It may have been a little ragged at times, but it was invariably right. In spite of an occasional missed cue or overlong acceptance speech, the 29th annual International Bluegrass Music Awards ceremony, held Thursday night (Sept. 27) at the Duke Energy Performing Arts Center in Raleigh, N.C., radiated the warmth and good fellowship of a parking lot jam session. Everyone onstage and off seemed to be having fun.
Among the evening’s big winners were the group Balsam Range, voted entertainer of the year; Special Consensus’ Rivers & Roads, which copped the top album prize; and the charmingly titled “If I’d Have Wrote That Song,” which emerged as song of the year (full list of winners below).
Inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame were Ricky Skaggs (who’ll also enter the Country Music Hall of Fame this fall), singer and songwriter Paul Williams and the songwriting team of Tom T. and the late Dixie Hall.
The show struck a pleasant balance between presentations and performances, aided considerably in that achievement by the rotating emceeing of the four members of Hot Rize — Nick Forster, Tim O’Brien, Pete Wernick and Bryan Sutton. Their intros tended to be low-key, amiable and devoid of that teleprompted cuteness that can set one’s teeth on edge.
Hot Rize has a long connection with the IBMA having won the entertainer of the year trophy at the organization’s first awards show in 1990.
Musical highlights of the evening included Becky Buller’s “Speakin’ to That Mountain”; Special Consensus’ cover of the John Hartford gem, “Way Down the River Road”; Molly Tuttle’s “Good Enough”; Joe Mullins & His Radio Ramblers’ “If I’d Have Wrote That Song.”
Also, Del McCoury’s “Hot Wired” (which featured his grandson, Heaven McCoury, on electric guitar); Balsam Range’s “The Girl Who Invented the Wheel”; and the Earls of Leicester’s take on the canonical “White House Blues,” nominally an account of the assassination of President William McKinley but enlarged here to conclude, “Now Trump’s in the White House doin’ his best/Obama’s in Hawaii takin’ this rest/He’s gone, he’s gone.”
Introducing Ricky Skaggs for his induction, Marty Stuart said, “He lit up the world of country music [in the early 1980s] when everyone thought it was over … At the top of his country music game, he returned to the deepest part of his heart — to bluegrass music.”
“I’m 64,” said the white-maned Skaggs, gesturing toward his plaque, “and I can enjoy this for a long time … I’ve got a lot of music to make.”
Still recovering from shoulder surgery, Skaggs walked among the pickers proudly as Stuart led his band, Kentucky Thunder, through the Bill Monroe instrumental whirlwind, “Rawhide.”
Chris Jones presented Tom T. and Dixie Hall for their induction, relating how the two rising songwriters met at a BMI dinner when Dixie Dean, a journalist and songwriter from England, had the “A” side of a Dave Dudley hit while Hall had the “B” side.
Always a bluegrass fan, Hall would go on to become a country star, propelling himself on story songs he’d written, while Dixie would focus on other interests. After Hall retired, he and “Miss Dixie” wrote dozens of bluegrass songs that other artists eagerly recorded. The two also provided free studio time at their Fox Hollow estate to upcoming bluegrass performers.
Hall, Jones said, credits his wife with having been the driving force behind his rekindled second career. Dixie Hall died in January 2015. Hall, himself, was not on hand to accept his honor, electing instead to have Kitsy Kuykendall of Bluegrass Unlimited to stand in for him.
The Gibson Brothers concluded the Halls segment with a moving performance of Hall’s Depression-themed classic, “Don’t Forget the Coffee Billy Joe.”
Joe Mullins did the honors for Paul Williams’ induction, describing him as “one of the greatest singers and one of the greatest songwriters in bluegrass.” Mullin noted that Williams had gotten his start as a member of the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, a seminal bluegrass group welcomed into the Hall of Fame in 2009.
Williams moved on to Jimmy Martin’s Sunny Mountain Boys in 1957, collaborating with Martin and J. D. Crowe in a series of memorable trio recordings and writing such hits for Martin as “My Walking Shoes Don’t Fit Me Anymore” and “Hold Whatcha Got.”
