mandolin Player of the Year. IIIrd Tyme Out’s acclaimed release, Prime Tyme, received a nod for Album of the Year, and Beyond the Sunset, the breath-taking a capella number Russell recorded with Doyle Lawson, Jamie Dailey and Joshua Swift, was nominated for both Gospel Recorded Performance and Recorded Event of the Year. Moore was likewise chosen in the Male Vocalist category, of which he holds the current title; only Del McCoury matches him in number of wins, with four each.
“It felt wonderful!” grinned Moore on hearing the good news of his multiple nominations. “It’s a great feeling, I’m on Cloud Nine.” He credits a lot of the success to the cohesiveness of his band, and the fact that they’ve been playing together for a long while now.
“Steve [Dilling] has been here for 20 years, and Wayne [Benson] has been here for 17. You can’t take the place of time,” he says. “That really has a magical thing about it, being together for that many years. Justen’s [Haynes] in his eighth year, and Edgar’s [Loudermilk] in his fifth year. We’re really just having a lot of fun. We want to make music and entertain the crowd that’s there to see us.”
He believes that IIIrd Tyme Out gets much of their energy and the enjoyment of entertaining from their audiences.
“When they give us the feedback that they know we’re enjoying it, it follows suit that they’re enjoying it,” he says. “We perform better when we know they’re enjoying themselves. We work even harder to give them all we have.”
Of his singing, Moore still feels the joy of a song, and of sharing songs with an audience. “Music moves me, especially singing,” he says. “It’s so therapeutic for me. When I was growing up, I could be having the worst day, and I could go to my room and put on a few records, and feel better.” As a kid, he listened to everything from George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard to Kansas, Journey and Boston, but, as he points out, all of these were “great vocal bands. Steve Perry [of Journey] is one of my all-time heroes.”
But it was the Osborne Brothers who made Moore know that bluegrass was his home. “Bobby is my greatest influence,” he states. “When I heard them, I thought, ‘Maybe I can do this.’ And on some nights when I sing, I hope there is someone out there who might get the same feeling from music that moved me, when I listened to my heroes. I think that’s my ultimate hope, as a vocalist. When it’s good, you don’t want it to end.”
Speaking exclusively with Bluegrass Today immediately after the announcements were made was nine-time Fiddle Player of the Year winner Michael Cleveland. Michael couldn’t be there in person, but that made him no less ecstatic to learn of his three nominations. He continued his streak in the Fiddle Player category, positioning himself for an unprecedented tenth possible win; Instrumental Group of the Year with his band, Flamekeeper; and Recorded Event of the Year with Larry Cordle for Old Violin, a track produced by Bob Kelley, Jack Campitelli and Darrel Adkins. Even with so many awards as a fiddler, Cleveland insists that it always surprises him to learn that his name has been called in the category.
“I keep thinking, ‘Man, aren’t they sick of me yet?’” he wonders with a chuckle. “It always surprises me, and it’s always a real honor that people think that much of you, that they keep nominating you. I don’t think I’m any better than any one of those guys. There are guys nominated there that can do stuff I can’t pull off in a million years.” Cleveland shares the category with fellow nominees Hunter Berry, Jason Carter, Stuart Duncan and Ron Stewart.
Cleveland is excited that the newest configuration of Flamekeeper has been nominated for Instrumental Group of the Year. He sees it as an affirmation of the new members that have joined this year, and the growth the new players have already achieved.
“It feels really good to see this band get nominated, because this is the first time for them. This configuration hasn’t been together all that long…they all really want to play, they all want to rehearse, they all want to get it right, they all want to get at it and work on it and get it as good as it can possibly be.”
The evening’s proceedings had opened with a live performance from one of the night’s nominees, Junior Sisk and Ramblers Choice. Their two-song set included one of the year’s most popular tunes and a nominee for Song of the Year, A Far Cry from Lester and Earl. Junior is a co-writer of the track, along with Tim Massey and Rick Purdue, and later said that his portion of the song came to him in an unusual manner.
“I can remember whispering the third verse into my phone up in a tree stand, deer hunting. That’s where I get my best thoughts, either in the woods or on the water,” says Junior. “That’s my time. I was up in the tree stand, thinking about that song, and it hit me so hard…I say now that [the song] is probably three guys’ opinions on bluegrass music today.”
As a songwriter, it is Junior’s hope that he can truly touch people on an emotional level, where music becomes Life shared. He tells us that when he is singing to an audience, “Sometimes you might get a big ol’ smile, or even a laugh out loud, and that’s awesome. But if you look out there and you see a tear, then you know you’ve done your job. I always think back to Carter Stanley about that. Every song that Carter ever wrote, he pretty much lived it. I want to pay tribute to that tradition, and keep the tradition of bluegrass music alive.” He and Ramblers Choice must be doing something right; their release, The Heart of a Song, received a nomination for Album of the Year.
Other big winners of the night who were not present for the announcements were Alison Krauss and Union Station, whose Paper Airplane release propelled them to nominations in the Entertainer of the Year, Album of the Year and Song of the Year categories for Peter Rowan’s Dust Bowl Children. The band also received two vocalist and two instrumentalist nods. The band was last named Entertainer of the Year in 1995; their most recent IBMA award was Dan Tyminski’s win for Male Vocalist of the Year in 2009.
There are people supporting bluegrass music who are often unsung heroes. The IBMA takes the opportunity to recognize a few of these people with Special Awards in several categories, including Bluegrass Broadcaster of the Year, Bluegrass Event of the Year, Bluegrass Print Media Personality of the Year, Best Graphic Design for a Recorded Project, Best Liner Notes for a Recorded Project and Best Songwriter of the Year. Ted Lehmann, author of the blog Ted Lehmann’s Bluegrass, Books & Brainstorms, is a nominee in the Print Media Personality category. He and his wife, Irene, have built their blog into a fan and industry favorite.
“There aren’t enough people out there who are writing blogs about bluegrass,” notes Lehmann. “I try to be a voice for expanding the concept of bluegrass and including the many new and interesting sounds and sights that develop…The blog has progressed far beyond my wildest imaginings when I first looked around for something to say about bluegrass.”
The IBMA Awards are voted on by the professional membership of the Association. The trophies will be given out at the annual International Bluegrass Music Awards ceremony, held at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium on September 27th. The show is the highlight of World of Bluegrass Week, which includes an industry conference and a 3-day Bluegrass Fan Fest extravaganza.
Tickets to the show are available by phone at 1-888-GET-IBMA or online at www.ibma.org. Bluegrass Today is one of several sponsors of the show.