Who didn’t win was as big a story as who did at the International Bluegrass Music Association awards show Thursday night (Oct. 4) at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry House.
Although nominated, perennial IBMA prizewinners Alison Krauss, Rhonda Vincent, Ricky Skaggs and Del McCoury all went home empty-handed. The meteoric family band Cherryholmes was also shut out despite the fact that only two years ago it had captured the treasured entertainer of the year trophy.
But it was a great night for the Grascals, who won the entertainer of the year prize for the second year in a row, and for Tony Trischka and the Infamous Stringdusters, who were triumphant in three categories each.
Bradley Walker took the male vocalist award, beating out Larry Sparks, Ronnie Bowman, Tim O’Brien and Russell Moore. And after years of coming close, Dale Ann Bradley finally won the best female vocalist honor, bypassing fellow competitors Vincent, Krauss, Sonya Isaacs and Claire Lynch.
Walker, who has muscular dystrophy, and Bradley were sentimental and artistic favorites. The announcements that they had won earned each a standing ovation. There was an ovation as well for Michael Cleveland, who copped the award for instrumental group of the year with his band, the Flamekeepers. Cleveland, who is blind, was also voted fiddler of the year.
Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver won the vocal group and gospel recorded performance categories (the latter for “He Lives in Me.”) The Trischka-helmed Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular netted trophies for instrumental album and recorded event of the year. In addition, Trischka was proclaimed the banjo player of the year.
Tying for album of the year were J. D. Crowe & the New South’s Lefty’s Old Guitar and the Infamous Stringdusters’ Fork in the Road. To make their evening even sweeter, the Stringdusters also won the emerging artist prize and shared the song of the year honor with Chris Jones and John Pennell for “Fork in the Road.”
Veteran bluegrass musician Sam Bush was a masterful master of ceremonies. His opening monologue about the events that led him to love bluegrass was filled with vivid anecdotes that managed to be simultaneously funny and poignant.
He recalled visiting Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium and seeing Bill Monroe harmonizing with young Peter Rowan and also recollected riding with his dad on Jim & Jesse’s tour bus “for a block and a half” to show them the backstage entrance to the high school in his hometown of Bowling Green, Ky. He also told stories of watching a cold-beset Lester Flatt blowing his nose, pocketing his handkerchief and not missing a beat on his guitar and of seeing Jimmy Martin nonchalantly spit his chewing gum out into the crowd at a bluegrass festival.
“When you play bluegrass,” he observed, “something great happens.” Trim, well-spoken and totally relaxed, Bush was the most effective and entertaining host in recent memory.
The show flowed smoothly for the most part with plenty of performances to leaven the less-than-riveting award presentations. Each team of presenters generally conferred two awards while on stage, a tactic that further streamlined the proceedings.
Just before the show opened, announcer Eddie Stubbs laid down the ground rules that only one member of a band could speak when accepting an award and that the remarks should be kept to 30 seconds or less. .
There were no set changes. Performers set up behind a translucent curtain and were ready to play once the trophies at hand were dispensed. The weakest part of the production involved the interminable film clips in which podcaster Wichita Rutherford explained to a monosyllabic youngster the glories of bluegrass. In an intimate setting, the device might have worked. But in the cavernous Opry House, it was just an annoyance.
Among the evening’s stellar performances were Cherryholmes’ “Don’t Give Your Heart to a Knoxville Girl” (which the band concluded with a burst of step-dancing), Ricky Skaggs and the Whites’ “Salt of the Earth,” Bradley Walker’s vibrant “Life or Love” and Sam Bush’s “Bringing in the Georgia Mail.” Russell Moore, who stepped in for ailing Rhonda Vincent and was backed by her band, rendered a properly intense version of “Footprints in the Snow.”
Stubbs brought his formidable country music scholarship to bear in announcing the newest additions to the Bluegrass Hall of Fame: Carl Story, the Father of Bluegrass Gospel Music, and trend-setting bass player Howard Watts, who performed under the comic moniker of Cedric Rainwater. Story died in 1995, Watts in 1970.
A stylist known for his falsetto vocalizing and hard-driving rhythm guitar, Story counted among his hits “He Will Set Your Fields on Fire,” “If You Don’t Love Your Neighbor,” “My Lord Keeps a Record” and “Family Reunion.”
Watts joined Bill Monroe’s band in 1943 and was with it when young Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt came aboard in 1945 to create the distinctive bluegrass sound still dominant today.
Bush announced that the IBMA had earlier issued distinguished achievement awards to pioneering Dobro player Mike Auldridge, The Bluegrass Breakdown (a California-based publication), Czech bluegrass enthusiast Marko Cermak, event producer and philanthropist Warren Hellman; and Happy and Jane Traum, founders of the Homespun Records and Tapes music instruction series.
Presenters don’t usually get standing ovations, but when Sonny Osborne walked onstage to present the last prize of the evening — the entertainer of the year award — the crowd was instantly on its feet. The younger half of the fabled Osborne Brothers, banjo-playing Sonny retired from performing a few years ago and rarely attends musical events. He seemed genuinely delighted when the Grascals ran onto the stage and took turns hugging him.
“Now get out there and keep picking bluegrass music,” Bush exhorted the crowd as it rose to leave.
Here’s a complete list of the 2007 IBMA winners:
Entertainer of the year: The Grascals
Vocal group: Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver
Instrumental group: Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper, featuring Audie Blaylock
Male vocalist: Bradley Walker
Female vocalist: Dale Ann Bradley
Song: “Fork in the Road,” The Infamous Stringdusters (artists), Chris Jones and John Pennell (songwriters)
Album: (Tie) Lefty’s Old Guitar, J.D. Crowe & the New South; Fork in the Road, the Infamous Stringdusters
Recorded event: Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular, Tony Trischka with Earl Scruggs, Kenny Ingram, Tom Adams, Bela Fleck, Noam Pikelny, Alison Brown, Scott Vestal, Steve Martin and Bill Emerson
Instrumental album: Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular, Tony Trischka
Gospel recorded performance: “He Lives in Me,” Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver
Emerging artist: The Infamous Stringdusters
Instrumental performers: Tony Trischka (banjo), Missy Raines (bass), Michael Cleveland (fiddle), Rob Ickes (Dobro), Tony Rice (guitar) and Sam Bush (mandolin)
Bluegrass broadcaster: Chris Jones, Sirius Satellite Radio
Print media person: John Lawless and Brance Gillihan, The Bluegrass Blog
Best liner notes for a recorded project: Barry Poss and Jay Orr (writers), Sugar Hill Records, A Retrospective
Best graphic design for a recorded project: Don Bailey (designer), Hillbilly Hemingway, the Mark Newton Band
Bluegrass event: 33rd Festival of the Bluegrass, Lexington, Ky.
Bluegrass Hall of Fame inductees: Carl Story, Howard Watts (Cedric Rainwater)
Distinguished achievement award recipients: Mike Auldridge, The Bluegrass Breakdown, Marko Cermak, Warren Hellman and Happy and Jane Traum