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Bluegrass Winter Break in Nashville
Convention Promotes Friendly Competition and Good Pickin'
The 17th National SPBGMA (Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America) Convention started Thursday night and continues through Sunday (Feb. 3-6) in Nashville. The annual winter festival features an international band championship, the 26th Annual SPBGMA Bluegrass Music Awards show, musical performances all four days and -- to a lesser degree -- trade exhibits and instructional workshops.

SPBGMA is the brainchild of Chuck Stearman, acting president of the organization and festival promoter. It started out as an awards show in his home state of Missouri in 1974. In 1984 the event was moved to Nashville under Stearman's guidance, and the 1st International Band Championship commenced that year in conjunction with the 10th anniversary of the SPBGMA Bluegrass Music Awards show.

Last year the event attracted 2,500 people, with many more coming to pick and socialize with old friends and new acquaintances in the lobby of the Sheraton Music City Hotel in Nashville. Stearman expects attendance this year to be on par with last year.

The two-day band competition is a well-known feature of the convention. Any bluegrass act that has taken bookings in the previous year is eligible to compete, and the champion and runners-up are determined by a panel of judges with a grand prize of $3,000 going to the winner. Only acoustic instruments are allowed. "We want to be a constructive thing, a promotional tool for new groups to launch their careers if they wish to do so," Stearman explains. "I would say there's a dozen major groups playing today whose members have won the competition."

Past winners include Wild and Blue, New Tradition, members of IIIrd Tyme Out, Alison Krauss and Dusty Miller (members Tim Stafford, Adam Steffey and Barry Bales later became members of Union Station. Stafford went on to found Blue Highway.)

The awards are fan-voted, with the initial write-in ballot being sent to SPBGMA members and also appearing in Bluegrass Unlimited magazine. "The reason we do that is to give opportunity for groups outside of our membership base a chance to vote for a national award," Stearman explains. The second tier of voting actually occurs at the convention. "You have to purchase a ticket to get a ballot. Ours is just a flat, simple fan-based popular vote. We try to keep it as simple as possible, and try to stay close to the fans.

"Back in the days that we started the awards 25 years ago, we didn't have many major groups, and at that time I'd say major groups like Ralph Stanley, Bill Monroe, Jim & Jesse, the Osborne Brothers -- those types of groups never frequent the Midwest all that much. And the fans seemed to have a tendency to vote for groups that they were more closely related to, or they knew. Most of the bands that won awards were from the Midwest," Stearman continues. "It wasn't until we moved to Nashville 17 years ago that we broke out of that and started getting more nationally known groups."

The event is much less formal than the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) awards, he says. The IBMA awards and Fan Fest take place annually in October in Louisville, Ky., and also attract the biggest names in bluegrass. "They're basically an industry-based award. Their award process is a little more sophisticated than ours in the sense that it's about a three-stage process -- they have various aspects of the industry that vote on certain award categories."

Dan Hays, executive director of the IBMA, comments on the differences between the awards shows. "I think most people in the industry ... are proud to have received honors from the fans out there. It's certainly a different angle, as with many awards out there, whether it's bluegrass or country or the People's Choice awards, those kind of things," says Hays. "It's a different group of people who are extending their appreciation, and in this case it's the people who are there for those events.

"I'm not saying this to contrast the IBMA, but in our particular situation, we want to guard the integrity of that voting process, and you mail your ballots to a third party. Every [professional] member has an opportunity to vote, whether you're coming to the show or not. We do have a grassroots club category, but those people do not vote in the awards process. There's a lot to be said for having a fan-voted sort of thing."

This year veteran banjo player Bill Emerson was selected as the 49th inductee to the SPBGMA Preservation Hall of Greats and will be honored during the awards ceremony. The Hall of Greats was established in 1984 and gives recognition to individuals for their contributions to bluegrass music. Emerson is one of the founding members of the influential Country Gentlemen, who played their first date on July 4, 1957. Emerson also did a stint with Jimmy Martin and his Sunny Mountain Boys in the 1960s and was a member of New Shades of Grass. He and Pete Goble won the 1989 IBMA Song of the Year award for their song "Tennessee 1949" on Webco Records. Emerson is also an entrepreneur, being the original owner of Webco.

Entertainment kicked off Thursday (Feb. 3) with a bluegrass gospel concert. The Showcase of Bands takes place tonight and Saturday and features many of the biggest names in bluegrass, including Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, John Hartford, Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, J.D. Crowe and the New South, and the Lynn Morris Band, among others. There is a second gospel concert Sunday, followed by the International Band Championship finals and the awards show, which begins at 7:30 p.m.

There are also trade exhibits, a banjo workshop on Friday and a free harmonica workshop on Saturday.

"We all love to argue about awards and who won this or that band contest," says Hays. "But the great thing is, SPBGMA brings a lot of people together from all over the country and kinda gives us a little shot in the arm to get us through the winter months until the festival season starts back up again. It's cold and you long to get out and get those calluses on your fingers worked back up again."

Stearman feels that the event is a good time for bluegrass artists and their music.

"What has really helped over the past 17 years is Marty Stuart and Vince Gill, even Dolly Parton has strong roots in bluegrass, and Emmylou Harris," he says. "All these people have broken into mainstream country but have their roots [in bluegrass] and can always go back to that.

"I think we're starting to see the influence these people have had on the music, and the acceptance has been great in the past 20 years."

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