1997 World of Bluegrass is Bigger and Better

So much to do, so little time. This sentiment seemed to sum up the general feeling at this year’s International Bluegrass Music Association’s World of Bluegrass Trade Show and Fan Fest in Louisville, Kentucky. With a change of venue from its home base in Owensboro, the IBMA’s annual fall event was bigger and better than ever. Apparently, so is bluegrass music’s popularity. Recent census statistics indicate that occupants of some 55 million households in the U.S. like bluegrass music. Over the past decade, the music has enjoyed a nice, healthy growth spurt and there seems to be no indication of that growth waning.

An estimated crowd of 20,000 attended the seven-day event, which ran from October 13-19. Staged at the Galt House, bluegrass professionals and fans gathered to pick and sing, visit with old friends, and conduct a little business. Since its inception over a decade ago, the trade show has continued to grow, attracting more and more bluegrass vendors. Over 100 exhibitors including instrument makers, record labels, publications, and bluegrass bands displayed their wares in two of the hotel’s large meeting rooms.

The second floor lobby area was filled with singers and musicians who gathered there for impromptu jam sessions. Hotel rooms were transformed into bluegrass clubs as various organizations hosted bands in their suites ‘til the wee hours of the morning. Even stairwells, with their excellent acoustics, provided a haven for groups of singers and musicians.

Throughout the week, luncheon and evening showcases featured a healthy mix of established artists and newcomers to bluegrass and acoustic music. In all, two dozen acts performed at the showcases, which were sponsored by Stelling Banjo Works, Gibson Musical Instruments and Homespun Tapes, among others. Eastern Kentucky native Carla Gover and banjo player Bill Evans both delivered solid sets at Tuesday evening’s show. The husband and wife team of Barry and Holly Tashian presented an outstanding set at Wednesday evening’s show, as did traditional folk musician Bruce Molsky.

The Long & Pardue Band, based out of North Carolina, and the Freight Hoppers were among the new artists who showcased during the week. The latter group received a standing ovation at Wednesday’s lunch hour program. Fans of roots country music would do well to check out this old time string band’s current CD, Where’d You Come From, Where’d You Go. Simply put, they are playing some of the finest acoustic music in the country right now with a repertoire that ranges from the music of Grand Ole Opry star Uncle Dave Macon to Gid Tanner and his Skillet Lickers. When not onstage, the four-piece band could be found jamming in the hotel lobby with a suitcase full of CDs and tapes for sale.

Late Wednesday night, IBMA attendees were treated to some outstanding shows. Class Act Entertainment offered a half a dozen acts performing in their hospitality suite including IBMA’s 1996 Female Vocalist of the Year, Lynn Morris.

Chris Jones and his group, the Night Drivers, performed an intimate acoustic set in the Rebel Records room, which offered complimentary drinks and snacks for weary attendees. Bluegrass supergroup Longview, featuring IBMA’s newly crowned Emerging Artist of the Year, James King, performed a lengthy set before a standing room only crowd at the Rounder show as did the Del McCoury Band and Ricky Skaggs.

A dozen seminars were presented during the week covering a wide scope of topics such as marketing, media relations, and developing and enhancing the public image of bluegrass. Participating panelists included MCA executive and producer Tony Brown, GrooveGrass Records founder Scott Rouse, and musicians Ron Thomason and Sammy Shelor.

No doubt the highlight of the weeklong event was IBMA’s 8th Annual Awards Show. Broadcast over 375 stations worldwide, the show was hosted by Ricky Skaggs and featured performances by Vince Gill and Rhonda Vincent (with Earl Scruggs, Kenny Baker and Josh Graves ), IBMA’s Entertainer of the Year, the Del McCoury Band, and the Reno Brothers.

This year’s Fan Fest was staged indoors for the first time, sheltering attendees from the bitter cold and rain that has sometimes plagued previous IBMA festivals. Sponsored by the C.F. Martin Company, all proceeds from Fan Fest go to the IBMA Musicians’ Trust Fund, which offers financial assistance to musicians in times of need.

Nearly thirty acts took to the stage during the three-day festival including John Hartford, the Nashville Bluegrass Band, IIIrd Tyme Out, the Sidemen, and the Lonesome River Band . Ricky Skaggs closed out Friday evening’s show with a white-hot set of bluegrass classics. Skaggs has just released his first bluegrass album in nearly two decades, Bluegrass Rules, on Skaggs Family Records.

Sunday afternoon’s show featured a special salute to Grand Ole Opry stars Jim and Jesse, who are celebrating their 50th anniversary in bluegrass music. The IBMA Hall of Honor members were recently honored at a White House reception where they were the recipients of the National Heritage Award. Presented by President Clinton, the award is sponsored by the Folk Arts Program for the National Endowment for the Arts.

Masters Workshops and a Roots and Branches stage ran concurrently with the main stage show. Old time banjo player Will Keys, dobro player Tut Taylor, and Kathy Fink and Marcy Marker were among the artists who appeared on the Roots and Branches stage. The Master’s Workshops featured a session on Bill Monroe with former Blue Grass Boys Del McCoury and Bill Keith reminiscing about their former bossman. Teengrass, a workshop for young pickers, was hosted by Chris and Scott Thile and included fiddlers Jenny Bulla and Michael Cleveland and banjo whiz Josh Williams.

The International Bluegrass Music Museum staged its annual fundraiser, Fan Feast, on Saturday morning. Nearly 200 fans gathered to enjoy a fine country breakfast served by bluegrass performers including the Reno Brothers and their band, Gary Brewer and the Kentucky Ramblers, and Lee Gibson of the Gibson Brothers. Fans had an opportunity to bid on bluegrass memorabilia such as autographed CDs, bluegrass festival packages and miscellaneous promo items. An original metal sculpture by California artist J. D. Rhymes entitled “Waiting” garnered the highest bid and sold for $3,000. Money raised at the Fan Feast go to the IBMM’s general exhibit and operating funds.

With so many activities taking place during the course of the week, the IBMA staff should be commended for keeping event scheduling conflicts to a minimum. If you are interested in exploring the World of Bluegrass, make plans to attend next year’s event, which is scheduled for October 19th through 25th.