Grascals Win IBMA Entertainer of the Year Award

Rhonda Vincent, Tim O'Brien Named Top Vocalists

The Grascals copped the entertainer of the year prize Thursday evening (Sept. 28) at the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) awards at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry House. The win was quite a step up considering it was only last year that the six-man band was named IBMA’s emerging artist.

Rhonda Vincent took the top female vocalist prize — for the seventh time — and Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder secured the instrumental group of the year trophy for the eighth. Tim O’Brien won the male vocalist and song of the year awards. Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver scored for best gospel recorded performance and best vocal group.

Celebration of Life: Musicians Against Childhood Cancer, which featured performances by 135 artists and musicians, was voted the year’s top album. King Records’ late founder Syd Nathan and the gospel-singing Lewis Family were inducted into the IBMA Hall of Honor.

Seldom has the cavernous Opry House felt so much like a neighbor’s back porch as it did on Thursday night. Because the show was simply staged and the house far from full, there was none of the regimentation and tension that marks such live and sold-out events as the CMA and Grammy presentations.

Indeed, the proceedings were looser than a normal Grand Ole Opry show since most of the artists sat with friends and relatives in the audience until it was time to go on stage. The fans, who were clearly well-versed in the music, were attentive without being reverential.

Marty Stuart was the official host but was aided considerably by Eddie Stubbs, the scholarly WSM-AM disc jockey and Grand Ole Opry announcer. Working together, the two were unbeatable: Stubbs seemed to know everything, and Stuart had apparently done everything. Relaxed and witty, Stuart kept the spots between the awards and performances lively.

In an evening of fine performances, a few were especially compelling. Skaggs brought in the Nashville String Machine to accompany him and his band on the lilting “Crossing the Briney.” The Claire Lynch Band turned in a sparkling rendition of “Up This Hill and Down,” an Osborne Brothers hit from 1966 (and also on her current album, New Day). Curly Seckler teamed up with Larry Sparks for an impassioned interpretation of “He Took Your Place.”

With the Del McCoury Band accompanying him, Vince Gill introduced “The Cold Gray Light of Gone” from his forthcoming These Days album. The crowd rewarded him with the most sustained applause of the evening. Dressed in rumpled jeans, Gill stood out among McCoury’s dapper and identically clad troupe. “My tuxedo was already rented this weekend,” he explained.

Near the end of the show, Stuart brought out his guitar (which once belonged to Lester Flatt) and invited Bobby Osborne to the stage to join him on the old Monroe Brothers favorite, “What Would You Give in Exchange for Your Soul.” Sounding stark and ancient, it made for a spellbinding moment. Stuart noted Osborne has gotten a second wind as a solo act after having performed so many years with his brother Sonny. “For my money,” Stuart said, “emerging artist of the year should go to Bobby because he’s a brand new man.”

The evening also had a distinct military air. 3 Fox Drive opened the show with the national anthem, and later, as Vincent sang “Till They Came Home,” veterans from America’s recent wars filed out to stand impassively beside her. This demonstration brought the crowd to its feet and kept it there long enough to stop the show. After a few uneasy, what-do-we-do-now glances toward each other, the veterans began walking off, and the show resumed.

Up next was Country Currents, a Navy bluegrass band in dress whites. It blazed through a righteous version of “My Little Home in Caroline.” Then it asked vets and active members of the Air Force, Army, Marine, Coast Guard and Navy to stand as it played snippets of their service songs.

The winners’ speeches yielded a few memorable remarks. When O’Brien accepted the award for his song “Look Down That Lonesome Road,” he quipped, “This is an upset, but I’m not.” Skaggs lavished praise on his band: “It’s such a joy, night after night, to hear what these guys come up with.” Responding to his gospel recorded performance honor, Lawson proclaimed, “If I could play only one kind of music, it would be gospel music.”

Stuart recalled the time that Lester Flatt & the Nashville Grass, of which he was a member, were talked into auditioning for a group of college talent buyers in Cincinnati. Suspicious to begin with, Flatt was horrified to discover that he and his band would be sharing the stage with such exotics as Kool & the Gang and jazz keyboardist Chick Corea. Nonetheless, they gave it their best shot — and got nine encores. “From that moment on,” said Stuart, “Lester was a rocker.”

Stuart also imagined what his friend, the late and occasionally paranoid Jimmy Martin, might be complaining to God about as they looked down on the awards show. Martin had a love-hate relationship with the Grand Ole Opry but he made no secret of the fact that he longed to become a member. Perhaps, Stuart ventured, Martin was moaning to the Almighty, “I ain’t sayin’ I don’t like it up here, but even you’ll do anything you can to keep me off the Opry.”

BMI, the performance rights organization, sponsored a backstage party for artists, industry folk and their guests just before the show got underway. The highlight of that event was a performance by singer Cyndi Wheeler, who, backed by Blue Highway, beamed out irresistibly jazzy incarnations of such pop standards as Dreamer’s Holiday,” “September Song” and “What a Difference a Day Makes.” She is produced by Scott Rouse, who also produces Blue Highway. An album of these tunes is due out soon.

2006 IBMA Winners:

Entertainer of the year: The Grascals
Female vocalist: Rhonda Vincent
Male vocalist: Tim O’Brien
Album: Celebration of Life: Musicians Against Childhood Cancer, Various artists
Song: “Look Down That Lonesome Road,” Tim O’Brien, artist and songwriter
Instrumental album: Let ’Er Go, Boys, Michael Cleveland
Recorded event: Back to the Well, the Daughters of Bluegrass
Instrumental group: Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder
Gospel recorded performance: He Lives in Me, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver
Vocal group: Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver
Emerging artist: Steep Canyon Rangers
Instrumental performers: Jim Mills, banjo; Missy Raines, bass; Rob Ickes, Dobro; Michael Cleveland, fiddle; Bryan Sutton, guitar; Adam Steffey, mandolin
Hall of Honor: Syd Nathan, the Lewis Family

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to