Bluegrass Awards?

Words By Chris Pandolfi (The Infamous Stringdusters)

And the Nominees are…

A few weeks ago I pondered the concept of music associations, most of which have at least two things in common: membership dues and an awards show. For the IBMA, the awards are clearly a big deal, drawing most of the genre’s top talent to Nashville every fall for an elaborate ceremony at the Ryman complete with performances and the occasional A-list presenter. But what do the awards really accomplish? On the surface the answer seems simple–celebrate the best musicians in an effort to further individual careers. But it also serves to outline the current musical landscape (what’s popular, what’s successful, what the genre is), which can be quite the conundrum for Bluegrass.

Last night the IBMA rolled out the list of Nominees for the 2011 awards at a pre-MCR production at the Loveless Barn. There were a few really cool things including Hall of Fame honors for Del and George Shuffler, and a worthy list of Distinguished Achievement Award Recipients including Roland White and Greg Cahill. Truly all the nominees are talented people worthy of recognition (congratulations to all), but what does this list, much of which stays the same year to year, say about our music?

For Bluegrass, it seems the awards have become less focused on empowering our all-stars to be acoustic ambassadors to the music world at large, less about decorating bands on the fringes (not that it was ever really about this at all), which would in turn open some of the many doors to other genres that already exist. Instead, it’s become about building a wall around an increasingly insular musical community with an aging leadership group. This dosen’t mean the winners aren’t amazing and talented, in fact they are beyond talented–this list of nominees includes some of the most virtuosic musicians in the world. But how can it be so consistent year to year? Is the musical landscape really that stagnant? The answer is a clear NO! But so much of what is going on in acoustic music is not recognized even a little, which is sad considering that the awards presentation is an obvious time to open the doors and broadcast a message of openness and acceptance to the world. It’s one of the only times the IBMA can broadcast a message to the world: this is bluegrass.

Look at the Grammys, where the fans (many, many fans) decide what’s popular. They don’t vote on the awards, but no acts rise to that level of popular appeal with the support of the people. A nomination is a win, so the final decision is not nearly as important as the initial popularity that got you there. Of course there’s an old school musical machine hiding somewhere behind it all, buying success for a few, but as the traditional record industry continues to disappear, quality/unique/authentic acts are coming on strong (acoustic music is all of those things). The music changes and grows over time depending on what the people like. It’s art. It’s the natural order of things, especially on that large a scale.

So what’s so bad about seeing repeat nominees? Maybe it just means that Ronnie McCoury and Rob Ickes have EXTREMELY loyal fans. But if the IBMA is trying to better the genre, it really needs to find a way to spread these awards around. Even though the list of 2011 nominees is a very worthy one, there are still legions of young eclectic players who could benefit from this kind of early recognition. Even a simple set of rules (ex. win once, take 3 years off) would usher in a wave of new names, creating opportunities for bands/individuals and creating more exposure for the music as a whole. We won three awards in 2007, but our involvement these days is pretty limited (we were just nominated for Instrumental Band of the Year). That could all change.

The Emerging Artist of the Year category can be especially troubling, with veteran bands (The Boxcars are already a legit supergroup!) and many repeat nominees (Michael Cleveland has been in the mix many times, and he’s probably the best BG fiddler in the world–emerging artist???). Bands like the Hillbenders, Town Mountain, the Farewell Drifters, Monroeville and Milkdrive should be in the mix. The IBMA could help that happen. And then there are the instrument categories. Talk about repeat nominations–it’s bordering on ridiculous now, and it has nothing to do with how good these players are. It goes without saying that that Rob Ickes is a master dobro player. No need to confirm this with his 15th consecutive award. There’s so much talent out there, and recognizing it would not only help the up-and-comers but also the long over bridge building process that should be a big part of breathing new life into the genre. JD Crowe said it best when he walked up to receive banjo player of the year honors a few years back and said, “Let’s start giving these awards to the younger players.”

Without any meaningful guidelines/direction, the nomination process has not progressed at all in recent years. The Awards have become a bit of an oxymoron: creating increased success for individuals, but shrinking the world where that success has any relevance. That can’t be the point. Bluegrass is full of talent! That is our strength! My message here is positive: great new things are already happening, they just need to be recognized, and they can only help our common goals. Listen to Crowe. It’s time to spread the love and make some new friends. At this point, the masters are firmly entrenched, duly recognized and widely respected throughout the music world (which is excellent). Bluegrass is strong. It’s time to grow.


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