(Editor’s Note: On Thursday, September 28, 2023, BGS contributor, musician, songwriter, and bluegrass industry leader Jon Weisberger presented BGS with IBMA’s Distinguished Achievement Award at the organization’s annual business conference. Below, enjoy Weisberger’s award presentation speech, adapted for print, and photos from the Industry Awards luncheon.)
The International Bluegrass Music Association’s Distinguished Achievement Award was created as the organization’s first honor, just a year after its 1985 founding. Among the first recipients were Bill Monroe, gospel songwriter Albert E. Brumley, and (now-BGS contributor) Neil V. Rosenberg.
After 1991, when the Hall of Honor (now the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame) was established, the DAA became a way to recognize a variety of accomplishments — a lifetime of achievement for many recipients, but also activities taking place in more compressed timespans, as when the Coen Brothers and T Bone Burnett were recipients in 2001 for the singular act of creating the film, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and the accompanying soundtrack album. And while most of the recipients are people, some are entities, like WSM’s Grand Ole Opry (2000), the Station Inn (2003), and Bluegrass Unlimited magazine (2016).
Either way, the award criteria direct the selection committee to consider those who “have fostered bluegrass music’s image with developments that will broaden the music’s recognition and accessibility.” Further, the award criteria state, “Their contributions should be unique given the relative period of time in which they were made and should embody the spirit of one who pioneers or opens new possibilities for the music.” These are descriptions that fit the Bluegrass Situation perfectly.
Having celebrated its 10th anniversary just last year, this site contains an extensive amount of material that recalls a multitude of highlights from that first decade. So rather than recount them, I chose, when presenting the award—an invitation for which I’m deeply grateful — to recognize what Ed Helms, Amy Reitnouer Jacobs, their dedicated staff and many contributors have done to broaden the music’s recognition and accessibility and open new possibilities for the music is to look at why these things are important and how they have met the challenge.
For more than 50 years, bluegrass music has been dependent, for the renewal of its audiences and of its musicians, on exposure beyond its cloistered garden. From The Beverly Hillbillies through the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Circle album through the mainstream success of Ricky Skaggs and Alison Krauss to O Brother and, more recently, artists like Molly Tuttle and Billy Strings, our music has needed not only community-building institutions that cater to those already familiar with it, but a plethora of vehicles that expose new audiences to this music.
This is how many people, including many in the IBMA, first became aware of bluegrass, and in the past decade, no one has done more to introduce this music to new audiences than the Bluegrass Situation. By covering the broad range of roots music under its “bluegrass” rubric, and by insisting on presenting the full range of bluegrass music and musicians in all their diversity, the Sitch has invited hundreds of thousands into the fold — and the same is true of the events the Bluegrass Situation has organized and sponsored.
Indeed, one of the Sitch’s distinctive contributions has been its dual role as a chronicler of the broad array of bluegrass and related musical artists and as a presenter, bringing the artists and the music they make directly to audiences. Especially through its curated stages at major music festivals, the Bluegrass Situation has introduced thousands — tens of thousands by now — to artists like bluegrass Hall of Famers Ricky Skaggs, Del McCoury, and Sam Bush.
In this way, the Sitch has spent more than a decade devoted both to the important work of bringing a wide variety of roots music to audiences across the country and around the world, and to the important work of bringing the whole array of bluegrass artists, from Larry Sparks, Junior Sisk, Michael Cleveland, and High Fidelity to the Infamous Stringdusters, Leftover Salmon, Molly Tuttle, and Billy Strings to the attention of those attracted to the Sitch’s website and events by its coverage and presentation of all the other roots music artists within their purview. So, someone who visits the site to read an Allison Russell feature has an opportunity to learn about Lynn Morris, while another who attends the Bourbon & Beyond festival to see The Black Keys might have their ear caught by the sound of Dan Tyminski or The Cleverlys performing on the Sitch’s curated stage.
These are the kinds of connections — and the kind of day in, day out, year in and year out work — that, in the words of the Distinguished Achievement Award criteria, “broaden the music’s recognition and accessibility.” These are the ways in which bluegrass is able to draw in new generations of fans — and new generations of musicians and industry activists, too. For more than 10 years, now, Ed Helms, Amy Reitnouer Jacobs and the Bluegrass Situation have been doing the work, and all of us in the bluegrass community have benefitted from their efforts. It gave me great pleasure to present them with this award.
Photos by Rob Laughter, Dan Schram, and Willa Stein as noted; Lead image of Hiltner, Reitnouer Jacobs, and Weisberger by Dan Schram; All photos courtesy of IBMA.