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Billy Strings Is Bluegrass Music's New Entertainer Of The Year

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On the most celebratory night of a smaller-than-usual World of Bluegrass in Raleigh, NC, the IBMA Thursday night crowned a new Entertainer of the Year and one of its youngest ever in bandleader and songwriter Billy Strings. The artist, who released his third album last Friday, also won Guitar Player of the Year for the second time in three years.

Strings, who turns 29 on Sunday, emerged five years ago playing intimate, old-time string band duo music with mandolinist and fellow Michigander Don Julin. But when he started his own band, Strings found a way to blend vibrant traditional bluegrass feeling and forms with virtuoso improvisation and an electrifying stage show that's blown up on the jam band circuit. On the road between dates in Oklahoma and Memphis, Strings was one of numerous winners who could not be on hand to accept his awards in person. He had made no comment by Friday morning.

Album of the Year went to Industrial Strength Bluegrass, a conceptual, multi-artist project surveying the impact of the southwestern Ohio region on the boom in bluegrass music in the post WWII era. Ohio native Joe Mullins, a past Entertainer of the Year and part of a bluegrass family and broadcasting legacy from the area, accepted the award as producer of the Smithsonian Folkways album, which is a companion to a book of the same title.

"I grew up in one of the best bluegrass neighborhoods on the planet," said Mullins, who thanked his son Daniel, co-producer and author of the liner notes, as well as the many musicians who performed new versions of historically resonant songs. "Most of all thanks to the bluegrass pioneers who established southwest Ohio as one of the most significant markets in bluegrass history. The award is dedicated in memory of my dad, the late Paul "Moon" Mullins who helped promote bluegrass in Ohio for 45 years."

Appalachian Road Show, a neo-traditional band of industry veterans that formed in 2018, had a good night, winning New Artist of the Year and Instrumental Group of the Year. Dale Ann Bradley won Female Vocalist of the Year for the sixth time, but was not on hand to accept. Danny Paisley, who accepted on her behalf, quickly thereafter was named Male Vocalist of the Year, in a tie with the legendary Del McCoury. "There's no way I belong in this category with this man," said an emotional Paisley. It was McCoury's fifth win and Paisley's third in the category.

In the individual instrumental categories, Sierra Hull won her fourth Mandolin Player of the Year Award, veteran winner Missy Raines was named the industry's best bass player, and Scott Vestal won Banjo Player of the Year Award for the third time. Bronwyn Keith-Hynes of rising band Mile 12 was a first-time winner in the Fiddle Player of the Year category. Justin Moses, a multi-instrumentalist of renown, was singled out as Resophonic Guitar Player of the Year.

As usual, the Bluegrass Hall of Fame inductions offered the night's most emotional and surprising moments. The Stoneman Family was so honored, having been one of the longest-running family bands in country music, spanning the 1927 Bristol Sessions through Hee-Haw. Pioneering bluegrass women, Stoneman sisters Roni (banjo) and Donna (mandolin), both in their 80s, performed two blistering-tempo songs while cracking jokes.

Also there was 1990s bluegrass star Lynn Morris, who was inducted for her impact as a singer, multi-instrumentalist and band-leader, something very rare for women at the time. Sidelined by a stroke in the early 2000s, Morris was met with rapturous applause as she and husband and her bass player Marshall Wilborn ascended to the podium to accept her plaque. Moments before, bass legend Missy Raines, a mentee of Morris, said, "Lynn's compassion and commitment to making a difference has been foundational in the development of her art. Her generosity and her humanity have been at the fore of her career and her life."

Alison Krauss, a fiddler and singer who captivated bluegrass and then became a fixture in mainstream American music in the 1990s and beyond, offered her thanks live via audio stream, having alerted the producers she was remaining isolated from the Covid pandemic. "Playing music with Union Station (were) my favorite moments in music," she said. "I never thought I would end up doing this for a living and I want to thank the people who thought I had something to offer."

Veteran band The Infamous Stringdusters hosted the 32nd annual awards, opening the night with "Rise Sun," the title track from their 2019 album. Performing through the relatively brisk two-and-a-half-hour show were Sister Sadie, Missy Raines with Chris Jones, the Del McCoury Band, Balsam Range and the Po' Ramblin' Boys. The night's finale featured the Stringdusters with Chris Eldridge, members of Sister Sadie and the Del McCoury Band, plus Jim Lauderdale, playing "Cold On The Shoulder" in tribute to Hall of Famer Tony Rice who died on Christmas Day 2020.

IBMA held its 2020 convention and awards virtually, so its return to Raleigh has been a source of joy for those able to make it. A number of industry figures and artists opted not to come to the gathering, either out of fear of crowds or in protest of the IBMA's vaccine-only entrance policy.

A full list of the IBMA Award winners follows:

ENTERTAINER OF THE YEAR: Billy Strings

VOCAL GROUP OF THE YEAR: Sister Sadie

INSTRUMENTAL GROUP OF THE YEAR: Appalachian Road Show

SONG OF THE YEAR: “Richest Man” – Balsam Range (artist), Jim Beavers/Jimmy Yeary/Connie Harrington (songwriters), Balsam Range (producer), Mountain Home Records (label)

ALBUM OF THE YEAR: Industrial Strength Bluegrass: Southwestern Ohio’s Musical Legacy – Various Artists, Joe Mullins (producers), Smithsonian Folkways Recordings (label)

GOSPEL RECORDING OF THE YEAR (Tie):

“After While” – Dale Ann Bradley (artist), Public Domain, Dale Ann Bradley (producer), Pinecastle Records (label)

“In the Resurrection Morning” – Sacred Reunion featuring Doyle Lawson, Vince Gill, Barry Abernathy, Tim Stafford, Mark Wheeler, Jim VanCleve, Phil Leadbetter, Jason Moore (artists), Mark Wheeler (songwriter), Barry Abernathy, Jim VanCleve (producers), Dottie Leonard Miller (Executive Producer), Billy Blue Records (label)

INSTRUMENTAL RECORDING OF THE YEAR: “Ground Speed" – Kristin Scott Benson, Skip Cherryholmes, Jeremy Garrett, Kevin Kehrberg, Darren Nicholson (artists), Earl Scruggs (songwriter), Jon Weisberger (producer), Mountain Home Music (label)

NEW ARTIST OF THE YEAR: Appalachian Road Show

COLLABORATIVE RECORDING OF THE YEAR: “White Line Fever” – Bobby Osborne with Tim O’Brien, Trey Hensley, Sierra Hull, Stuart Duncan, Todd Phillips, Alison Brown (artists), Merle Haggard/Jeff Tweedy (songwriters) Alison Brown, Garry West (producers), Compass Records (label)

FEMALE VOCALIST OF THE YEAR: Dale Ann Bradley

MALE VOCALIST OF THE YEAR (Tie): Danny Paisley and Del McCoury

BANJO PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Scott Vestal

BASS PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Missy Raines

RESOPHONIC GUITAR PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Justin Moses

FIDDLE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Bronwyn Keith-Hynes

GUITAR PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Billy Strings

MANDOLIN PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Sierra Hull