This past Thursday, October 4, the International Bluegrass Music Association kicked off its annual World of Bluegrass convention and trade show in Nashville.
A massive, week long event that finds instrument makers, booking agents, artist managers, concert promoters, record labels and musicians themselves meeting, greeting and doing business with each other, it began —as it usually does— with the IBMA’s Bluegrass Music Awards Show.
Similar in form and function to the Grammys or the Country Music Awards, this glitzy, big-time event, held at the world famous Grand Ole Opry House is —much like those other, more well-known presentations— open to the public.
Bluegrass fans from around the world can (and do) buy tickets for as much as $100 each for a chance to see their favorite artists perform and accept accolades.
This year, local record producer and recording engineer Kevin Rose attended the ceremony, but in his case, he wasn’t just a fan of the genre, seated high in the balcony. He was an invited honoree in the third row.
In an unexpected turn of events, a concert album he produced at famed luthier Randy Wood’s Concert Hall in Bloomingdale was nominated for Recorded Event of The Year. That CD, entitled Vassar Clements, Tony Rice & The Low Country All-Star Band, is notable for several reasons.
For one thing, it stands as the final, professional recording of the iconic and greatly missed “hillbilly jazz” fiddler Vassar Clements, who passed away shortly after the two back-to-back shows which this album is drawn from were held.
For another, it boasts an incredible array of talented pickers (including Tony Williamson, Scott Vestal, Warren Amberson and Carroll Clements), most of whom are legends in the bluegrass genre.
Finally, despite the extremely high quality of the recording, the performances contained therein, and the CD packaging itself, it has —for a number of complex reasons (most of them legal in nature)— suffered from a lack of public advertising, making it virtually unknown outside of hardcore bluegrass circles.
For such a small, independent project (this CD is the first release on Wood’s fledgling Flatt Mountain Records label) to be held up alongside major albums by such big-name bluegrass superstars as Earl Scruggs, Vince Gill, Doyle Lawson, Rhonda Vincent, Sharon White, Dan Tyminski, Marty Stuart and Buddy Spicher, is —in many respects— amazing.
The significance of playing a large role in making an album that has been ranked alongside major label efforts by the biggest names in this genre is not lost on Rose, who was blind-sided by the nomination.
“It was a great surprise,” relates the Savannah-based musician and studio owner.
“Basically, we were the most independent (release) of all the independents. Just to be included among the top three or four in the whole world — I mean, an awful lot of great recordings were made last year.”
Rose credits those in the industry who still value quality music over record sales for this CD receiving such an honor.
“Being on a small, indie label without much publicity meant that word of mouth got us there,” he elaborates — adding he was humbled for his work to be placed in the same league as that of the other nominees. “I was absolutely humbled! (laughs) You know, to be named alongside Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby?
“I can truthfully say, I now understand what people mean who say it’s an honor just to be nominated. I felt like we’d won even before the envelope was opened.”
In the end, the award for Recorded Event of The Year wound up going to the Rounder Records release Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular, featuring Tony Trischka, Earl Scruggs and Bela Fleck, among others (including Scott Vestal, who’s also on Rose’s CD).
The producer says he had never given serious thought to Vassar Clements, Tony Rice & The Low Country All-Star Band earning a nomination of this sort on its technical merits, but in hindsight, he can see where the emotional impact of what he helped capture for posterity could lead to such peer recognition.
“Considering that this was an immense amount of talent to be on one recording, that speaks volumes right there,” he offers. “To have such legendary and accomplished musicians onstage all at once, just for the sake of having fun —in what felt like a house concert— was amazing. This was a team effort on all fronts — from Vassar having the idea and helping to assemble everything, to Randy Wood putting on the show, to Tony Williamson helping with the song selection. We were all in it together.”
Rose says he assumes everyone involved with the intimate, sold-out shows the album was compiled from felt as he did at the time: that they were present for something truly spectacular.
“You could tell just by the way the musicians were getting along. We all knew —even backstage before the show— that it was gonna be a good couple of nights,” he says. “This was essentially a bunch of old friends getting together to do what they love. When the friends happen to be players of that caliber, keeping in mind the one-upsmanship that goes along with the bluegrass tradition of trading improvised solos, the potential for a timeless concert was there all along.”
Comments posted at internet music retailer CDBaby.com by purchasers of this album show that Rose and company succeeded in transferring the palpable feeling of being front-row at a one-of-a-kind show to the recorded medium.
“My kind of CD,” says one buyer. “I could listen to it all night.”
“This is an amazing capture of a live concert,” says another. “A listening pleasure. Another MUST-have CD.”
“Listening to this record makes me feel that I’m in the room while it’s all going down. You can hear every detail of the performance,” writes another.
Rose says a great deal of care went into recording such a momentous occasion. He’s also thrilled that when all was said and done, his equipment (and everyone who helped with tracking the show) performed as reliably as the folks onstage.
“It’s the first show I’d ever recorded that was slated for commercial release,” he allows. “I’d done a few test runs here and there, but this was the very first one that had to count. (laughs) In a big way.”
According to Rose, he was determined that the final product sound as natural and transparent as could be — which is not always the case in today’s music world, even for supposedly “live” albums. Listeners who appreciate such an unadorned production style have been heaping praise on this beautiful, low-key recording.
“At the awards, we got a lotta compliments from people in the industry who were very familiar with this CD, despite it’s lack of advertising,” says Rose.
“There’s a big conflict that still rages in the bluegrass world between traditional and modern styles. There’s different camps, like in jazz. Some folks want the music to be strictly as it was, and others feel it needs to evolve,” he says.
“Most I spoke with commented on this record being very true to the form. That’s a testament to the people involved and how it was tracked. On the technical side of things, there was a concerted effort on our part not to ‘slick it up,’ which people seemed to understand and appreciate.”
Punctuating that point, another CDBaby.com buyer reviewed the album thusly: “The sound quality is amazing. This should be required listening to current producers on how NOT to over polish a song.”
Of the festivities themselves, Rose says they were “pretty laid-back,” but “definitely formal,” as they were shot for television broadcast. He recommends any fan of bluegrass to consider attending as a fan, “just because of the incredible live performances and the camaraderie.”
“There’s an atmosphere of family and teamwork on display,” he says. “It was an extremely inclusive and positive environment without a bunch of ego or posturing.”
“We wound up sitting with the guy who wrote the Song of The Year, and The Grascals, who were named Entertainers of The Year. Everyone was very friendly.”
Afterwards, Rose and his wife Danielle hung out with tons of Nashville royalty.
“One thing I learned from this trip,” he says, “is Randy pretty much knows every single person in the country music business. And they know him, too! (laughs) At the special after-party, we met all sorts of major bluegrass people. We visited quite a bit with Del McCoury — who I’d run sound for at the Savannah Music Festival.”
Legal issues still conspire to prevent a major marketing push for this gem of a record, yet Rose hopes the industry’s embrace of this labor of love will mean more fans get a chance to hear and enjoy it.
“You won’t find it in most stores, but this is the final, authorized document of Vassar Clements,” Rose says.
“Initially, we’d planned to release a companion DVD of these shows as well,” he says. “Now that this CD has been recognized as one of the finest live bluegrass albums of the year, I’m hopeful that additional material, such as that, might eventually see the light of day.”
Vassar Clements, Tony Rice & The Low Country All-Star Band is available at
www.cdbaby.com/cd/vcrtlcab and at Randy Wood’s Guitar Shop in Bloomingdale.