LOUISVILLE — Up against four previous winners of the International Bluegrass Music Association male vocalist of the year award last week, veteran Larry Sparks, after four decades as a bluegrass pro, became the newest name on that list. On the strength of his recording "You Ain't Lived," which also was a song of the year nominee, Sparks, the seeming underdog, helped the IBMA bid farewell to Louisville with a flourish.
The IBMA has been hosting its weeklong World of Bluegrass convention, awards and festival in Louisville since 1997, having moved from its original site in Owensboro, Ky. Next year, the event moves to the spot one assumes the IBMA always had its collective eye on, Nashville. Knowing that this was the final year in Louisville made it easy to appreciate the cozy, if crowded, feel of what is now the IBMA’s past.
The awards ceremony, held in the adjacent Kentucky Center, is all about dressing up and formally honoring the year's best work and the artists who deliver it, while Fan Fest, the weekend-long indoor festival, is all about informally doing the same. The main stage runs from late morning until late night, and Friday alone featured sets by award winners of various major categories: J.D. Crowe, the Del McCoury Band, Larry Sparks and the Lonesome Ramblers, Blue Highway, Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, and the band that won the emerging artist prize — King Wilkie.
After late-night jamming in open hotel suites, Fan Fest resumed Saturday morning with a main stage set by the five-time reigning female vocalist, Rhonda Vincent and her band, the Rage. How they put out such energy in the morning would have been more of a mystery had the crowd not been whipped up to the same level by show's end.
Later in the day, Cherryholmes, a family sextet of exceptional skill, blazed through a relatively rare Bill Monroe fiddle tune, "Goin' Up Caney," and the Osborne Brothers classic, "Ruby," retaining the character of the originals while adding enough new tweaks to make these versions distinctly their own.
Valerie Smith and her dazzling band, Liberty Pike, also provided several Fan Fest highlights, from swinging jazz to impassioned gospel, with their voices as incisive as their flying fingers.
As in past years, some of the weekend's best action was found at the two Fan Fest side stages. The cannily programmed Roots & Branches Stage honored its name by looking both backward and ahead, with Friday's set of jazzy newgrass by the Creaking Tree String Quartet offering some of the most ambitious music of the weekend.
The banjo workshop that took place Saturday on the Masters Workshop Stage included two Chicago-area pickers among the five five-stringers — Greg Cahill and Noam Pikelny — and delighted with an unplanned demonstration of melodic banjo theory by one of the style's originators, Bill Keith, who had been in the audience when a question about melodic banjo technique was asked. It was precisely the kind of experience you’re likely to find only at the IBMA’s World of Bluegrass.
Copyright © 2004, The Chicago Tribune