RALEIGH, NC (Havighurst) -- The premium prizes at this year’s International Bluegrass Music Awards were bound to go to industry veterans based on the nominee pool, but an insurgent slate of young and first-time winners in the instrumentalist categories sent a signal Thursday night in Raleigh, NC that bluegrass in the coming years will be defined at least as much by a new generation as by the seasoned artists that have tended to win prizes year in, year out. Serial winners have been a source of frustration within the bluegrass community for some time.
That said, bluegrass honors its stalwarts, and several were on hand to collect crystal obelisk trophies in the midst of the World of Bluegrass convention and festival.
Balsam Range, the 2014 Entertainers of the Year, took Album of the Year for Mountain Voodoo. And throwback super-group The Earls of Leicester was named Entertainers of the Year for the third straight year. But the first words from the band on stage were a tribute to new winners.
“One of the coolest things I’ve seen tonight was all of these new and young people winning,” said dobro player and Earls instigator Jerry Douglas. “It’s a wonderful thing to win an IBMA award. It always has been. It always will be.” Banjo man Charlie Cushman, a 58-year-old lifer who’s played with a who’s who of bluegrass, confessed the gig is a lot of fun. “We’re proud to entertain, but we want you to know that we are entertained too.”
A youth brigade of mostly first-time winners won the instrumentalist awards, including two who have broken ground for women amid the ranks of bluegrass pickers. California-raised, Nashville-based Molly Tuttle, who’s released one EP as a featured artist, became the first female to ever win Guitar Player of the Year, a prize shared over the years by Bryan Sutton, Tony Rice and a handful other others.
At the podium, 24-year-old Tuttle called the prize “the biggest honor of my life” and thanked her bluegrass mentors Alice Gerrard and Laurie Lewis, with whom she’d sing a pre-planned trio before the night was over. In conclusion she said “I’d like to inspire the next generation and get more women up there playing lead on guitar.”
Moments later, Tennessee native Sierra Hull, a recent graduate of the Berklee College of Music, won her second straight Mandolin Player of the Year trophy.
Meanwhile, Josh Swift, 31 years old and a player with Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, became a first-time Dobro Player of the Year. Alan Bartram of the Del McCoury Band and the Travelin’ McCourys won his first Bass Player prize. Punch Brothers banjo player Noam Pikelny won his second Banjo Player award, following up on a win in 2014.
Also fresh and surprising, Brooke Aldridge, half of a duo with her husband Darin out of Cleveland County, North Carolina, was named Female Vocalist. They’ve released six albums and earned the admiration of such veterans as Vince Gill and John Cowan, with whom they’ve recently shared a string of performance dates.
Nashville’s Shawn Camp took Male Vocalist for the second time in three years. While not a first-timer, the singer/songwriter has been widely hailed as overdue for high honors even before he joined the industry juggernauts The Earls of Leicester. Camp told stories of meeting new IBMA Hall of Famers Bobby Hicks and Roland White, and the kind regard he received, a common story in the torch-passing bluegrass music field.
The Vocal Group of the Year for the second year running, Flatt Lonesome, is also made of relative newcomers to the industry with four releases to their credit since 2014.
The show was hosted by married musical duo Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn, who brought a mixture of gravitas and corn to the show at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts. As is typical of the show, emotional receptions were in store for the night’s Hall of Fame inductees: fiddler Bobby Hicks, mandolinist Roland White and the breakthrough duo of Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard.
Part of the night was dedicated to the old time repertoire of bluegrass music, with numerous performances by contemporary artists of standards that have become staples for both performing artists and shade tree pickers. The show’s finale featured Tuttle and Gerrard and Lewis singing the Carter Family’s “Hello Stranger.” That segued into Roland White, Doyle Lawson and Tim O’Brien singing “More Pretty Girls Than One.” And the grand finale featured the oft-maligned but undeniably history-making “Rocky Top” sung by the men who made it famous, Sonny and Bobby Osborne with a cast of star players in support.
Songs like those have become a kind of mother tongue of bluegrass that lets strangers play music together upon first meeting without rehearsal or preparation. The standards songbook is unifying, inspiring and a vehicle for the good will that keeps the IBMA large and loud year after year.
A complete list of winners follows:
ENTERTAINER OF THE YEAR:
The Earls of Leicester
VOCAL GROUP OF THE YEAR:
Flatt Lonesome (their second win in this category, previously in 2016)
INSTRUMENTAL GROUP OF THE YEAR:
Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper (their fourth win in this category, previously in 2008, 2009 and 2010)
SONG OF THE YEAR:
“I Am A Drifter” – Volume Five (artist), Donna Ulisse/Marc Rossi (writers)
ALBUM OF THE YEAR:
Mountain Voodoo – Balsam Range (artist), Balsam Range (producer), Mountain Home Records (label)
GOSPEL RECORDED PERFORMANCE OF A YEAR (tie):
“I Found a Church Today” – The Gibson Brothers (artist), Eric Gibson/Leigh Gibson (writers), In The Ground (album), Eric Gibson, Leigh Gibson, and Mike Barber (producers), Rounder Records (label)
“Sacred Memories” – Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers with Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White Skaggs (artist), Dolly Parton (writer), Sacred Memories (album), Joe Mullins (producer), Rebel Records (label)
INSTRUMENTAL RECORDED PERFORMANCE:
“Fiddler’s Dream” – Michael Cleveland (artist), Arthur Smith (writer), Fiddler’s Dream (album), Jeff White and Michael Cleveland (producers), Compass Records (label)
EMERGING ARTIST OF THE YEAR:
RECORDED EVENT OF THE YEAR:
“I’ve Gotta Get a Message To You” – Bobby Osborne with Sierra Hull, Alison Brown, Rob Ickes, Stuart Duncan, Trey Hensley, Todd Phillips, Kenny Malone, Claire Lynch, and Bryan McDowell (artists), Original (album), Alison Brown (producer), Compass Records (label)
FEMALE VOCALIST OF THE YEAR:
Brooke Aldridge (her first win in this category)
MALE VOCALIST OF THE YEAR:
Shawn Camp (his second win in this category, previously in 2015)
BANJO PLAYER OF THE YEAR:
Noam Pikelny (his second win in this category, previously in 20
BASS PLAYER OF THE YEAR:
Alan Bartram (his first win in this category)
DOBRO PLAYER OF THE YEAR:
Josh Swift (his first win in this category)
FIDDLE PLAYER OF THE YEAR:
Patrick McAvinue (his first in in this category)
GUITAR PLAYER OF THE YEAR:
Molly Tuttle (first woman to win this category)
MANDOLIN PLAYER OF THE YEAR:
Sierra Hull (her second year in this category, previously in 2016)
Previously announced inductees into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame – trailblazing bluegrass artists Hazel Dickens and & Alice Gerrard, master fiddler Bobby Hicks, and Roland White, whose impressive career includes contributions to several seminal bands – were honored at this evening’s show.
At the Special Awards Luncheon held earlier in the day, the recipients of the following awards were also announced:
BLUEGRASS BROADCASTER OF THE YEAR:
BLUEGRASS EVENT OF THE YEAR:
Pickin’ in Parsons
Parsons, West Virginia
BEST LINER NOTES FOR A RECORDED PROJECT:
J.D.Crowe and the New South (40th Anniversary Edition)
BEST GRAPHIC DESIGN FOR A RECORDED PROJECT:
Mandolin Duets: Volume One
BLUEGRASS PRINT/MEDIA PERSON OF THE YEAR:
BLUEGRASS SONGWRITER OF THE YEAR: