Photo by Grayson Haver Currin
Jerry Douglas, Lee Ann Womack and award-show producers Amy Reitnouer and Chris Stuart
Last night in Raleigh, Memorial Auditorium hosted the International Bluegrass Music Awards Show for the second time.
In 2013, I watched the program from one of the last rows in the house, and I was curious how it all worked: Where did they keep all those microphones? How did they stage it all so quickly? Where had they hidden Tony Rice?
This year, I decided to find out, and IBMA agreed to allow the INDY
to be the first newspaper ever to report from backstage at its biggest night. It didn’t make me want a cheeseburger.
For more on the winners, see Spencer Griffith's report here.
1. Lee Ann Womack and Jerry Douglas maybe aren’t best buds?
The former country star and the award-generating dobro player co-hosted Thursday’s ceremony. Their scripted rapport hinged largely on Womack’s recent conversion to bluegrass emergence, a crossover position Douglas has experienced himself. He teased her with trivia and welcomed her to the bluegrass family, and she later rebutted with some deep-cut questions of her own, which he dutifully answered by reading a teleprompter. But offstage, the two barely interacted. Douglas stood just at the edge of the stage, teasing the producers and cavorting with other musicians. She sat instead at a rectangular plastic table backstage with a small posse of friends and employees. When the ceremony ended, Douglas trailed her offstage, nodded and briefly put his hand on her shoulder. No high five, no hug, no chest bumps—just two co-hosts going their separate ways. Given Womack’s lackluster, diminished singing during her segment Thursday, maybe she’s still the bluegrass family’s stepkid?
2. Lee Ann Womack does, however, like McDonald’s.
Remember that backstage table Womack shared with some pals? As the program entered its second hour, four massive bags of McDonald’s appeared there. By the time all the crystalline spears had been handed out to the night’s winners, those bags were near-empty. “We had reservations in a restaurant for later, but we were hungry now,” Womack’s publicist told me. “Single cheeseburgers and fries.” In 2011, Womack won a Grammy for “I Hope You Dance,”
which my high school English teacher mimed at graduation. Last night, at the IBMAs, she ate cheeseburgers from the McDonald’s on Wilmington Street. Bluegrass is the people’s music, y’all.
3. What do you call Jerry Douglas’ current hairdo?
Well, last night, it was curly, sandy blond, short in the front and just to the shoulders in the back. It flattened and fell a bit as the night progressed. So, was it a mullet? Was it a perm? Was it both? Was it neither? Is he joining an early ’90s modern country group (Little Texas?) or a mid-’80s glam metal band? Could someone successfully live in dude’s curls, or are they chemically enhanced past the point of supporting life?
4. If you want some cheese, get it early.
Perhaps you imagine the backstage area of a televised awards show to be a land of milk and honey, with local strawberries dipped in artisanal chocolate and olives stuffed with dreams. Good one! Last night’s catering consisted of two small rectangular tables. One held plastic and paper cups for accompanying canisters of water and coffee. The other held some plates, an assortment of crackers and a large plate of semi-soft cheeses and the kind of fruit you find on a semi-soft cheese plate. At 8:57 p.m., less than 90 minutes after the show began, catering began to cart the entire enterprise away, but someone must’ve plead for mercy. The cheese and a few of the crackers remained, as well as the coffee, but forget about the water, kid, because bluegrass is meant to be fast
. Maybe that’s why Womack was so hungry?
5. Backstage at the International Bluegrass Music Awards, the vibe is definitively family-friendly.
Suge Knight gets shot at MTV VMA parties. Grammy celebrations are legendary bacchanalias. But backstage in Raleigh, I smelled exactly one Solo cup of red wine in the hands of bystander, and I heard exactly one report of pot being smoked in the well-lit house of Memorial Auditorium. But backstage, there was little-to-no alcohol to be found, no one doing rails off of Del McCoury’s snow-white pompadour.