A religious conversion took Williams out of bluegrass for 25 years, Mullins said, but he returned to action in 1987 and subsequently formed the Victory Trio.
“I started singing at nine years old,” Williams said, “never thinking that anything like this [award] would ever come my way.” He said the music he loved was looked down on as “hillbilly music” when he started but that the scorn never deterred him. Crowe was not present to congratulate his former singing partner but sent his best wishes via video.
Skaggs then came forward to embrace Williams and join him, backed by Kentucky Thunder, in a raucous rendition of “Hold Whatcha Got” that brought down the house.
As has become the custom, the awards show was live-streamed to bluegrass fans around the world.
Here is the complete list of 2018 winners.
ENTERTAINER OF THE YEAR:
VOCAL GROUP OF THE YEAR:
Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver (this is the band’s 8th win in this category, with the last win in 2007)
INSTRUMENTAL GROUP OF THE YEAR:
The Travelin’ McCourys (the band’s first award, although members of the band have won many awards individually)
SONG OF THE YEAR:
“If I’d Have Wrote That Song” — Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers (artist), Larry Cordle/Larry Shell/James Silvers (writers) (the band’s first award in this category)
ALBUM OF THE YEAR:
Rivers & Roads — Special Consensus (artist), Alison Brown (producer), Compass Records (label) (the band’s first win in this category)
GOSPEL RECORDED PERFORMANCE OF A YEAR:
“Speakin’ to That Mountain” — Becky Buller (artist), Becky Buller/Jeff Hyde (writers), Crepe Paper Heart (album), Stephen Mougin (producer), Dark Shadow Recording (label)
INSTRUMENTAL RECORDED PERFORMANCE:
“Squirrel Hunters” — Special Consensus with John Hartford, Rachel Baiman, Christian Sedelmyer, and Alison Brown (artist), Traditional arranged by Alison Brown/Special Consensus (writers), Rivers & Roads (album), Alison Brown (producer), Compass Records (label)
EMERGING ARTIST OF THE YEAR:
The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys
RECORDED EVENT OF THE YEAR:
“Swept Away” — Missy Raines with Alison Brown, Becky Buller, Sierra Hull, and Molly Tuttle (artists), single release, Alison Brown (producer), Compass Records (label)
FEMALE VOCALIST OF THE YEAR:
Brooke Aldridge (her second win in this category, previously in 2017)
MALE VOCALIST OF THE YEAR:
Buddy Melton (his second win in this category, previously in 2014)
BANJO PLAYER OF THE YEAR:
Ned Luberecki (his first win in this category)
BASS PLAYER OF THE YEAR:
Tim Surrett (his second win in this category, previously in 2015)
DOBRO PLAYER OF THE YEAR:
Justin Moses (his first win in this category)
FIDDLE PLAYER OF THE YEAR:
Michael Cleveland (his 11th win in this category, previously in 2015)
GUITAR PLAYER OF THE YEAR:
Molly Tuttle (her second win in this category, previously in 2017)
MANDOLIN PLAYER OF THE YEAR:
Sierra Hull (her third win in this category, previously 2016 and 2017)
At the Special Awards Luncheon held earlier in the day, the recipients of the following awards were also announced:
BLUEGRASS BROADCASTER OF THE YEAR:
Steve Martin (Northern Kentucky-based host of “Steve Martin’s Unreal Bluegrass”)
BLUEGRASS EVENT OF THE YEAR:
Bluegrass on the Green — Frankfort, IL
BEST LINER NOTES FOR A RECORDED PROJECT (tie):
Craig Havighurst – The Story We Tell by Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers
Peter Wernick – Carter Stanley’s Eyes by Peter Rowan
BEST GRAPHIC DESIGN FOR A RECORDED PROJECT:
A Heart Never Knows by the Price Sisters
BLUEGRASS PRINT/MEDIA PERSON OF THE YEAR:
BLUEGRASS SONGWRITER OF THE YEAR:
SOUND ENGINEER OF THE YEAR (first year presented):
The previously announced 2018 Distinguished Achievement Award recipients — George Gruhn, Christopher Howard-Williams, Curtis McPeake, Walter Saunders and Chris Thile — were also honored at the luncheon.