Four days into its first convention in Nashville, things seem to be running smoothly — if not entirely harmoniously — for the International Bluegrass Music Association. While Nashville offers more facilities and amenities than the convention’s former site in Louisville, Ky., some registrants have complained about higher food and lodging prices, a less compact meeting and exhibit area and a diminished sense of musical intimacy.
Now celebrating its 20th anniversary, the trade group originally staged its conventions — dubbed “The World of Bluegrass” — in tiny Owensboro, Ky., where the IBMA had its home office. (The IBMA is now headquartered in Nashville.) Then the organization moved its annual get-together to Louisville for several seasons. This year, the event, which began Monday (Oct. 24) and runs through Sunday, was relocated to the Nashville Convention Center and the adjacent Renaissance Nashville Hotel.
The first four days of this year’s World of Bluegrass were devoted to business and educational seminars and showcases for new (or newly packaged) talent and concluded with the IBMA awards show Thursday night (Oct. 27). The last part of the convention is the three-day Fan Fest, a series of concerts by established bluegrass acts.
Some 1,700 fans, performers and support people preregistered for this year’s convention, according to IBMA’s executive director Dan Hays. He said he expected the total registration to top the 2,000 mark.
Larry Shell, the co-writer of “Murder on Music Row” and a vice president of A&R for Broken Bow Records, officially opened the convention Monday with a pep talk. “I predict in the coming years,” he said, “a super act or super group will come from our ranks and sell millions [of records].”
Shell observed that “major labels and [independent labels] alike are starting to get into the music. … They’re starting to take us as a commercial venture.” He said he first became enamored of bluegrass in the late 1950s when he saw Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs perform at a school house in his native Boggy Bayou, Fla. “I tell you folks,” he rhapsodized, “I never did see Garth Brooks live, but he couldn’t have been any better than Lester and Earl.”
Buddy Cannon, who produces Kenny Chesney and whose daughter, Melonie, is a bluegrass recording artist for Skaggs Family Records, told CMT.com he and Chesney are co-producing a bluegrass album on Tim Hensley, who plays in Chesney’s band. He said he expects the album to be completed in December, after which they will shop it to a label.
Among the seminars held during the first part of the convention were “Getting Bluegrass Past the Gatekeepers,” “Attracting Young Audiences to Bluegrass,” “Planning to Be Healthy on the Road,” “Making a Living as a Sideman” and “Nontraditional Marketing.”
There was also a series of artist showcases that spotlighted such emerging and established acts as Randy Kohrs, 3 Fox Drive, Foghorn String Band, Bobby Osborne (of the Osborne Brothers), Shawn Camp, Uncle Earl, Jesse McReynolds and Charles Whitstein, Melonie Cannon, Carolina Road and Valerie Smith & Liberty Pike. ASCAP sponsored a bluegrass songwriters showcase.
A particularly popular feature was Wednesday’s (Oct. 26) Gig Fair that enabled artists to meet face-to-face with festival and other bluegrass event producers. Other convention offerings included mentoring sessions in which professionals in a variety of music-related fields advised aspiring amateurs, taping sessions with disc jockeys, song demo listening sessions and a health fair sponsored by MusiCares.
IBMA leaders conducted a town hall meeting Thursday (Oct. 27) that laid out the organization’s plans for the next few years. It also solicited comments and criticisms from the registrants. Noting that sponsorships were up this year, Hays concluded, “Coming to Nashville has opened a lot of doors.” IBMA president David Crow reported the organization is “approaching a million dollars in [annual] revenues.”
Hays reported that although the Ryman has 150 fewer seats for the awards show than did the Louisville site, this year’s show attracted more broadcasters, television production companies and potential corporate sponsors than the earlier ones. The IBMA’s eventual aim, he continued, is to turn the show into a televised event. It is currently broadcast on satellite and syndicated radio.
Also on the IBMA agenda and included in its budget is a three-year outreach program to spread interest in bluegrass to other countries. A member of the audience suggested the organization pay particular attention to China, which he said he believed, from his travels in that country, could be a huge audience for the music.
One speaker raised the fear that the convention is becoming “exclusionary” because of its increasing costs, not only for registrants but also for exhibitors. Another lamented the fact that the talent showcases include acts that aren’t strictly bluegrass, such as old-time string music groups and western swing bands. He urged the IBMA to set some standards in this regard. “Keep it bluegrass,” he implored, “because it’s too fragile to kick around.”
This criticism raised the hackles of veteran bluegrass performer Eddie Adcock, who said a narrow definition of the format would keep him and his wife and partner, Martha, from playing at the convention. He recalled the Country Gentlemen, of which he was an early member, were once accused of not being sufficiently bluegrass. “We shouldn’t make too many decisions on what [bluegrass] is and what it ain’t,” he argued.
More than 40 acts are set to perform at the Fan Fest that concludes the World of Bluegrass week, including such high profilers as Cherryholmes, the relatively new act that won the IBMA’s entertainer of the year award, Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, Alison Krauss & Union Station, Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, Larry Sparks & the Lonesome Ramblers, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, the Grascals, J.D. Crowe & the New South, Eddie & Martha Adcock, Mountain Heart, the Del McCoury Band, the Nashville Bluegrass Band and Blue Highway.