Sunday, October 24, 1999

Bluegrass' extended family gathers for fans

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        LOUISVILLE — Bluegrass donned its annual tuxedo Thursday and played the Palace.

        More than 50 years since founding father Bill Monroe dug it from his central Kentucky roots, bluegrass has spread around the world faster than kudzu. Once a year, it comes home to Kentucky for the week of the International Bluegrass Music Association's awards, trade show and indoor Fan Fest festival.

        In the third year since the event moved to Louisville from Owensboro for better facilities, around 20,000 pickers and fans packed the twin towers of the Galt House.

        In bluegrass, the lines between audience, superstars and professional and semi-professional musicians are thinner than banjo strings, and the event includes pickers and bluegrass lovers of every stripe.

        They come for seminars and workshops that run through the day. But the best part is at night, when spontaneous jam sessions sprout in every available space, often including the music's top performers, and continuing until dawn.

        The event ends today with the close of the three-day Fan Fest.

Cincinnati connection
        But the crown jewel of IBMA Week is its awards show, which celebrated its 10th anniversary Thursday. Drawing a near-sellout crowd of 2,200, it moved from the Kentucky Center for the Arts to the far more opulent Louisville Palace.

        Though the awards honored a mu sical style born in Kentucky, the year's most celebrated album had its roots in Cincinnati.

        Ralph Stanley's Clinch Mountain Country took awards for album of the year and recorded event of the year.

        The double disc combined the 72-year-old singer and banjo player with a host of young performers from bluegrass and mainstream country, including Vince Gill and Dwight Yoakam. The album's 36 songs were dominated by those Mr. Stanley and his late brother Carter recorded in Cincinnati for King Records.

        That was the label the Stanley Brothers recorded for the longest (1957-66) and was also where Mr. Stanley launched his solo career after his brother's 1966 death.

        Contemporary singer/songwriter Jim Lauderdale performed one of those songs, “If I Lose,” with Mr. Stanley, one of many musical segments in the 21/2-hour show.

        “That's where I first heard it when I was a kid, on a King record,” Mr. Lauderdale said of the song at the post-show winner's reception.

        The Del McCoury Band cemented its place as all-time most honored group, taking entertainer of the year for the fifth time, along with Ronnie McCoury's seventh straight win for best mandolinist. The group has won 26 IBMA awards to date.

        The evening began with the original bluegrass banjo player, Earl Scruggs, as he led former Nitty Gritty Dirt Band banjoist John McEuen and veteran bassist Tom Gray through “Home Sweet Home.”

        Other performers included all entertainer-of-the-year nominees (Del McCoury Band, Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, Lonesome River Band, Blue Highway and IIIrd Tyme Out) and mainstream country star Joe Diffie, who performed with the Lonesome River Band.

        The Lonesome River Band included the male vocalist winner, Ronnie Bowman (his third straight win), who also won best song and best gospel performance for “Three Rusty Nails.” That group's Kenny Smith, won best guitarist for the second year. IIIrd Tyme Out lived up to its name, taking best vocal group for the third straight year.

        It was a night for paying tribute to the bluegrass tradition, as fiddler Kenny Baker was inducted into the Hall of Honor. But it was also time to look at bluegrass as it enters the next century.

Covington connection
        Two decades ago, Cincinnati's Katie Laur was virtually the sole woman leading a bluegrass band. Today, some of the top bands feature women. Missy Raines took best bassist for her second year, and also performed at the show with an all-star female band that included female vocalist winner Lynn Morris on banjo.

        Just as the Tristate played a huge role in bluegrass past, it looks to be a major player in the future. The crowd was buzzing over the hot young picker in Mr. Skaggs' instrumental-group winning band Kentucky Thunder. Guitarist Clay Hess, of Blue Creek, Ohio, outside Athens, joined Mr. Skaggs in January.

        When he was picked out of 30 applicants, Mr. Hess, 28, was working at the Hayes Brothers Music Center in Covington. “He had such a heart in his playing, he just really stood out,” Mr. Skaggs said.

        As he stood holding his IBMA statuette, a crystal obelisk on a wooden base, surrounded by family and friends, Mr. Hess looked as if that heart was ready to burst.

        “Right out of the gate,” he said proudly. “There's not too many guys that get to start at the top, with the best band in bluegrass.”

        IBMA award winners are selected by the professional membership of the 2,600-member IBMA.

        The complete 1999 International Bluegrass Music Association winners

        • Entertainer of the year: Del McCoury Band

        • Vocal group: IIIrd Tyme Out

        • Instrumental group: Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder

        • Male vocalist: Ronnie Bowman

        • Female Vocalist: Lynn Morris

        • Song of the year: “Three Rusty Nails”

        • Gospel recording: “Three Rusty Nails”

        • Album of the year: Clinch Mountain Country

        • Instrumental album: Bound to Ride (Jim Mills)

        • Banjo: Jim Mills

        • Bass: Missy Raines

        • Dobro: Rob Ickes

        • Fiddle: Randy Howard

        • Guitar: Kenny Smith

        • Mandolin: Ronnie McCoury

        • Recorded Event of the year: Clinch Mountain Country

        • Emerging artist: Mountain Heart


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