The Earls of Leicester Sweep IBMA Awards Show

Bill Keith and Larry Sparks Elevated to Hall of Fame

The Earls of Leicester — a band established to honor the musical legacy of Flatt & Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys — swept the International Bluegrass Music Awards presented Thursday night (Oct. 1) at Duke Energy Center in Raleigh, North Carolina.

In addition to copping the entertainer, album, instrumental group and gospel recorded performance of the year prizes, band members Jerry Douglas and Shawn Camp also won individual trophies as top dobro player and top male vocalist, respectively.

Balsam Range was crowned vocal group of the year and additionally recognized for having recorded the song of the year, “Moon Over Memphis.”

Rhonda Vincent, the only winner not in attendance, was voted top female vocalist. Becky Buller was music proclaimed the year’s emerging artist.

The emotional high points came when banjo master Bill Keith and singer-guitarist Larry Sparks were welcomed into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame.

Musician and author Jim Rooney and banjoist Alan Munde chronicled Keith’s rise from eager student to consummate banjo stylist.

Rooney recalled he had introduced Keith to bluegrass music in the late 1950s in Boston where the Lily Brothers and Don Stover were then making waves. Within four years after Keith first worked his way through Pete Seeger’s banjo instruction book, Rooney said, he had become so proficient and individualistic on the instrument that Bill Monroe hired him as one of his Blue Grass Boys.

Monroe credited Keith as being the first banjo picker who could play bluegrass songs in a fiddle style and with a fiddler’s virtuosity.

Keith came onstage in a wheelchair to accept his honor. Leaning into the microphone and talking in a whisper, he read and mused on a long list of fellow musicians with whom he had played or whose work he admired.

He ended by offering a bit of advice to anyone who might be interested in learning to play bluegrass.

“Try the banjo,” he said. “It may weigh a lot, but it won’t let you down.” To round out the segment, banjoist Noam Pikelny played Keith’s fiendishly intricate “Beating Around the Bush.”

Alison Krauss then stepped forward to praise and induct Sparks. Reading notes from an interview, she quoted Sparks’ own words about what drew him to music, what he looked for in a song, the limitations of influences and his utter reliance on God to sustain and guide him.

He said he looked for the “picture” in a song and whether that picture was sufficient to make him believe what the song was saying. “You can’t live off influences,” he said, “you’ve got to respect them and put them in your pocket.”

Sparks spoke about the loneliness of performing and of his obsession to build his career on solid ground.

“I never went into it to be a star,” he said. Asked how he would want to be remembered, he told the interviewer, “[I want them to say] I’ve never heard anything like this guy.” When he came to the stage — to a prolonged standing ovation — Sparks marveled at the eloquence with which Krauss repeated his observations. “She even made me cry,” he said.

He thanked the IBMA for its nourishment of the bluegrass community and said that he had worked hard to forge his own style.

“Chubby Checkers — he had ‘The Twist,’” he said. “I had to get my twist.” Never one to pass up a promotional opportunity, he told the crowd he has a new album out that celebrates his 50 years in bluegrass.

His acceptance speech over, Sparks invited Krauss to join him and his band, the Lonesome Ramblers, in performing a medley of his signature songs, specifically “John Deere Tractor,” “Going Up Home to Live in Green Pastures” “Tennessee 1949.”

the Gibson Brothers hosted the show. Among its other musical highlights were Flatt Lonesome’s performance of “You’re the One,” the Del McCoury Band’s “Fathers and Sons,” the Steep Canyon Rangers’ “Test of Time, with Edie Brickell, and Balsam Range’s a cappella gem, “Stacking Up the Rocks.”

Following the Earls of Leicester’s win of the entertainer of the year award, Douglas told the crowd that he and the band had agreed they would continue performing in that configuration only if it remained fun.

“This is unbelievable fun,” he said, as the other members clustered around him, “and we’re going to keep doing it.”

Here is the complete list of winners:

Entertainer of the year: The Earls of Leicester

Album of the year: The Earls of Leicester, produced by Jerry Douglas

Song of the year: “Moon Over Memphis,” written by Mark W. Winchester, performed by Balsam Range

Instrumental group of the year: The Earls of Leicester

Instrumental recorded performance of the year: “The Three Bells,” Jerry Douglas, Mike Auldridge, Rob Ickes

Emerging artist of the year: Becky Buller

Vocal group of the year: Balsam Range

Male vocalist of the year: Shawn Camp

Female vocalist of the year: Rhonda Vincent

Recorded event of the year: “Southern Flavor,” Becky Buller, with Peter Rowan, Michael Feagan, Buddy Spicher, Ernie Sykes, Roland White, and Blake Williams

Gospel recorded performance of the year: “Who Will Sing for Me,” written by Carter and Ralph Stanley, The Earls of Leicester

Individual instrumental awards: Banjo, Rob McCoury; Dobro, Jerry Douglas; Bass, Tim Surrett; Mandolin, Jesse Brock; Fiddle, Michael Cleveland; Guitar, Bryan Sutton

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