But…It’s Never Been Done Before!

Joanne Gardner, John Lowell, and the Virtual 2020 IBMA Bluegrass Awards Show

The performance centerpiece of the annual IBMA conference is the IBMA Bluegrass Music Awards show, where – selected by the membership – the IBMA showcases and celebrates the best performers of the year. In a year of social distancing and facemasks, Paul Schiminger (IBMA Executive Director) made the unprecedented decision to hold a virtual IBMA conference (itself a massive challenge), and he knew that the conference would not be complete without its Awards Show. 

But the typical awards show is a logistical nightmare. It’s essentially a social gathering, where a tide of performers flows onstage and offstage and backstage, moving around and into every space, talking and playing and enjoying the collected company. That could not be the case in 2020. So Schiminger decided to explore a virtual Awards show. 

One slight problem: how might that even work? 

Alison Brown plays banjo in hotel room
Alison Brown

It was, in retrospect, a concatenation of the right person with the right expertise at the right time in the right place. 

“For ten years, from 1995 to 2004 – during the heyday of music videos – I was head of video production at Sony Music,” explains Joanne Gardner Lowell, who produced the IBMA Awards show. “I produced music videos for Ricky Martin, Will Smith, Mariah Carey, Aerosmith, Men in Black, and Bob Dylan, among others. I ran the show and was pretty familiar with production. Before that, I was in Nashville and Los Angeles with my own production company as a director doing a lot of country and bluegrass music videos. I was the first woman director to win a Video of the Year award. So, it was really a big circle, to come back to Nashville, after having done this work for a very long time.” 

“Then, about 15 years ago I went out to Montana to figure out what next to do. Last year, John [Lowell, associate producer and musical director for the 2020 Awards Show] and I were at the IBMA in North Carolina. We attended the awards luncheons, and after the luncheon I ran into the woman who produced the show and just volunteered to help the next year. So, in March of this year, I wrote her and said I was available to help. She told me that the IBMA was looking for a producer, so I threw my hat into the ring.” 

At that time, the IBMA was still going to be in Raleigh with a live Awards Show. Even as the social situation dramatically changed, the IBMA (unlike many other organizations) decided to move forward with plans for the conference but determined it was necessary to expand the “virtual conference” concept. “They rolled up their sleeves and said ‘Let’s make this not only good but really good,’” Joanne recalls. “They put together an extraordinary virtual conference that was better than anything I have ever seen from any organization.” So the bar was set for the Awards Show. 

Amanda Smith & Rhonda Vincent performing on stage
Amanda Smith & Rhonda Vincent

“Originally we were going to shoot from some little stage,” Joanne said. Approached with the option for fresh musical programming, Nashville-based Circle TV network signed on, and the event snowballed. The opportunity to broadcast the Del McCoury Band, Sister Sadie, Doyle Lawson, Billy Strings, Molly Tuttle and many others all on one show in the midst of a musical desert was overwhelming, and Joanne and John suddenly found themselves using the legendary Ryman Auditorium stage as the primary venue (along with other sites, including the Station Inn). Logistically, “we knew the show could not be live, so I suggested we shoot the show a couple of weeks before Paul needed to air it. And before we shot the first frame I knew I had to flip the room so you looked into the Ryman. You never get to see that,” said Joanne. 

John Lowell elaborated: “Our safety precautions, cleaning processes, and band scheduling enabled us to move 70-plus people in and out of the Ryman over the span of two days without anyone getting sick.” 

“And the crew was so excited to work, and the musicians were so excited to see each other and play music together that everyone wanted to do everything as safely as possible. Some of these bands had not seen each other in months, and the performances were extraordinary,” Joanne said. “And the Ryman staff – the sound crew, the lighting crew, the stage crew – were over-the-top professionals working to make all this happen,” John added. “And we must mention Nic Duggar and the team from Cinematic Focus who shot and edited the show,” Joanne noted. “Without all these technical teams nothing would have been possible.” 

The story of bluegrass provided the overarching theme of the show. Scriptwriter Craig Shelburne spun the narrative thread that enabled the hosts – Sierra Hull, Joe Newberry, Tim O’Brien, and Rhonda Vincent –to provide the historical context for each award category and its nominees. Shelburne also crafted the narrative for the emotional heart of the Awards show: the recognition and induction into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame of three new members: JT Gray (long-time proprietor of the world-famous Station Inn), The Johnson Mountain Boys, and the New Grass Revival. 

John Lowell and Joanne Gardner stand on stage with face masks over mouth and nose
John Lowell and Joanne Gardner

“We also had extraordinary support from Chris Joslin and the Bluegrass Hall of Fame and Museum,” Joanne added. “Once we had a rough cut [of the video], I called Chris and Carly Smith to ask for supporting photos. They sent me hundreds of photos and being able to cut to those photos during the show helped so much to make that history come to life. That museum is such an asset to the bluegrass community.” 

Among all the stellar performances, three were remarkable. At the end of the first hour there is a tribute to Doc Watson, which enables the five guitarists nominated for Guitar Player of the Year (Bryan Sutton, Trey Hensley, Billy Strings, Molly Tuttle, and Jake Workman) to play Watson’s signature “Black Mountain Rag” with T. Michael Coleman, Watson’s long-time bass player, an accomplished music and video producer in his own right, and the architect of this video tribute. 

At the end of the piece, the musical pace increases, a video of each guitarist adds to the screen, and they are finally joined by an archive video of Doc, all playing together (although Coleman did have to slow the Doc video just a bit). Second, at the two-hour mark, Jerry Douglas (along with David Grier, Sam Bush, and Missy Raines) hosts a live performance of the J.D. Crowe tune “Blackjack,” which allows the five nominees for Banjo Player of the Year (Kristin Scott Benson, Gena Britt, Gina Furtado, Ned Luberecki, and Scott Vestal) to showcase their skills and visibly show the delight in being able to play together again. Finally, the show closes with “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” which splices videos from at least 17 different performers in different locations, all orchestrated by John Lowell’s guitar arrangement with his Growling Old Men bandmates Ben Winship (on mandolin) and David Thompson (on bass).   

Jerry Douglas & Ned Luberecki smile while playing instruments on stage.
Jerry Douglas & Ned Luberecki

Too often, awards shows (regardless of the industry) become marathon events to be endured rather than enjoyed. However, the necessity to pre-record everything enabled Joanne to manage the overall timing of this show in a way no stage manager for a live presentation could. The measured pace of many components – such as the nominees’ acceptance speeches or the hosts’ introductions – is deftly balanced against the high energy of live performances, giving the entire show a forward momentum that does not seem to occupy two-and-a-half hours, even in repeated viewings. Placed appropriately in the middle of the show, at a point of reflection, were the presentations for the inductees into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame: JT Gray, The Johnson Mountain Boys, and The New Grass Revival. 

In the best sense, the 2020 IBMA Awards Show is a celebration of the music and of the resilience of the community which produces and supports the music. With the production bar set high, it should be interesting to see how the IBMA Awards Show for 2021 plays out.  

Spanning two hours and 23 minutes (roughly half the time of a live show), the 2020 IBMA Awards Show is simply first-class musical entertainment. To see the show for yourself, search YouTube for 2020 IBMA Awards Show, or you can catch the show on the Circle TV network in January.   

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