When the bluegrass family gets together, the stories abound. Everything seems connected and relationships flow beneath the musical surface like the rivers they say are down there underground running through the Tennessee and Kentucky limestone. Jim Lauderdale’s first banjo teacher from North Carolina was on stage with Balsam Range, playing with more pure joy and gusto than just about anybody I’ve ever seen. Sam Bush Band guitarist Stephen Mougin is producing a record for Becky Buller, so he sang and picked with her as the newly minted nominee for Songwriter of the Year fronted her band in the second set. We live for these kind of connections and IBMA night brings them out by the boxcar.
Somebody asked me this week how our annual collaboration with the International Bluegrass Music Association got started, and that’s now hard to remember four years on. Just one of those things we cooked up with our friends and colleagues. But we know it wouldn’t feel right to have the IBMA Award nominations announced and celebrated anywhere else. It’s the best possible occasion and excuse for us to call together bluegrass friends and neighbors and focus on a form of roots music that’s always part of our show but that deserves our exclusive attention from time to time, because it’s so rich in musicianship and history. We enjoyed Sam Bush and Jim Lauderdale proclaiming the nomination news from the podium in the late afternoon to an audience of bluegrass practitioners and business folk. All four of our pre-chosen artists landed nominations, testimony to our booking team’s insight and foresight. We heard the diversity of bluegrass music in four very different sets. And we got to cap the night off with the Telluride-high peak of Sam Bush.
A special nod to our man Lauderdale, because while his opening song is always a favorite part of the show for me, his a cappella rendering of his moving song “Like Him” was an uplifting and spiritual invocation of what was to come. His Appalachian holler voice came out. And that led to another fine voice, that of Missy Armstrong, the conspicuously blonde and female member of Michigan band Detour. Actually they all proved to be Superior musicians with an Erie sense of timing and tasteful playing that put Huron a pedestal (Thank you. Thank you very much). Opener “Juliet” mined a minor key for major pleasure. “Quarterline Road” was bright and sweetly nostalgic. And “Soldier’s Sorrow” had a subtle drive and a beautiful message, plus complex vocal harmonies and a cool banjo, mando, fiddle refrain that anchored the tune. They wrapped with a hearty heavy blues tune so bluesy it was called “Too Blue To Have The Blues.”
Bluegrass has made moves in recent years to better celebrate and amplify the contributions of songwriters, so when Becky Buller was tagged as a nominee for the rather new Songwriter of The Year award, one was inclined to pay special attention to the shape and style of her songs when she took the stage as a band leader. And what did I hear? A cool, unexpected chord sequence in “Nothin’ To You,” a fresh take on waltz time in “For A Lifetime” and aggressive wordplay and interesting rhymes in “Queen of the Mountain Bootleggers.” She truly has her own songwriting voice. Plus she was funny about her hair as a possible cause of feedback in the sound system. She played both fiddle and clawhammer banjo with style. And she wrapped up the set with a heartfelt a cappella take on her song “Fishers of Men” that got much of the room singing along. Well done, Red. Can we call you Red?
Balsam Range is a great story with a poignant story on top. In our interview, bass player and band emcee Tim Surrett told us that the band started with basically local aspirations – five friends who live within 15 minutes of each other and who were tapped into the bluegrass lifestyle and tradition of their Western NC home. Five albums and many tours later, they took our stage with nominations for Instrumental Group, Vocal Group, Male Vocalist and Entertainers of the Year. And we didn’t even get into the story of Buddy Melton’s amazing comeback from a crushing head injury that put his life and voice in jeopardy. Instead with the focus on today’s music (and with mandolin icon Adam Steffey subbing for an ailing Darren Nicholson), we heard a band that’s polished, bluesy, aggressive and passionate. They whisked along on polished rails in “Monday Blues” and “Any Old Road.” Their big hit “Trains I Missed” is a brilliant song that would have found a place on country radio in a sane world. The soloing got really hot on the blues-shaped “Moon Over Memphis.” And all the voices, from Melton, Surrett and guitarist Caleb Smith were stellar. It was so good to host one of the hottest bands in the current scene.
And then it was time for good old Sam Bush with his crack band and their infectious rhythms and inclusive modern tribe vibe. They opened with the lonesome “Ballad of Stringbean,” which tells sad but important bluegrass history. “Freight Train Boogie” had extra bounce behind Sam’s mandolin. The mando, banjo and acoustic guitar wove together elegantly on the bed of “Circles Around Me,” that great Sam signature written by Jeff Black. They got instrumental and rhythmically angular in Scott Vestal’s banjo tour de force “By Stealth” and wrapped with the old New Grass Revival song (dedicated by Sam to in-attendance John Cowan) – the Bill Monroe-esque number called “This Heart of Mine.”
I think there were four banjos and at least that many fiddles on stage for the Nashville Jam, as Jim and Sam fired up a version of the ever-popular “Rollin In My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” which is great inspiration for how to spend your time waiting for the mail train to come back if you’re lucky enough to have a sweetheart who’s so inclined. And with that nod to Flatt & Scruggs, we wrapped another show that I think Lester would have ruled “mighty mighty fine.”
There were more friends of bluegrass on hand than I could name with due respect to all. But we send special appreciation to Kyle Cantrell and the SiriusXM team for setting up studio and covering the proceedings on the nation’s biggest bluegrass network. Congratulations to all the nominees and new Hall of Fame inductees, the original Seldom Scene and scholar Neil Rosenberg. We’ll see y’all in Raleigh.