The biggest story of this year’s International Bluegrass Music Association award show wasn’t that Billy Strings won his third consecutive Entertainer of the Year honor. Nor was it that Sierra Hull took home her sixth Mandolin Player of the Year trophy. And it wasn’t even that Molly Tuttle pulled off a trifecta with Female Vocalist, Song, and Album of the Year.
Rather, the takeaway from the 2023 gathering at the Martin Marietta Center for the Performing Arts in Raleigh, North Carolina, is that the ongoing “transition” within the genre over the last decade has finally reached its peak. What was once change is now the norm: Strings, Hull, and Tuttle are the mainstays for the foreseeable future, and the rest of the scene is coloring in the remaining blank space.
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“It’s a continuum,” Ketch Secor tells Rolling Stone. The Old Crow Medicine Show lead singer hosted the 2023 awards alongside Tuttle. “There’s 11-year-old kids picking in this room. It was only 20 years ago Molly was in a room like this picking, 30 years ago when I was in a room like this as a teenager playing music. The talent starts really young.”
“It seems like more and more young people are really getting involved and want to participate,” says Cody Tinnin of Stillhouse Junkies. “With bluegrass, it’s just the purity of it, the simplicity of not needing anything but your instruments and yourself — everyone coming together to celebrate this canon of songs that’s constantly growing and evolving.”
The notion of transition also rang loud and true with the recent deaths of bluegrass greats Bobby Osborne and Jesse McReynolds. The last remaining living members of the first generation of bluegrass music, McReynolds died in June at 93, while four days later, Osborne died at 91.
“As things get older and families get older, the older generations leave and a new generation sprouts from that,” says C.J. Lewandowski. “It’s the beautiful cycle of life, but it’s very sad. The first generation [of bluegrass] has been wiped out. With music and time, it’s closing doors and opening doors all the time — the natural way things go.”
De facto leader of the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys, who were nominated for Entertainer of the Year, Lewandowski was in the midst of a recording project with Osborne upon his passing. The album, Keep On Keepin’ On, will be Osborne’s final studio session and, according to Lewandowski, will soon to see the light of day. First single “Too Old to Die Young” is making its way to radio now.
“Bluegrass will never go anywhere because there’s always new folks coming up, even with these huge pillars [of the genre] retiring and passing away,” Lewandowski says. “And those legends will never disappear because we have all of their records. We can listen to the music and watch the video clips. Beyond that, it’s exciting to see what’s next for this music we all love.”
Terry Baucom, banjo player with his band the Dukes of Drive, retired from the genre in August. A founding member of Boone Creek, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, and IIIrd Tyme Out with Russell Moore, Baucom was recognized by the IBMA with a Distinguished Achievement Award.
“I couldn’t wait to get on that bus, but now I feel like I need to run away from it,” Baucom laughs. “Bluegrass gets in your head and you can’t get it out. It’s a certain frequency that just speaks to you.”
If there were any unknowns remaining at the IBMAs, it’s where the award showcase itself will be held in 2025. With the abrupt announcement the day before the awards that its history in Raleigh will end in 2024, speculation is running high within the bluegrass community about which city may secure the event. (A new music festival, yet to be announced, is planned for Raleigh.)
Elsewhere, the IBMA inducted three new icons into its Hall of Fame: Sam Bush, “The King of Newgrass”; David Grisman, the mandolin virtuoso; and Wilma Lee Cooper, “The First Lady of Bluegrass.”
“After Bill Monroe, [Grisman] is the next guy in our world to move [the mandolin] that much further ahead with what he’s done,” says Ronnie McCoury, mandolinist for the Del McCoury Band and the Travelin’ McCourys. “Sam is also hero of mine. I believe he’s the most recorded mandolin in the history of Nashville, probably the world.”
“[David and Sam] led the way for those of us who love the instrument to feel free to explore its possibilities while still returning again and again to the roots of bluegrass,” Hull says.
At 71, Bush continues to roam coast-to-coast as a longtime marquee act on the festival circuit.
“I started playing the bluegrass circuit for a living when I was 18, so I’ve been around a while,” Bush says. “It’s wonderful to see the progression and I’m so thankful that I’ve around to see it. There are so many great young bands bringing this music along.
“[Artists] like Billy Strings are able to demonstrate the soul and beauty of where [bluegrass] comes from,” Bush continues. “And that’s exactly what we were trying to do with Newgrass Revival in the 1970s and 1980s.”
Bluegrass purists may think otherwise, but the music itself was founded on a spirit of constant change and sonic exploration. The biggest bluegrass rebel of them all was its founder, Bill Monroe, with the likes of Earl Scruggs, Bobby Osborne, Peter Rowan, Bush, Bela Fleck and Alison Krauss all following suit in their own respective careers. The same now goes for Strings, Hull, and Tuttle.
“People would say, ‘I don’t like bluegrass, but I like you guys,’” Bush says. “And I’d say, ‘Well, that’s because we don’t play it like the old-timers did. But if you want to see where we learned our music, you should go back and listen to Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, Flatt and Scuggs.’”
Before heading into the award show to accept his Hall of Fame plaque, Bush recalls a favorite story he’d heard long ago about Monroe. He grins while retelling the tale of a musician who wanted to perform for the “Father of Bluegrass.”
“So he played the tune, and while Bill appreciated it, at the end, he said to the guy, ‘Well, that’s real good, now what can you do on your own?’” Bush says. “I know that he liked it when we played his music, but I think he did expect us to come up with something on our own.”
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