Joe Mullins is a banjo player and vocalist acclaimed for his old school manner and classic-sounding bluegrass, as well as 2016's IBMA Broadcaster of the Year. Now he and his band the Radio Ramblers are Entertainers of the Year. The group is no stranger to IBMA awards, having won Emerging Artist in 2012 and last year's album prize, but now the traditional-leaning, Ohio-based ensemble has the top prize in the industry.
"I want every one of you guys right here," Mullins said to his band, urging them to crowd in at the podium the way they do around a central microphone on stage. "I've told 'em for years that one old boy with a few corny jokes and a banjer that's in tune sometimes can't do this by himself. It's a team effort every time we leave the house and every time we climb on stage."
Among those he thanked was his label Billy Blue Records, a year-old venture out of Nashville co-run by Jerry Salley who on Thursday was named IBMA Songwriter of the Year for the second year running. The label appears to have made a good bet on Joe Mullins, who closed out the awards with words that sound like a credo for the bluegrass world: "We will do our best to entertain with class and represent those who have gone before us as long as you'll give us the opportunity."
Mullins delivered but one of the first-time wins that left the crowd elated at the Raleigh Memorial Auditorium on Thursday night. Sister Sadie, a band of veteran bluegrass women, that includes past IBMA-winner Dale Ann Bradley, was named Vocal Group of the Year. Singer and mandolin player Tina Adair got emotional at the mic. "Well this is the first award I've ever gotten," she said. "You know what? I love making music. I've been singing since I was three years old on stage. I love it even better with these gals right here." Also taking home his first IBMA trophy was songwriter Josh Manning for "Thunder Dan," which was recorded by the relatively new band Sideline.
Atypically, there were few multiple award winners this year. One who did like a beacon on the future of bluegrass was insurgent acoustic guitarist and bandleader Billy Strings. The 26-year-old has blasted in a few years from working in a little-known duo emphasizing old-time to a headliner and a jamgrass circuit favorite. He was granted New Artist and Guitar Player of the year, but he was not on hand to accept. He's playing sold-out western dates on the literal eve of his Rounder Records debut release, Home.
The coveted Album of the Year went to Del McCoury Still Sings Bluegrass, a record whose title nods to McCoury's first recording Del McCoury Sings Bluegrass, which was released 50 years ago. The Del McCoury Band won the album prize once before in 2004 for It's The Night. McCoury, who celebrated his 80th birthday early this year, co-hosted the show charmingly with Americana/bluegrass leader Jim Lauderdale.
Indiana-reared Michael Cleveland, subject of a recent documentary about his life as a blind artist, landed his remarkable twelfth Fiddle Player of the Year award, while his band was named Instrumental Group of the Year for the fifth time. "I want to say I'm so proud of this band, and all the guys really love to play traditional bluegrass, and that's all we've ever wanted to do," said Cleveland.
Extending another key streak in the industry was Brooke Aldridge, who secured her third straight Female Vocalist of the Year award. She and husband Darin, who've emerged out of Cleveland County, NC in recent years, are about to launch an album on Rounder Records. "This means so much to me. I don't take it for granted one bit," she said. The male vocalist award to Russell Moore was a bit of a career callback. The lead singer of IIIrd Tyme Out has won the award six times, most recently in 2012.
The show opened with a performance by Jim Lauderdale and last year's instrumentalists of the year: guitarist Molly Tuttle, mandolinist Sierra Hull, fiddler Michael Cleveland, banjo player Ned Luberecki, bass player Tim Surrett and dobro payer Justin Moses. The song was a new single from Lauderdale called "Carolina Comes Home Again," celebrating his home state of North Carolina, where the IBMA World of Bluegrass holds its seventh Raleigh-based editin all week.
Featured performers through the evening included The Earls of Leicester, Sister Sadie, Darin and Brooke Aldridge, The Del McCoury Band, The Sam Bush Band, Rhonda Vincent and the Rage, Molly Tuttle and Balsam Range, who performed a lush, 1960s saturated "If I Needed Someone" with a sizeable portion of the North Carolina State Symphony. And the night closed out (at over three and a half hours) with a various artists cast performing "Man Of Constant Sorrow," led by its hit early 2000s vocalist Dan Tyminski, and the instrumental "Angeline The Baker," which showcased both instrumental prowess and traditional dancers.
