This year, the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) has selected Lee Ann Womack and Jerry Douglas to host their annual Bluegrass Music Awards Show. The Bluegrass Awards Show is the grand finale of the annual convention, World of Bluegrass. The Awards show is attended by bluegrass artists, professionals, and yes, fans. This year, the IBMA again has selected a host from outside the Bluegrass community. As in years past when they have done this, bluegrassers always ask the question: "Why?" Why don't we promote our own artists for this event?
I wondered if it was because they didn't have anybody within their ranks that could do the job. Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski certainly did a great job - multiple times. Laurie Lewis and Del McCoury put on a good show. Sam Bush did a great job and everybody loves Sam! Jerry Douglas with Cheryl and Sharon White of The Whites put on an entertaining show. It can be done.
Country/Folk artist Kathy Mattea was selected one year as a co-host and a lot of people were wondering why she was picked. Sure, she has roots to the music, is from the region, is familiar to the music and is well respected and her background is superb. She just didn't have any ties to the bluegrass. This year, country artist Lee Ann Womack is selected to co-host the program. Like Mattea, she enjoys bluegrass music, lives in Tennessee but, she isn't a bluegrass artist.
While I respect the country artists and their contributions to the world of country music, I believe the bluegrass community would be better off if they selected artists from within the genre to represent their own awards.
There are some that desire to get the bluegrass awards show more popular in an effort to get it carried on television. Maybe that is the reason for going outside to find someone to bring inside. Others say its to increase the fan base but do we really expect a large turnout of Lee Ann Womack fans to jump onto the bluegrass music train? I seriously doubt it. If the IBMA really wants to get a big audience turnout and audience, bring Miley Cyrus to host the show. Now, that will get media attention!
Seriously however, the IBMA might want to consider the torch bearers of the genre's future -- the youth. Bluegrass music has a lot of talented youth and many with the charming and humorous personalities to do the duties and do them well. After all, pretty much the entire show is scripted and choreographed anyway. It is a production with writers and scripters and all. Due to time constraints, there isn't a lot of free-form allowed.
The association had run surveys indicating that they are losing the elderly in their ranks and that the youth are the future of the genre yet, that same association seems to desire to keep the youth at arms reach. I recommend that they not only bring them in but highlight them at every opportunity also. Willow & Lee, Marteka N William Lake, or some artists from the Bluegrass Youth Council could provide a great candidate pool as the future of bluegrass lies in the youth who will nourish our music down the road.
The genre also has artists in the next tier up who are young enough to cast a youthful image but are more seasoned artists. There is an entire bluegrass community to pick from. Certainly the association could find someone. They went outside the community in their search. They also went to the fringes for this year's Keynote Speaker, Béla Fleck. Apparently they couldn't find anybody who could talk about bluegrass music and its future from within their own ranks. While Béla is probably one of the most versitile banjo artists today and he can certainly play bluegrass, he isn't a bluegrass artist per se. Sammy Shelor is. Why not him?
It is interesting that the bluegrass community is very vocal about the changes in country music and its becoming just another flavor of today's rock music and now, we are witnessing the IBMA doing exactly what their own fans seem to detest. They are taking bluegrass in the same failed direction of country music. The IBMA appears to be taking bluegrass away from its roots and on a journey to who knows where.
I believe that the IBMA can have their cake and eat it too. They can gain the recognition they desire. They can bring more artists into the fold. They can expand their fan base and audience spectrum. And, they can do it from within bluegrass. They key, I believe, is the youth element. Ask any marketing firm who they target most and they will tell you its the youth element. The IBMA needs to do that. Use their youth members to advance and target a youth audience and show today's youth how much fun bluegrass is and how today's youth can be tomorrow's stars. Alison Krauss started out that way. Chris Thile began his career at a single-digit age. Look at Sierra Hull and others of her generation. This is where the focus needs to lie even if it means fringe bluegrass like the Sleepy Man Banjo Boys.
I think that non-bluegrass hosts for a bluegrass industry's bluegrass awards show for bluegrass professionals and bluegrass fans is a missed opportunity. Right track -- Left Rail. Artists like Kathy Mattea and Lee Ann Womack will bring some short-term benefit but, it is the long term success that we are trying to achieve. The IBMA Awards Show is certainly a high point of the year in bluegrass and we want all the glitz and glamour that we can get but, I sincerely believe that we can achieve greater success by sourcing from within rather than outside. At least, that's one man's opinion.