Several key components of bluegrass music's past, present and future
were on display during this weekend's International Bluegrass Music
Association's "World Of Bluegrass" event in Louisville. Like the honesty
of the music itself, however, these essentials were delivered straight
up and free of any ostentation.
One of these elements is the accessibility of the stars to the fans.
IBMA's annual trade show, convention, awards show and music festival is
bluegrass music's biggest event, and the artists revel in the chance to
throw some appreciation right back.Once again, the Del McCoury Band
walked off with an armload of honors, including "Entertainer of the
Year." But when the band took the main stage for a festival performance
the following night, the set list was tossed, as Del McCoury announced,
"Tonight we'll do whatever you want us to do--within reason," that last
part inserted in jest in case anyone needed a reminder that bluegrass
is, as founding father Bill Monroe used to say, "music with no filth."
At once honoring the "I" in IBMA and acknowledging the music's roots
across the Atlantic, this year's "Fan Fest" roster featured some of
Europe's finest pickers. The Czech supergroup Druha Trava, which
translates as "Second Grass," mixed Monroe, Chick Corea and Bedrich
Smetana in a set that confirmed that, while bluegrass is an American art
form, its soul knows no borders.
For a genre that has existed for a mere half-century, bluegrass
players and listeners tend to be almost obsessive regarding the music's
history. At the awards show, after dobro giant Josh Graves was inducted
into IBMA's "Hall Of Honor," he played a couple of celebratory numbers
with another legend, banjoist Earl Sruggs. Later, Ricky Skaggs and a
who's who of ex-Bluegrass Boys and old friends held forth at a packed
session of picking and reminiscing dedicated to Monroe.
One of those old buddies, the eccentric mandolin genius Frank
Wakefield, served notice that he is back on the scene with a giddy
main-stage set that was among the weekend's highlights.
Yet perhaps most exciting were the young players who will guide
bluegrass into the next century. Featured in a set billed as
"Teengrass," mandolinist/composer Chris Thile, fiddler Mike Cleveland,
banjoist Jonathan Jones, guitarist Josh Williams, and fiddlers Luke and
Jenny Anne Bulla made up this band of high school kids who are already
world class virtuosos.
More importantly, their skills are at the service of their strong
musical personalities, leaving little doubt that the next millennium
should be a good one for bluegrass music.