If a bluegrass fan could put together a fantasy festival, the all-star lineup would certainly look a lot like the roster of the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Fan Fest, which took place Friday through Sunday (Oct. 28-30) in downtown Nashville.
Del McCoury, the most awarded musician in bluegrass history, capped the long-running Friday night show, hitting the stage about an hour behind schedule. But nobody in the audience seemed to be complaining. After all, check out these opening acts, all headliners in their own right: Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, Alison Krauss & Union Station, Mountain Heart, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver and IIIrd Tyme Out.
The music of the late Jimmy Martin -- the beloved King of Bluegrass -- also found a warm reception during a tribute led by J.D. Crowe and Paul Williams, who both toured with the colorful singer. With sidemen like guitarist Audie Blaylock, fiddler Michael Cleveland and bassist Jason Moore assisting, the ensemble ripped through standards like "Teardrops in My Eyes," "I'm Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes," "Stepping Stone," "You Don't Know My Mind," "There Ain't Nobody Gonna Miss Me When I'm Gone," "Prayer Bells of Heaven," "I'm Coming Home" and "Little White Church." Cia Cherryholmes and Doyle Lawson (whose first bluegrass job was working for Martin) provided harmonies on a few songs and will appear on a gospel tribute to Martin to be released next year.
Following IIIrd Tyme Out's enjoyable set, Lawson returned with his band Quicksilver, offering all the goofy stage banter and astounding harmonies their fans have come to expect. Their set list ran the gamut from the classic "Julie Ann" to their new song, "Dig a Little Deeper." This also gave most of the audience the first chance to check out Mike Hartgrove, Lawson's first full-time fiddler, who's back in the band full-time.
Even with six members, there's not a weak link anywhere in Mountain Heart's lineup. It's hard to single out any certain member for recognition here, but the IBMA would be keen to nominate each of them in their respective musician categories next year. (Mandolin player Adam Steffey did deservedly take home a trophy this year.) The band will release a new album in January and offered the project's first single, "I'm Just Here to Ride the Train." Their energetic set list also included crowd favorites like "Ramblin' Heart," "Gospel Train" and the mind-blowing "Lee Highway Blues." They also closed their set honoring Martin with a rendition of "Sunny Side of the Mountain."
Alison Krauss & Union Station rolled out familiar tunes like "Restless," "Every Time You Say Goodbye" and, of course, "Man of Constant Sorrow." Returning for the encore, Krauss led the band in a sterling rendition of "A Living Prayer," which brought the crowd to its feet yet again. Following that, Skaggs and his top-notch bandmates played some newer selections (including "Sally Jo" and "Sis Draper") before bringing his talented daughter, Molly, to the stage.
Indeed, bluegrass has long been a family affair (think of all those brother acts), and this year's most buzzed-about band follows that tradition. Though relatively new on the scene, Cherryholmes snapped up the entertainer of the year trophy on Thursday night's award show, so the audience naturally wanted to see what all the fuss was about. The four kids tore through the fast songs, leaving their folks working overtime to keep up. The dad, Jere Cherryholmes, had a good explanation: "They're still about 10 feet off the ground after last night."
Yet, part of the reason for the band's success has to be Jere's dry sense of humor, steeped in self-deprecation and witty one-liners. Oldest daughter Cia's yearning vocals are always a highlight, as well. On "He Goes to Church," her voice remains strong in the higher and lower registers, but her sincere delivery also cuts right to the message of the song. (It could easily be a country hit.) And when all the kids start to step-dance in unison, the Cherryholmes family proves to be unlike any other band on the circuit today.
Other bands on Friday's bill included NewFound Road, Randy Kohrs, Pat Flynn & Friends, David Parmley & Continental Divide, Ronnie Bowman & the Committee (sounding better than ever), Eddie & Martha Adcock with the Country Gentlemen Reunion Band and Lonesome River Band.
If the crowds were smaller Saturday, they were no less enthusiastic during more than 12 hours of music featuring six-time IBMA female vocalist of the year Rhonda Vincent (with her band, the Rage) and newly-crowned emerging artists of the year, the Grascals. Saturday also marked the triumphant return of Larry Sparks, the big winner from Thursday night's IBMA Awards.
Sparks, who won male vocalist of the year honors, performed a set that leaned heavily on material from his latest album, 40, named recorded event and album of the year. Highlights included "Tennessee 1949," "Georgia Peaches" and "John Deere Tractor." Noting that he formed his band, the Lonesome Ramblers, in 1969, he pointed to the young musicians in the current lineup and said, "If you look real close, you can see how well they take care of themselves." Adding his own impressive guitar work, Sparks showcased the band on the instrumental, "Kentucky Chimes."
Much of Saturday's music explored the progressive side of bluegrass music, so it was only fitting that banjo master J.D. Crowe was featured with the current edition of his groundbreaking band, the New South. Acknowledging the past with performances of Flatt & Scruggs' "We Can't Be Darlins Anymore" and Bill Monroe's "Molly and Tenbrooks," Crowe and lead vocalist Rickey Wasson also introduced songs from the band's upcoming album, including the gospel number, "Do You Want to Be a Millionaire." And continuing to discover songs from diverse sources, Crowe's next album will also feature "In My Next Life," a Max D. Barnes song that appeared on one of Merle Haggard's largely-overlooked albums from the '90s.
Although Claire Lynch first introduced her latest powerhouse band in April, Fan Fest provided the first opportunity for many to hear the singer-guitarist performing with Missy Raines on bass, Jim Hurst on guitar and banjo and David Harvey on mandolin and fiddle. With the focus on Lynch's vocals, band members had ample opportunity to showcase their talents on the Cajun-influenced "Thibodaux Is My Name" and the swing tune, "Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring."
Two other icons of progressive bluegrass -- Peter Rowan and Tony Rice -- immediately grabbed the crowd's attention with "Panama Red," the rousing opener Rowan wrote and popularized in the '70s with Grateful Dead leader Jerry Garcia in the bluegrass band, Old and in the Way. With bassist Bryn Bright and mandolinist Sharon Gilchrist, Rowan and Rice stuck to a more traditional direction for the IBMA appearance. However, Rice's uncanny ability to toss off-the-wall chords within his flatpicking guitar style still mesmerizes bluegrass fans. The quartet paid tribute to the late Martin and Vassar Clements on "Sunny Side of the Mountain."
One of Saturday's most fascinating moments came when 71-year-old singer-songwriter Wayne Scott performed original songs from his recently-released debut album, This Weary Way. The father of hit songwriter Darrell Scott, he worked day jobs while writing songs and performing in bands during the '60s and '70s but never had the opportunity to record an album. The elder Scott still possesses a strong voice, and his original songs would have been competitive in the Nashville marketplace of 30 or 40 years ago. Singer-songwriter Guy Clark showed up at Saturday's gig to help him sing "It's the Whiskey That Eases the Pain."
The John Cowan Band closed out Saturday's offering. Others who performed earlier in the day included Kenny & Amanda Smith, the James King Band, Larry Cordle & Lonesome Standard Time, the Nashville Bluegrass Band and Tim O'Brien. Fan Fest concluded Sunday with performances by Pine Mountain Railroad, the Mark Newton Band, Wildfire, the Whites, Marty Raybon & Full Circle and others.
Calvin Gilbert contributed to this story.