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Bluegrass convention filled with Tri-State connections

Oct. 27, 2010 @ 11:46 PM

The Mother Church of Country Music is solid on its foundation on the night of Sept. 30, 2010. The Ryman Auditorium, spared by the Nashville flood waters of six months earlier, is surrounded by a large crowd waiting to get inside for the annual International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) awards show.

The Ryman, home of the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 to 1974, has hosted the awards show since the IBMA World of Bluegrass convention moved to Nashville from Louisville, Ky., in 2005. It is fitting that the awards show is held in the legendary venue where bluegrass music was born when Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs first played together there in 1945.

I am sitting a few rows from the front, up on the balcony on the legendary wooden church pews, surrounded by a well-dressed crowd that is animated and in a good mood. The awards show is hosted by the award-winning musicians Jerry Douglas and Cheryl and Sharon White who keep the dialogue humorous and fun.   

There are a few West Virginia connections that appear during the awards show, the first being the appearance of West Virginia Music Hall of Fame inductee Hazel Dickens, who presents a couple of awards with Peter Rowan. The late John Hartford, who performed many times here in the Tri-State and also captained many a riverboat along this stretch of the Ohio River, is inducted into the IBMA Hall of Fame.

The show ends with an all-star performance of Hartford's hit song "Gentle On My Mind." The jam centers around the John Hartford String Band, the members of Hartford's last-ever group, who recently reformed to record a new album called "Memories of John." They are joined onstage by West Virginia native Tim O'Brien, Jerry Douglas, Tut Taylor, Alison Brown, Sam Bush, Peter Rowan and Hartford's son, Jamie Hartford. At least 16 of the bands and performers who are nominees and award winners have performed here in the Tri-State in the last two years.

After the awards show is over, I head to the legendary bluegrass concert venue The Station Inn where the John Hartford String Band hosts a wonderful post-awards concert. The band is joined again by banjo player extraordinaire Alison Brown. And, in a fun awards night perk, when the newly crowned IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year, Claire Lynch, enters the club, her win is announced from the stage and she receives a loud congratulatory cheer as she is called up to sing a couple of songs.

Along the way, I get to meet some interesting people. Late at night I run into 2010 IBMA Distinguished Achievement Award honoree Pete Wernick, who introduces me, out of the blue, to David Nichtern who wrote "Midnight At The Oasis," one of the great songs of the 1970s. Another highlight is meeting Baxter Black, probably the most famous of the cowboy poets and humorists. Along those same lines, I run into Michael Martin Murphy of "Wildfire" fame, a cowboy artist who has crossed over to record two well-received bluegrass albums in the last couple of years. The cowboy music scene still thrives with the best examples being two new albums that have crossed my desk recently, Brenn Hill's "Equine" and R. W. Hampton's "Austin To Boston."  

It is good that the IBMA Awards show takes place at the Ryman in Nashville. But the jamming in the hallways of the Nashville Convention Center and the next-door Renaissance Hotel never seems to reach the fever pitch that it did when IBMA Week was held in Louisville. There the jams were to be found every 10 feet or so in the hallways for at least 10 stories of the Galt House Hotel.

Yet, as I wander the halls of the Renaissance, I do run into some wonderfully talented young musicians jamming on the 18th floor, including two sisters from Kansas, Erin and Amber Rogers. The duo performs by the name Scenic Roots and Erin, it turns out, is a national champion dulcimer player while Amber is a great fiddler. They are playing with a group of pickers that include a hot young guitarist from the Seattle area named Chris Luquette, who plays with the band Northern Departure.

The next afternoon features lunch with old and new friends in Nashville. I was invited by Mike West, who works in stage and sound production in town, to join him at a down home restaurant called Monell's located in the historic Germantown section of Nashville.

As we meet at Monell's, who's excellent food more than fits the 'home cooking’ bill, I bring along singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Pam Gadd, a northern Kentucky native who was Porter Wagoner's duet partner on the Grand Ole Opry during the last four years of his life. Gadd will be featured in an article in the upcoming November issue of Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine. West brings along Trip Hunt who works for Crew One Productions. So, with a combination of a music journalist, a veteran sound and stage production tech, a very talented recording artist and a professional with one of the top production companies in the business, it is a classic Nashville sit-down with animated conversation and stories told.

Later that night I end up back at the Station Inn to watch three-time IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year Dale Ann Bradley. Her band features Chris Harris on mandolin, Ron Shuffler on bass, Mike Sumner on banjo and new band member Shad Cobb on fiddle. As the show continues, Bradley invites a few special guests up to the stage including Brandon Godman, fiddler in the new country group The Band Perry, and singer/songwriter Thea Wescott who sings a couple of well-received songs.

The concert ends in compelling fashion when Bradley responds to the calls for an encore by walking back up onstage to sing a moving and beautiful solo version of the classic Paul Craft-penned song "Keep Me From Blowing Away." By the time her performance is finished there is nary a dry eye in the house. It is the mark of a true artist when such powerful music is made with just a guitar and a voice, and the bluegrass world, especially during IBMA Week, is full of them.

Derek Halsey is an award-winning freelance writer for The Herald-Dispatch. He was nominated for an IBMA award this year. This was his experience at the awards show and convention.



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