Steve Martin: Bluegrass Entertainer of the Year Goes From King Tut to King Pluck

Boxcars, Gibson Brothers Among Other Big Winners at IBMA Awards

After an evening spent watching other people walk away with trophies for which he’d been nominated, Steve Martin finally captured the biggest prize — entertainer of the year — Thursday night (Sept. 29) at the International Bluegrass Music Awards at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium.

Among the other top winners were the Boxcars, the Gibson Brothers, fiddler Michael Cleveland and J.D. Crowe, Doyle Lawson and Paul Williams, the all-star trio behind the Prayer Bells of Heaven album.

Style-setting guitarist George Shuffler and bluegrass stalwart Del McCoury were inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame.

Martin, best known for film acting, stand-up comedy and fiction writing, shared his honor with his touring band, the Steep Canyon Rangers.

It was Martin’s prowess as a banjo picker and obvious devotion to bluegrass music, however, that earned him his prize — that, plus the fact that his prominence in the other arts has enabled him and the Rangers to perform in high-visibility venues normally inaccessible to bluegrass musicians, including network television.

Martin’s victory compensated him nicely for having failed earlier to win in four other categories: album of the year, instrumental recorded event of the year, best liner notes and best graphic design for a recorded project. All those nominations centered on his current album, Rare Bird Alert.

While his win might have seemed relatively small potatoes compared to his other career achievements, Martin was clearly delighted by it — but not so much that he ignored its comic potential.

After jumping up and down like a girl on a playground at hearing the announcement, he said, “I want to congratulate the other nominees and thank them for losing.”

The show, which ran from 7:30 to 10:40 p.m. and was carried live on satellite radio, was filled with stirring performances, from “Roll on Buddy,” the opening number by McCoury and awards show host Sam Bush, to the finale, a medley of standards by the new Hall of Famers Shuffler and McCoury, with instrumental assists from Bush and Roland White, two of bluegrass music’s most dazzling mandolinists.

No one act dominated the awards, but the Boxcars, a relatively new band made up of veterans who have worked in other groups, and the Gibson Brothers each earned two honors.

The Gibson Brothers won vocal group and album of the year kudos, while the Boxcars took instrumental group and emerging artist laurels. In addition, Adam Steffey, a founding member of the Boxcars, won the mandolin player of the year trophy.

Michael Cleveland was voted top fiddler and also won the instrumental recorded performance prize for his version of Buddy Spicher and Jimmy Martin’s tune, “Goin’ Up Dry Branch.”

Teamed as a vocal and instrumental trio for the Prayer Bells of Heaven album, J.D. Crowe, Doyle Lawson and Paul Williams won the recorded event and gospel recorded performance categories.

The near-capacity crowd also cheered wildly performances by Balsam Range (“Trains I Missed,” later revealed as the song of the year winner), Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver (“Gone Long Gone”), Lawson, Crowe and Williams (“Prayer Bells of Heaven”), Sierra Hull & Highway 111 (“Best Buy”), Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers (“Me & Paul Revere”). Other songs were provided by Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out (“Pretty Little Girl From Galax”), the Grascals (“I Am Strong”), the Boxcars (“December 13th”), the Gibson Brothers (“Help My Brother”), Lonesome River Band (“Record Time Machine”) and Dailey & Vincent (“Close By”).

Big names absent from the show included Ricky Skaggs, Rhonda Vincent, Alison Krauss and the once high-profile band Cherryholmes. Vincent and Krauss were both nominees for best female vocalist, a category won by Dale Ann Bradley.

James Alan Shelton, lead guitarist for Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys Band, presented his mentor, Shuffler, for the Hall of Fame induction, noting that Shuffler’s innovative cross-picking style was so crucial to the Stanley Brothers sound that it earned him the sobriquet of “the third Stanley brother.”

Still spry at 86, Shuffler beamed at the standing ovation he was given when he walked onstage.

“I could sit here and listen to that all night,” he said of the rapturous applause. He thanked the Stanley Brothers for “giving me the opportunity to play my feelings” and then cracked about his guitar style, “If I knew it was going to catch on like it did, I might have done it a little better.”

McCoury’s sons and bandmates, Ronnie and Rob, welcomed him, both noting he was a gentle father and generous with his time in helping them learn to play, even when he was working a day job in the logging industry.

“He would never ask us to practice,” Ronnie recalled. He also spoke of his dad’s willingness to experiment musically, citing his alliances with acts as diverse as Phish and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

The ever-amiable 72-year-old McCoury reminisced about his years playing with Bill Monroe and then brought his entire family — wife, daughter, daughters-in-law and grandchildren — to the stage to share his spotlight. Always a cheerleader for his favorite type of music, McCoury proclaimed, “The state of bluegrass is better than it’s ever been.” The applauding crowd echoed that sentiment.

Throughout the evening, performers and show host Bush referred to the fact that 2011 is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Bill Monroe, the man who’s commonly credited with creating and giving a name to bluegrass music.

View photos from the IBMA Awards.

Here is a complete list of this year’s IBMA winners:

Hall of Fame: Del McCoury, George Shuffler

Entertainer of the Year: Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers

Vocal Group: The Gibson Brothers

Instrumental Group: The Boxcars

Male Vocalist: Russell Moore

Female Vocalist: Dale Ann Bradley

Emerging Artist: The Boxcars

Album of the Year: Help My Brother, the Gibson Brothers (artists), Eric and Leigh Gibson and Mike Barber (producers)

Instrumental Recorded Performance: “Goin’ Up Dry Branch,” Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper (artist), Buddy Spicher and Jimmy Martin (songwriters), Jeff White and Michael Cleveland (producers)

Gospel Recorded Performance: “Prayer Bells of Heaven,” J.D. Crowe, Doyle Lawson and Paul Williams (artists), Ben Isaacs (producer)

Song of the Year: “Trains I Missed,” Balsam Range (artists), Walt Wilkins, Gilles Godard and Nicole Witt (songwriters)

Recorded Event: “Prayer Bells of Heaven” by J.D. Crowe, Doyle Lawson and Paul Williams (artists), Ben Isaacs (producer)

Banjo Player: Kristin Scott Benson and Ron Stewart (tie)

Guitar Player: Bryan Sutton

Fiddle Player: Michael Cleveland

Bass Player: Marshall Wilborn

Mandolin Player: Adam Steffey

Dobro Player: Rob Ickes

Earlier in the day, these awards were announced at a special luncheon:

Distinguished Achievement Award: Greg Cahill, Bill Knowlton, Lilly Pavlak, Geoff Stelling, Roland White

Broadcaster of the Year: Katy Daley, WAMU Bluegrass Country

Print Media Person: Juli Thanki,

Bluegrass Event: Silver Dollar City’s Bluegrass and BBQ Festival (Branson, Mo.)

Best Graphic Design: Ricardo Alessio and Erica Harris (designer and artist), Abigail Washburn (artist), Rounder (label)

Best Liner Notes: Colin Escott (writer), A Mother’s Prayer, Ralph Stanley (artist), Rebel (label)

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