Chris and I just returned from the IBMA convention in Nashville. It’s the second year we’ve gone. Last year we attended for the entire seven days (four days of business convention followed by three days of fanfest), but this year we decided that three days would be more than enough. And since Nashville is only a 2 1/2 hour drive away, we were able to drive down Monday morning and back Wednesday night.
We attended three very good workshops. At one of them Tim O’Brien, past president of the IBMA, summed up the convention going experience nicely, saying that when a bluegrass musician asks him whether to attend he always answers “Of course,” but if he is asked what you’ll get out of it he hems and haws and eventually says, “I dunno.” The convention organizers offer one overriding reason why you should attend: making professional contacts. That may happen, and almost certainly does for the A-class performers who attend, but those of us on the bottom rungs are more likely to be frustrated by lack of success if that is the standard. We shared a table one night with a very famous banjo builder and his wife, and between bands we talked about raising chickens and milking goats and how many children we had and life in central Virginia and life in central Kentucky. Nothing about his business, nothing about our music. Did we miss an opportunity? I don’t know, but we certainly felt good not to have imposed.
Another good bucket of cold water came during a workshop from a publicist for a well-known record label; when asked how to get past the gatekeepers in the business, he replied that if you were good enough and working hard, the important people probably already knew about you. Then later I stood in line next to one woman, the mother in a family band, who was griping about how she could never get the folks at a nationally known festival in her area to put her on the schedule even after years of pestering. I wondered if it had ever occurred to her that she might not be the sort of band the promoters were looking for. The next day we saw her and her family perform at a showcase. Verdict: competent, pleasant, but not the sort of group you’d expect to see at a big festival; it seemed like the unseen hand had done its job properly. My honest recommendation would have been to either get comfortable at the level where she was already playing, or start figuring out what was missing from her act that might take her to the next level.
Probably the best part of the convention for us was the continuing process of turning from fans to admirers. We saw a lot of our favorite musicians there, but we saw them in a more human context. Ron Thomason of the Dry Branch Fire Squad came to the Ome Banjos booth to try out banjos, chatted with Chris as they sat there, and tried out Chris’s banjo. Tim O’Brien said funny things at a workshop on intellectual property, and also showed that he had thought long and deeply about many of the issues involved. A group of about twenty close associates of the late John Hartford spent 2 1/2 hours reminiscing about him and sharing the wisdom they’d received from him over the years. I ran into Pete Wernick (well, actually I hovered near him until he had time to talk to me) and we discussed our musical progress over the past year, as well as life in general. From about five feet away we watched both the Foghorn String Band and the Red Stick Ramblers perform, and learned many things about performing that we never would have caught from a normal audience.
We also saw the Hunger Mountain Boys from five feet away. The HMBs are working very much the same part of the spectrum as we are, but business-wise are taking a different (and I suppose more traditional) approach. We have known about them for awhile, and had planned on seeing them play even before Pete Wernick said we really ought to study them. Here’s Pete’s generous and accurate press quote for them:
This duet is ready to take lovers of bluegrass and early country music by storm. Their show is alive with
the spirit of the early performers, and you can feel their love for what they do. Entertaining teamwork;
first class musicianship and singing; good, heartfelt and sometimes funny material, with some excellent
new songs in the old style. What a combination! It makes me wish they had a 15-minute radio show I could
listen to every day
The HMBs have taken what could have been just a gimmick and made it into a niche for themselves, one that they could mine very deeply if they so choose. Their playing was tight, the performance was choreographed down to small details, and through it all they clearly communicated their love for the music (not as common as you might hope). I had sent them a copy of our own CD a month earlier, and when Kip Beacco saw us in the front row he came over and thanked us, and we chatted a bit. We’ll be watching their progress closely; they have a lot to teach us.