Monday, October 02, 2006

A few surprises at IBMA awards

The gala IBMA awards show produced a few surprises, moments of spontaneity and (in my opinion) an over-the-top display of patriotism. It was the first time the show has been held at the Grand Ole Opry House, a fitting location for a resurgent musical genre making an impacdt in the mainstream world of country music.

That was evident in the high-profile presence of some of country's royalty--those with strong bluegrass roots--in the program. Marty Stuart, whose career began as a child playing with Lester Flatt, served as emcee. Vince Gill, who started as a bluegrass picker in Oklahoma, appeared with the Del McCoury band. Ricky Skaggs, who has long-since embraced bluegrass over mainstream country, was recognized with multiple awards.

In past years, the IBMA awards have been very easy to predict, with a few top performers walking off with the same trophies year after year. That trend held true this year in several categories: Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder won its eighth overall and fourth consecutive instrumental group of the year award, Rhonda Vincent bagged her seventh consecutive female vocalist of the year honor, while Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver took its sixth straight vocal group of the year win.

Tim O'Brien was the surprise winner as male vocalist of the year, after also nabbing the award for song of the year with his "Look Down the Lonesome Road." Accepting the song of the year trophy, O'Brien acknowledged "it's an upset, but I'm not." Later, picking up the vocalist award, the all-around performer celebrated more for his songwriting and instrumental work than his vocals seemed almost embarrassed to have been picked over vocal specialists like Larry Sparks, Marty Raybon, and Ronnie Bowman. (Actually, O'Brien had once before earned the vocalist honor in 1993.)

The awards for the best recordings of the year went mainly to special projects over standard releases. "Celebration of Life," a benefit for children's cancer research featuring more than 100 musicians was album of the year while "The Daughters of Bluegrass," which brought together many of the top female performers in the genre, won for recorded event of the year. Michael Cleveland won for best instrumental album while Doyle Alexander & Quicksilver picked up best gospel recording.

In my opinion, the awards for best individual instrumental performers got short shrift. Only the winners, not the nominees, were even announced, and all of them were packaged in one program segment. In this case, the winners were all fairly predictable. Jim Mills of Kentucky Thunder won his sixth banjo award. Rob Ickes of Blue Highway notched his eighth win for dobro. Michael Cleveland took home his fourth fiddle honor. Missy Raines won the bass award for the sixth time. Bryan Sutton got his sixth and fourth consecutive guitar trophy. Adam Steffey of Mountain Heart won the mandolin award for the fifth straight year.

It is worth noting that, by and large, these players tend to the more traditional end of the bluegrass spectrum. In the distant past, progressive bluegrassers such as Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and Tony Rice were frequent winners, but more recently the IBMA membership has favored the traditional pickers.

The night's top award for entertainer of the year went to The Grascals, who were not my personal favorites, but are a perfectly solid choice for the band making the biggest impact in the genre. In contrast, last year's pick, The Cherryholmes, overstated that band's importance, in my personal view. Like The Grascals, the IBMA's choice for emerging artist of the year, The Steep Canyon Rangers, have had success in crossing over into the mainstream country market.

The night produced a number of notable musical performances. Marty Stuart's duet with Bobby Osborne on the Bill Monroe classic "What Would You Give in Exchange for Your Soul" harkened back to the authentic roots of the genre. I agreed with Stuart's comment that Osborne should have won the emerging artist award, now that the veteran bluegrasser is back on the circuit with a new band.

Along similar lines, the audience also loved Vince Gill's appearance with the Del McCoury Band. There seems to be nothing the IBMA audience likes more than when a big country star plays bluegrass.

The biggest production number of the night was an elaborate musical tribute to the American armed services. I'll give my thoughts on this in the next post.

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