The most indulgent behavior I saw came just before the show ended, when a man talking to his teenaged son backstage held a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos in one hand and a glass-bottled Mountain Dew in the other and shared with no one. In fact, he held those sweet-and-salty calories like a lucky predator might hang on to its prey, body centered around it and poised to strike anyone who might reach in for just one chip. I wanted to get the guy a beer.
6. When you get respect, you get the microphone.
Photo by Grayson Haver Currin
Seldom Scene, posing backstage after their Hall of Fame induction
Last night’s awards ceremony was broadcast live by SiriusXM, through a webcast and, locally, by WNCN’s channel 17.2. It needed to be on schedule. In a series of pre-broadcast announcements, the silk-tongued Ned Luberecki taught the crowd how to clap in unison and told the performers to pick who would make their winning speech and keep their remarks to 30 seconds. “If you haven’t done so already, have a brief meeting among yourselves and decide who that might be,” he told the bands. No one listened. Phil Leadbetter, who’s been battling lymphoma for three years, broke the mold early with an emotional and endearing speech. And the IBMA Hall of Fame inductions for bluegrass historian Neil Rosenberg and Seldom Scene lasted so long they might’ve been better served by their own Ramble showcases. As show director Alan Reep noted at night’s end, the program ran over by 79 minutes, but I didn’t mind it so much. Despite its takeover of Raleigh, bluegrass remains a niche field, albeit a worldwide one. If it won’t take time to honor its own, who will? Are the Grammys going to give Leadbetter five minutes to speak?
7. Measure twice, and place the microphones once.
If you didn’t watch the ceremony, it’s helpful to know at this point that the program is, as with most other music awards shows, a carousel of brief performances and presentations. That means that a set of stage hands have a few minutes, or the total time it takes to hand out two trophies, to get one band off
stage (this is called striking) and another on
stage (and this, you see, is called setting up). When the lights go up, the band has to start strumming without delay, so there’s no room for misplaced microphones in front of unamplified acoustic instruments. To do this, the stagehands in Raleigh measured the height of every microphone needed by every performed and put the data on comprehensive paper stage plots. They then used a long gray pole, where every inch was marked, to quickly position and verify the heights. It was a marvel of engineering, about as precise and unerring as any solo I saw from the side of the stage Thursday night.
8. Cloggers are athletes, too.
Remember that campaign a decade or so back that correctly espoused the athleticism of cheerleaders?
Clogging needs to co-opt it. Last night, bluegrass clogging Svengali Eileen Carson Schatz
led a troupe of five dancers through a complicated dance that accompanied the opening number, played by an all-star band of folks like Béla Fleck and Sierra Hull. Before they sprinted onstage for the number, offstage for an instant outfit change and back onstage for the second half, I watched the dancers warm up backstage. It was intense. They checked their lipstick and décolletage, yes, but they also did deep knee bends, thigh stretches and jumping jacks. There was even a group huddle and a secret handshake. Go, team.
9. Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn have a kid, and wow, that kid is cute.
When Béla Fleck and Abigial Washburn played a short, impromptu duo show
at last year’s World of Bluegrass, they were the new parents of a four-month-old son, Juno. They brought him along, and they were a little nervous. This year, though, Juno is in fully operational tow, and it’s a joy to watch. When Fleck presented the award for Banjo Player of the Year last night alongside Tony Trischka, he took the kid onstage with him. When he and Trischka had to sing a comical duet, Fleck handed Juno to Washburn, standing just offstage. But between his lines of scripted dialogue, Fleck would dart off stage, kiss the boy on the head and jump back in place. They seem like two parents in love with parenting.
10. When Seldom Scene sings, you listen.
Photo by Grayson Haver Currin
Seldom Scene performs as Blue Highway looks on
Last night, one of bluegrass’s pioneering acts, Seldom Scene, was rightfully inducted into the IBMA Hall of Fame. Backstage at the ceremony is generally a tizzy of activity, but when the band stepped onstage to sing the gorgeous “Wait a Minte” with all its surviving original members, everyone stood stock-still. “That covers a lot of bluegrass innovation right there,” Blue Highway’s Shawn Lane said, standing offstage and ready to go on next. “That’s one of the definitions of bluegrass.”