While Grammy presentations and performances were turning heads Sunday night (Feb. 8) in Los Angeles, the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America was leisurely handing out its own profusion of awards at the Sheraton Music City Hotel in Nashville.
As usual, Rhonda Vincent was SPBGMA’s top winner, walking away with the entertainer of the year and contemporary female vocalist trophies as she has done numerous times before.
Vincent and her band, the Rage, also closed the show, which was highlighted by a rollicking set by recent Country Music Hall of Fame inductee Mac Wiseman.
Tim Graves, the much-laurelled Dobro player and current member of the Farm Hands band, was inducted into SPBGMA’s Preservation Hall of Greats.
SPBGMA has a genius for scheduling its awards show on nights something far more attention-grabbing is taking place. In recent years, it has competed with the Super Bowl. This was its 41st year of dispensing awards.
Graves, the nephew of Flatt & Scruggs’ epic Dobroist Josh Graves, began his bluegrass career at the age of 14. He was one of the few musicians to perform for the entire run of the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Prior to his induction, he had won the SPBGMA Dobro player of the year prize nine times. This year, he did it again.
SPBGMA conferred its Master’s Gold award — designated for 10 consecutive years of wins — to guitarist Josh Williams, now a member of Vincent’s band, and traditional vocalist James King, who made a tearful acceptance speech from his wheelchair.
Members of the band Rarely Herd served as the show’s hosts.
Looking as regal and beatific as a medieval pope, Wiseman sat beaming under his trademark newsboy cap, cracking jokes and belting out classics from what we might call The Great American Notebook — songs radio listeners transcribed by hand in their notebooks in the days before there were tape recorders.
Wiseman’s latest album is Songs From My Mother’s Hand, based on lyrics his mother transcribed for him when he was just starting out as a singer. In addition to his long career as a solo star, Wiseman was also a member of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys and Flatt & Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys.
Obviously relishing his role as an elder statesman — he was also a founding member of the Country Music Association — Wiseman told the crowd, “I don’t work for money or for girls, like I did one time, but for applause. So feel free to pay me.”
He greeted Grand Ole Opry star Jeanne Pruett, who sat listening on the front row, and recalled accompanying her on a trip to London just after she scored her 1973 stunner, “Satin Sheets.”
He said he sat listening to her “bitch” for five or six minutes about something and then approached her and said, “I’ll bet if you ever had a hit, you’d be hard to get along with.”
Backed by Vincent’s band, Wiseman opened with “Wabash Cannonball” and then breezed through such standards as “I Wonder How the Old Folks Are at Home,” “Blue Ridge Mountain Blues,” “Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown,” “I Heard My Mother Call My Name in Prayer” and “Old Rattler.” He concluded with the wistful “Tis Sweet to Be Remembered.”
Waller stirred pleasant memories of his late father — Country Gentlemen founder and lead singer Charlie Waller — with such canonical gems as “Fox on the Run,” “Legend of the Rebel Soldier” and “Redwood Hill.”
He paid tribute to two former Country Gentlemen who died within the past year — banjoist Greg Corbett and bassist Bill Yates — by singing “Crying in the Chapel,” accompanying himself on guitar.
The Grascals honored the late songwriter Paul Craft via an ethereal rendering of his “Keep Me From Blowing Away.” They also dedicated the song to songwriter Dixie Hall, who died Jan. 16, and who, later in the evening, would win the song of the year award for co-writing “That’s Kentucky.”
Jaelee Roberts, daughter of the Grascals’ mandolinist Danny Roberts, harvested a giant swath applause for her version of the Jimmy C. Newman classic, “Cry, Cry, Darling.” Terry Smith wrapped up the set with his bass-slapping take on the Osborne Brothers’ “Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow, Son.”
Raybon and Full Circle offered a varied menu of the old (“Eight More Miles to Louisville,” “She’s Just an Old Love Turned Memory”) and new (“A Little More Sawdust on the Floor.”)
But the crowd really got going when Raybon led it in a clap-along response to “Next to You, Next to Me,” the 1990 hit by the country band Shenandoah, of which Raybon was the lead singer.
Full Circle signed off with a fusion of “Bonaparte’s Retreat” and “Orange Blossom Special.”
Rarely Herd also offered a country-flavored interlude with covers of Terry Gibbs’ “Anybody Else’s Heart but Mine” and Harley Allen’s heartbreaking “The Waving Girl.” They opened with the folkish “Darcy Farrow.”
As the clock neared 11, Vincent bowed her set with “Busy City” and a Bill Monroe tribute, “Is the Grass Any Bluer,” before surrendering the spotlight to Josh Williams for “Thunderclouds of Love.”
When Vincent returned to center stage to sing “Only Me,” the title song to her current album, she told the crowd that it had not won the best bluegrass album Grammy for which it had been nominated. That honor, she said, had instead gone to the eponymous Earls of Leicester by the band formed specifically to pay homage to Flatt & Scruggs.
She had recorded “Only Me,” Vincent reminded the crowd, as a duet with Willie Nelson. She bade Williams to fill in Nelson’s jazzy guitar part, which he did with great aplomb.
Vincent and her band sang and played its farewell with the speedy “Run Mississippi River.”
Here is the complete list of winners:
SPBGMA Preservation Hall of Greats: Tim Graves
Entertainer of the Year: Rhonda Vincent
Song: “That’s Kentucky,” written by Tom T. Hall, Dixie Hall and Troy Engle, recorded by Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road
Album: Pull Your Savior In, the Larry Stephenson Band
Songwriter: Tom T. Hall and Dixie Hall
Female Vocalist (Contemporary): Rhonda Vincent
Female Vocalist (Traditional): Lorraine Jordan
Male Vocalist (Contemporary): Russell Moore
Male Vocalist (Traditional): Marty Raybon
Gospel Group (Contemporary): The Gibson Brothers
Gospel Group (Traditional): The Farm Hands
Vocal Group: The Gibson Brothers
Instrumental Group: The Grascals
Bluegrass Band (Overall): Rhonda Vincent & the Rage
Entertaining Group: The Farm Hands
Instrumental winners: Butch Cooksey (bass), Tim Graves (Dobro), Tim Stafford (guitar), Danny Roberts (mandolin), Ben Greene (banjo), Hunter Berry (fiddle)
Promoter: Bertie Sullivan
Radio station: Sirius XM 61
Disc jockey: Kyle Cantrell, Sirius XM 61