Well I’m going back to the country
I can’t pay the rent
My mom and dad will sure be mad
At all the money I spent
I can’t shake that good ole bluegrass song out of my head, for more reasons than one.
Well I had a lot of money
But to the city I went
OK. That’s me. I went to the city recently—the city of Nashville, to be exact. I spent a little money at the Forty-Second Annual SPBGMA Festival/Awards/Band-Contest/and-All-Around-Party that happened at the Music City Sheraton Hotel on February 4–7.
SPBGMA (pronounced “spig-ma”) is the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music in America. Since 1974 Chuck Stearman and his family have produced this non-profit event to preserve the traditional spirit and art form of bluegrass music. A band contest, artist-led workshops, promotional meetings, and vendor booths are part of the festivities. An all-star concert accompanies the Awards Ceremony the last night of the event. But if you ask any participant to name their favorite part of SPBGMA, the near unanimous answer is . . . the jams! (And I don’t mean jelly.) This was my first trip to SPBGMA—hopefully, it won’t be my last.
Jed and Harry Clark, my sons, have attended this event for years. Both of my boys are accomplished musicians and look forward to SPBGMA like a tiny tot looks forward to Christmas. They’ve always come home afterwards, talking about jamming in the hallways and elevators of the hotel. I couldn’t have imagined this until I saw it for myself. Here’s what it’s like.
The Music City Sheraton has 410 rooms, which were almost exclusively booked by bluegrass fans and performers from around the nation. Upon entering the hotel lobby Saturday morning around midnight, I found it teeming with musicians and singers performing in small groups, all over the place: halls, elevators, stairwells, bathrooms, and any place where there was enough room for a few people to huddle into a circle and “pick.” Onlookers were caught up in the excitement too. Old friends were hugging, laughing, and reuniting, and new friends were being made quicker than you can change a song key with a capo. Sleep is about the only thing lacking from Thursday until Sunday, but no one really seems to care.
I searched the hotel halls until I found Jed, my oldest. I tagged along with him while he rounded up a crew of his buddies for a little jam. Along the way, he introduced me to many of the SPBGMA friends he had talked about for years. Finally putting faces with names was really nice.
Members of some of my favorite bluegrass bands like Rick Faris of Special Consensus, Harry Clark (of course) of Volume Five, Michael Stockton of Flatt Lonesome, and Stephen Burwell of Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver either jammed with my son or watched along with me. No paid performers were more entertaining than that little group of guys who jammed with my son that night.
As bluegrass fans well know, bluegrass music is performed by each instrumentalist taking a musical “break” after each chorus of a song. People who were listening gawked at every musical break and gasped at the beautiful vocal harmonies. It was electrifying!
The SPBGMA Band Contest was a two-day contest where twenty-one bands from all over the country competed for money spots, which were awarded to the top ten bands. For those who didn’t purchase tickets to the contest and concerts on the main stage, the day offered workshops conducted by musicians and songwriters, merchandise from many different vendors ranging from jewelry to instruments—and, of course, free jams all over the hotel.
The crowning event was the Awards Ceremony on Sunday night where the top people in the business were honored with awards and accolades. Promoters, performers, bands, albums, and songwriters were nominated and awarded top honors based on the popular vote by SPBGMA ticket holders. Between award categories, there were fantastic concerts by some of bluegrass’s most stellar bands, like Rhonda Vincent and the Rage, Special Consensus, The Isaacs, the U.S. Navy’s own Country Current Bluegrass Band, and Jimmy Fortune. Every bluegrass fan left Nashville with a smile on his or her face and a plan to return the next year.
Bluegrass fans are extremely loyal and dedicated to their genre. Bluegrass music represents far more than just a type of singing and playing. It carries in its melodies and lyrics ideas like family, hardships, sorrows, values, and rich history. Old standard songs teach young fans history and touch old fans’ hearts. The people who attend SPBGMA have an almost secret-handshake sort of mentality: they are strangers until they step into that hotel lobby. Over the weekend, they become brothers and sisters in a family of musical heritage that somehow transcends politics, religion, professions, and income levels. They become family who share a common love of the high, lonesome sounds that draw them back year after year. Like relatives at a family reunion, some are dearer than others—but everyone is part of the family.
Driving back to Arkansas, I rode along in silence. I wanted to ruminate on the people, music, laughing, singing, and playing that I had experienced. Did I have a great time? You bet! My pocketbook was a little thinner than when I arrived, but worth every penny.
Now I know
Just where it went
I ain’t broke
But brother I’m badly bent!
HEAR DAN TYMINSKI AND BAND PLAY “I AIN’T BROKE BUT I’M BADLY SPENT”