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Bringing It Back Home: Local acts win big at IBMAs

art frIt was another banner year for Western North Carolina bluegrass acts at the International Bluegrass Music Association awards in Raleigh last Thursday evening. 

Despite torrential downpours, and the possible threat of Hurricane Joaquin making landfall, the industry showcase once again brought together musicians, promoters and bluegrass fans alike for a week of memorable moments, onstage and off.

“IBMAs were absolutely nuts this year,” said Tim Surrett, bassist for Haywood County-based ensemble Balsam Range. “Between performances, meetings, workshops, and the award show, there was something always going on, which I’m grateful for. It’s getting bigger and bigger every year, with bluegrass really being on the rise these days.”

As the reigning “Entertainer of the Year,” Balsam Range watched The Earls of Leicester pick up the honor this year, but the quintet defended their title of “Vocal Group of the Year” and once again brought home “Song of the Year” for “Moon Over Memphis.” The band also was decorated by Gov. Pat McCrory with “The Order of the Long Leaf Pine,” the highest civilian honor in the state for a proven record of service in North Carolina.

“I’ve only ever seen one ‘Order of the Long Leaf Pine’ award in my life,” Surrett said. “So, Sen. Jim Davis goes up there and lists off who else has received it. He says Billy Graham, Andy Griffith, Michael Jordan, and after that I didn’t hear anything else. You’ve got to be kidding me, right? It was incredible.”

Lead singer for Jackson County-based Mountain Faith, Summer McMahan received her first IBMA with the “Momentum Award – Vocalist,” which spotlights the finest up-and-coming bluegrass outfits. 

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“I don’t have words to describe how excited I was to receive the Momentum Award,” McMahan said. “I love what I do so much, and it’s such an honor to be recognized by the IBMAs.”

And though his group returned to Haywood County triumphant, it was Surrett himself who seemingly had the best week in Raleigh. Alongside his awards with Balsam Range, the musician also won “Bass Player of the Year” and was selected to be the incoming chairman of the IBMA Board of Directors — as much an honor as a responsibility to not only preserve bluegrass music, but also perpetuate it into the next generation of picker and listeners.

Smoky Mountain News: Balsam Range has seemingly won every award possible at the IBMAs. Does it ever get old?

Tim Surrett: No, it never gets old. If we win a bucket load every year, then that’s fine, because it’s validation and verification that we’re on the right track.

SMN: How does winning “Bass Player of the Year” compare to other accolades?

TS: It’s kind of surreal. Because you’re in a category of people who I’ve bought a lot of records of. Mark Schatz, he plays with The Claire Lynch Band now. But, for years in the 1980s, he played in the Tony Rice Unit. And, for me, Tony Rice was the guy that got me interested in bluegrass. I mean, I’ve always loved bluegrass, but Tony was the one who got me into playing it, and Mark was on all those great records from back then. And as soon as I won the award and was sent back into the crowd, Mark is standing right next to me. He congratulated me, and I confessed to him I stole every lick I had from him. [Laughs]. I love to play the bass. I don’t play upright bass because we need it, I play it because I love it. I love the instrument, I love the way it sounds, the way it’s part of a bluegrass band.

SMN: The bass in a bluegrass band is like a drummer in a rock band. It’s the anchor and it also steers the ship.

TS: Exactly. I had to do the IBMA bass workshop yesterday and I told them that the bass player in a bluegrass is like a jazz drummer. With a jazz drummer they’re going nuts and it doesn’t even sound like there’s a rhythm, to where it seems like they’re off doing their own thing. But, if watch that drummer’s high hat, you’ll see that steady rhythm setting the foundation for the rest of the group to play off of. When I was playing with Tony Rice, he’d say, “Man, you’re the planet and we’re going to get out there and play around you in outer space. And you’re the planet we come home to.”

SMN: And you won “The Order of the Long Leaf Pine,” too.

TS: To be recognized by the bluegrass world is one thing, but to be recognized for the charity work we do, it’s just really nice. It means a lot. We give back to the community because we’re part of it. It’s for people we know, people we care about. I don’t know how someone could say no to someone right in the eye when asked to help out with a charity event. Charity begins at home. We’ve got plenty to take care of in Haywood County and Western North Carolina. [Editor’s note: Balsam Range recently raised $10,000 at a benefit for a family who lost their home in a fire.]

SMN: You got selected as chairman of the IBMAs. What are some of your objectives with this position?

TS: There’s a lot of moving parts with the IBMAs, and I don’t even know it all, even after being on the board the last three years, which isn’t a long time. We’ve got some fence mending to do. We want to expand membership. I’m working with people I met this week from the West Coast to connect our organization. Did you know the California Bluegrass Association has more members than the IBMAs? We’re looking also for move involvement from European and other international areas. I met people at IBMAs from all over the world this past week.

SMN: And the idea of getting new blood into the IBMAs.

TS: Sure, this music needs to perpetuate. The hard part is putting on the Wide World of Bluegrass. Do you put on “hippy bands,” for the lack of a better way to put it, or do we try to go the traditional way we’ve always done in bluegrass?

SMN: And that’s been the eternal conflict within the bluegrass world since the beginning. 

TS: Exactly. And I tell folks who talk about tradition and sticking to it, and I say, “You know, Bill Monroe had an accordion in his band, right?” He was not trying to make traditional music, he was trying to make new ground. And Earl Scruggs was the Eddie Van Halen of his day, he did something nobody had ever heard, and people went crazy for it. He was not the harbinger of traditional music, he was an innovator. When I heard Tony Rice, it blew my mind and opened my eyes, and I wanted to see where it came from. I got into it and went backwards. It’s younger people in front of the old guard, and older folks in front of the up-and-coming acts — it’s the survival of bluegrass.

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