Besides annual awards, IBMA uses this annual gala to formally induct a new class of the Bluegrass Hall of Fame. Fan favorite Sonny Osborne of the Osborne Brothers, speaking from a wheelchair, paid tribute to his friend Bill Emerson, banjo player for Jimmy Martin and the Country Gentlemen. Laurie Lewis inducted West Coast 1960s stars The Kentucky Colonels, a band that included brothers Roland and Clarence White, who was an iconic and pioneering flatpick guitarist. "Their shows featured humor, harmony singing, stellar instrumentalism, spiffy suits and consummate professionalism," Lewis said.
Jerry Douglas saluted his fellow dobro player Mike Auldridge, a versatile and sensitive player who innovated on the slide instrument over decades with the Seldom Scene. "He was the only dobro player that I looked to for inspiration after Josh Graves," Douglas said. "Mike was in a different world that breathed beauty into every note he played...He blew the doors wide open for the rest of us."
Such respect for heroes, living and deceased, is like the cosmic background radiation of today's bluegrass scene. The awards are a de facto kickoff to Wide Open Bluegrass, a two-day multi-stage free public festival hosted by Raleigh going through Saturday night.
A complete list of winners was provided by the IBMA:
ENTERTAINER OF THE YEAR:
Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers
VOCAL GROUP OF THE YEAR:
Sister Sadie (this is the band’s first win in this category)
INSTRUMENTAL GROUP OF THE YEAR:
Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper (this is the band’s fifth win in this category)
SONG OF THE YEAR:
“Thunder Dan” – Sideline (artist), Josh Manning (writer) Tim Surrett (producer), Mountain Home Music Company (label)
ALBUM OF THE YEAR:
Del McCoury Still Sings Bluegrass – Del McCoury Band (artist), Del and Ronnie McCoury (producer), McCoury Music (label) (this is the band’s second win in this category, with a previous win in 2004)
GOSPEL RECORDING OF THE YEAR:
“Gonna Sing, Gonna Shout” – Claire Lynch (artist), Jerry Salley (producer), Billy Blue Records (label)
INSTRUMENTAL RECORDING OF THE YEAR:
“Darlin' Pal(s) of Mine" – Missy Raines with Alison Brown, Mike Bub, and Todd Phillips (artist), Alison Brown (producer), Compass Records (label)
NEW ARTIST OF THE YEAR:
COLLABORATIVE RECORDING OF THE YEAR:
“The Guitar Song” – Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers with Del McCoury (artists), Joe Mullins (producer), Jerry Salley (associate producer) Billy Blue (label)
FEMALE VOCALIST OF THE YEAR:
Brooke Aldridge (her third win in this category, including 2017 and 2018)
MALE VOCALIST OF THE YEAR:
Russell Moore (his sixth win in this category, the most recent in 2012)
BANJO PLAYER OF THE YEAR:
Kristin Scott Benson (her fifth win in this category, the most recent in 2011)
BASS PLAYER OF THE YEAR:
Missy Raines (her eighth win in this category, the most recent in 2007)
RESOPHONIC GUITAR PLAYER OF THE YEAR:
Phil Leadbetter (his third win in this category, the most recent in 2014)
FIDDLE PLAYER OF THE YEAR:
Michael Cleveland (his 12th win in this category, previously in 2018)
GUITAR PLAYER OF THE YEAR:
Billy Strings (his first nomination – and win – in this category)
MANDOLIN PLAYER OF THE YEAR:
Alan Bibey (his first win in this category)
Previously announced inductees into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame – Mike Auldridge, Bill Emerson, and The Kentucky Colonels – were honored at this evening’s sho
At the Industry Awards Luncheon held earlier in the day, the recipients of the following awards were also announced:
BROADCASTER OF THE YEAR:
EVENT OF THE YEAR:
Blueberry Bluegrass Festival – Stony Plain, Alberta, Canada
LINER NOTES OF THE YEAR:
Epilogue: A Tribute to John Duffey
Akira Otsuka, Dudley Connell, Jeff Place, Katy Daley
GRAPHIC DESIGNER OF THE YEAR:
WRITER OF THE YEAR:
SONGWRITER OF THE YEAR:
SOUND ENGINEER OF THE YEAR: