Billy Strings, the 28-year-old guitar phenom, was named Entertainer of the Year at the International Bluegrass Music Association awards show Thursday evening in Raleigh, North Carolina. Strings’ win represents a sea change in bluegrass, a genre that has traditionally been reluctant to change and obstinate about awarding artists who take a progressive approach to string music.
Strings was not in attendance to receive the honor, but his songwriting collaborator Jon Weisberger talked to Rolling Stone about what the win meant for bluegrass.
“With Billy, it’s the breadth of his playing. You hear the classics from the bluegrass canon done in his own distinctive way, and then his band can jam like crazy,” Weisberger said. “Like most bluegrass flat pickers, Billy goes right to the source — you hear Doc Watson and Clarence White in his playing.”
Strings also took home his second Guitar Player of the Year honor at the IBMAs, which he first won in 2019.
“Billy is bringing bluegrass to so many different kinds of people in such huge audiences. And it’s a fresh approach in putting on a show — tonight’s win is really big news,” Weisberger says.
Held at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts in Raleigh, the IBMAs are the pinnacle of the bluegrass calendar. The celebration is usually a sold-out occasion, but this year’s installment was held in a half-full venue; several acts chose not to appear amid concerns over the pandemic.
“Being at the IBMAs again is a sign of hope. Everybody is working together — we missed the hell out of music,” says C.J. Lewandowski, mandolinist for the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys who competed against Strings for Entertainer of the Year. “Sure, the audience is a little lighter than usual, but this is just the beginning. You’ve got to start somewhere. You’ve got to build it back up, and that’s OK.”
Along with Strings’ groundbreaking victory, Alison Krauss was inducted into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame. “I never thought that I would end up doing this for a living and I want to thank people who thought that I had something to offer and should [be a performer],” she said in a recorded message. “There’s been no greater gift.”
The Stoneman Family, a sibling group who helped pioneer the storied Washington, D.C., bluegrass scene, was also inducted. Two of the surviving sisters, mandolinist Donna Stoneman, 87, and banjoist Roni Stoneman, 83, took the stage to perform.
“I think this honor is a long time coming. We were a family of 23 children and we played music because it was the one way we could make money to eat,” Roni told Rolling Stone after the IBMAs. “During the Great Depression, people came from Southwest Virginia into Washington, D.C., looking for work — they also brought their [musical] talent.”
The Infamous Stringdusters hosted the 2021 ceremonies. Like Strings, the Dusters are regarded as a progressive force in the genre, bringing the bluegrass “high, lonesome sound” to new and exciting places.
“The IBMAs is a voting situation. And for more progressive music [to win these awards], it means it’s going in the direction that people like — it’s an art form that people are identifying with,” says the band’s fiddler Jeremy Garrett. “I can understand that sometimes people want to hold onto tradition, but it’s safe with us and Billy. We all have a deep love for bluegrass. I’ve seen everything that’s out there, and if you’re picking an Entertainer of the Year, I don’t see how you couldn’t pick Billy Strings.”
Here is the full list of winners at the 2021 IBMAs:
Entertainer of the Year: Billy Strings
Vocal Group of the Year: Sister Sadie
Instrumental Group of the Year: Appalachian Road Show
Song of the Year: “Richest Man” – Balsam Range
Album of the Year: Industrial Strength Bluegrass: Southwestern Ohio’s Musical Legacy – Various Artists
Gospel Recording of the Year (Tie): “After While” – Dale Ann Bradley; “In the Resurrection Morning” – Sacred Reunion featuring Doyle Lawson, Vince Gill, Barry Abernathy, Tim Stafford, Mark Wheeler, Jim VanCleve, Phil Leadbetter, Jason Moore
Instrumental Recording of the Year: “Ground Speed” – Kristin Scott Benson, Skip Cherryholmes, Jeremy Garrett, Kevin Kehrberg, Darren Nicholson
New Artist of the Year: Appalachian Road Show
Collaborative Recording of the Year: “White Line Fever” – Bobby Osborne with Tim O’Brien, Trey Hensley, Sierra Hull, Stuart Duncan, Todd Phillips, Alison Brown
Female Vocalist of the Year: Dale Ann Bradley
Male Vocalist of the Year (Tie): Danny Paisley,Del McCoury
Banjo Player of the Year: Scott Vestal
Bass Player of the Year: Missy Raines
Resophonic Guitar Player of the Year: Justin Moses
Fiddle Player of the Year: Bronwyn Keith-Hynes
Guitar Player of the Year: Billy Strings
Mandolin Player of the Year: Sierra Hull