Tony Rice’s stunning Hall of Fame acceptance speech
at last year’s International Bluegrass Music Awards Show
moved the crowd so much that it was referenced onstage this year, there was no such singular moment at last night’s 25th edition. The evening’s biggest reaction arrived instead for the Canton, North Carolina-based quintet Balsam Range, who brought home the awards for Entertainer of the Year and Vocal Group of the Year. Lead singer Buddy Melton even scored a Male Vocalist of the Year nod. Punch Brother and bluegrass nonconformist Noam Pikelny’s wins for Banjo Player of the Year and Album of the Year served as the most unexpected moments.
There was also no superstar surprise
awaiting at the Marriott, at least noting like last year’s Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn impromptu duo set
. Still, after the ceremony, I headed there in search of the unknown and ended up back in the comfortable confines of the California Bluegrass Association’s suite. With a strong line-up of short showcase sets and enough hospitality to rival and woo a Carolinian, the third-floor hotspot was a highlight of last year’s fest. It has lost no power. The room was packed with pickers and elementary-aged kids, perched on dressers shortly before Sideline—the side-project-turned focus of Skip Cherryholmes, Mountain Heart’s Jason Moore, IIIrd Tyme Out’s Steve Dilling and Greg Luck, and the soon-departing Darrell Webb—made a late arrival from Tir Na Nog. They delivered a sharp, traditionally minded set of sing-alongs, like “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made A Loser Out Of Me).” Though there’s plenty going on out on the streets on Friday night, the CBA will roll out a schedule of acts that share upwards of 30 IBMA awards between them, including a newly crowned winner from Thursday’s banquet. Keep an eye open for that.
Heading to the Lincoln shortly before midnight in search of the ageless, perfectly-coifed wonder that is Del McCoury, I was thrown for a loop to find The Gibson Brothers on stage rather than the adventurous bluegrass ambassador. Though billed as “The Del McCoury Band and Friends,” I was expecting McCoury to bring up special guests rather than give them entire sets. No matter, as the Gibsons were in the middle of flashing some of the knockout harmonies and tight picking that led to nominations and a performance earlier in the evening’s awards show. Up next was an even bigger shock: the reunited Hot Rize.
Featuring freshly crowned Guitar Player of the Year Bryan Sutton, Hot Rize held court like they’d never left, with Tim O’Brien and Pete Wernick’s solos marveling the crowd on tunes both new and old. Though I skipped out shortly after 1 a.m., with McCoury still to come, the night served to reaffirm my feelings that the best moments at the IBMAs—like Sierra Hull and Béla Fleck’s three-song collaboration at the Lincoln late Wednesday night, too—are the ones you don’t see coming.
Let’s hope that, next year, some of those unexpected moves happen on even bigger stages, too.