This is a copy of the article that appeared in the Winter 2019 print edition of British Bluegrass News (the membership publication of the British Bluegrass Music Association).
In March 2019 I travelled to Nashville for the Leadership Bluegrass course run by the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA). Each year the IBMA selects 25 participants for this, after a competitive entry process where your application must demonstrate relevant achievements in four different areas: music industry experience, certifications and education, community and civic experience and awards and recognition. Apparently there were 2-3 times as many applications as places in 2019, so I was pleased to be accepted on the first attempt. It’s also said that the planning committee makes their selections based on having a good mix of attendees in any one intake. A bit of background info about me: I’ve been a bluegrass fan for around 20 years or so, and always loved folk and Americana of various types, but only started playing after my husband bought me a banjo for Christmas about 12 years ago. That unexpected gift has led to a whole new world of festivals, bluegrass camp, buying a guitar, learning to play the fiddle, singing in public, putting a band together, writing songs and making a whole heap of new friends around the world. About five years ago, I started putting on occasional gigs in Yorkshire (I’ve now hosted around 45 concerts). Under the banner of True North Music, my little music promotion venture has since grown to include booking nationwide tours. Since 2016 I’ve booked UK tours for a number of excellent bluegrass, old time and Americana artists including The Slocan Ramblers, Newberry & Verch, John Reischman & the Jaybirds, Front Country, The Railsplitters, Ron Block & Tony Furtado, Mile Twelve and quite a few more. As a local promoter, I won the Yorkshire Gig Guide Grassroots Award for Outstanding Promoter in 2017, and was shortlisted as a finalist in the 2019 Awards.
The Leadership Bluegrass course had been recommended to me by several friends who were previous alumni including Uri Kohen who runs Westport Folk & Bluegrass Festival (Ireland), British journalist and fiddle player Emma John (The Guardian, The Bluegrass Situation), Front Country bassist (and IBMA board member) Jeremy Darrow, and North Carolina-based musician and songwriter Joe Newberry. They all thought that the course would be hugely beneficial, enabling me to learn more about all aspects of the bluegrass industry and community in the US, and giving me valuable contacts in the bluegrass music business. For instance, my 2019 class included several professional musicians as well as festival organisers, booking agents and managers, and people working in or managing record labels, regional bluegrass associations and heritage and museum organisations. And that was just the roll call of attendees!
From the IBMA website: “Leadership Bluegrass seeks to explore bluegrass music and its place in the larger world of entertainment through:
- Systematic study of the business of bluegrass, and the needs, problems and resources of its institutions and organizations.
- Exposure to a wide variety of current music leaders and notable persons.
- Encouragement of independent thinking, fresh perspectives and approaches.
- Acquaintance with relevant issues facing bluegrass and the IBMA, from their history to future possibilities.
- Substantive interactive sessions for the participants.”
I’d been forewarned that the course would be a full-on experience and that definitely proved to be the case. It was the equivalent of a high-quality business management course but centred on bluegrass music – and it was largely though not exclusively focussed on the business side. That may be anathema to some, but if you believe that musicians should be able to earn a living in this music, that festivals and events should be professionally run, that there are many lessons to be learned from those who are successful in this arena, then there was an awful lot to learn and take in. And attention was paid to other areas such as music education and how to bring in more children and young people. The class gathered at the BMI building in Nashville, starting at breakfast time on Monday. The IBMA had taken over most of one floor so we had excellent facilities at our disposal including a large conference room, break out areas and a small lecture theatre. After some ice breaking activities we were paired up with partners, and then had to learn more about them in order to introduce each person to the class. The class of 2019 was a fascinating and varied bunch, including David Benedict (mandolin player for the band Mile Twelve), Greg Reish (an archivist and academic who teaches music business courses at Middle Tennessee State University and runs the Center for Popular Music archive); John Strohm (former rock guitarist and music lawyer and now CEO of the legendary Rounder Records); Michelle Conceison, a music marketing specialist and artist manager for Della Mae among others; Alex Mallett from massive roots music showcase event Folk Alliance International; Deborah Fillman who helps to run the new, expanded Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Owensboro, KY – that’s to name just a few, but you get the picture. Many of these people were bluegrass musicians themselves or at the very least, fans and enthusiasts – we were all united by a love for acoustic roots music and a desire to keep the bluegrass genre thriving in every way.
As well as drawing on the experiences and insight offered by my fellow classmates, I learned a lot from the fantastic selection of presenters and tutors who came in to give us the benefit of their wisdom on all sorts of subjects over the three full days. Session topics included insights on organising a successful festival or venue; music publishing and the impact of digital streaming; how an artist team (booking agent, publicist, record producer, artist manager) works together to further the artist’s career; bluegrass in music education and teaching. As well as professional musicians and figures from the music industry in Nashville and elsewhere, the presenters and facilitators included IBMA members and organisers who’ve had high-level careers in business, law and finance – they’ve applied the lessons learned there to their part-time or voluntary positions running festivals, non-profit organisations etc.
The course was of exceptionally high quality and as well as formal sessions and presentations, of course we had the chance to make friendships and connections with fellow classmates, the volunteer helpers, IBMA staff members and visiting course leaders. The evenings were very sociable with an organised trip to the world-famous Station Inn venue one night, and a party with dinner and a great jam session, hosted by a local bluegrass legend, on another evening. It was just awesome to see many of my fellow attendees in their happy place as pickers and singers! And of course that is what it’s really all about – the wonderfully participative nature of the music, and the lifelong friendships and connections that we form along the way, linking us all in one worldwide music community and family.
I found Leadership Bluegrass to be extremely valuable and enjoyable, and I hope to use the contacts and knowledge I acquired in Nashville to continue to grow True North Music, and to bring more excellent bluegrass bands and artists to the UK in the future. Thanks to all of you who buy concert tickets and to all the grassroots promoters and festival organisers who give bands a place to play. It’s so important to keep music live! I must also give sincere thanks to the BBMA, who awarded me a grant from the Scholarship Scheme for my course fee. The IBMA also awarded me a share of their scholarship fund and made a partial contribution to my flight costs. The generosity of both organisations, as well as that of Nashville musician friends who gave me somewhere to stay, made this expedition possible.
To find out more about Leadership Bluegrass visit the IBMA’s website at ibma.org/leadership-bluegrass