The International Bluegrass Music Association announced its 2020 award nominees today. I'll comment on the individual nominees at some point, but it was interesting to see the Male Vocalist of the Year ballot was filled with an exciting cross-section of modern bluegrass, revealing the breadth of today's invigorating contemporary sounds: Ronnie Bowman, Del McCoury, Danny Paisley, Russell Moore, and Larry Sparks.
In case it wasn't apparent, that paragraph has sarcasm dribbling down its mic stand.
I enjoy listening to at least three of those singers, and realize all five have a significant fan-base and have made significant contributions to bluegrass. But the calendar does read '2020,' as if we could forget it. However, this ballot would be more appropriate to 2004 or '05: I actually wouldn't be surprised if it wasn't. Where is Chris Jones? Rick Faris? Kelvin Damrell? Jeremy Garrett? How about either of the Gibsons, Ralph II, Brandon Rickman or anyone who was born after 1961?
But enough of that. What I actually sat down to rant about today was the 2020 IBMA Hall of Fame inductees.
When the history of bluegrass music is discussed, it is largely done so from a male perspective. The IBMA's Hall of Fame (previously Hall of Honor) is just one piece of evidence: who were the first members? From the first class of 1991─Bill, Lester, and Earl-through its tenth in 2000, no females were inducted. The first─Mother Maybelle and Sara Carter as part of the Carter Family (2001)─weren't even bluegrass (or pre-bluegrass) artists. The Lewis Family (2006) included women, and Louise Scruggs (2010) and Marian Leighton Levy (2016) went in (justifiably) for business acumen and influence.
It wasn't until 2017 that Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard were finally inducted as the first female front-persons, and having got that out of their system, the gatekeepers have since deemed that sufficient.
That continues this year. New Grass Revival and the Johnson Mountain Boys have-I imagine-long been discussed for inclusion within the Hall of Fame, and are certainly worthy. Ditto J. T. Gray, the long-time facilitator of the Station Inn. No argument with their inclusion.
What I do take exception with is that, once again, no females have been added to the Hall. With the addition of NGR, JMB, and Gray, the IBMA Hall of Fame has exactly what it needs: more men. Not Ola Belle Reed or Laurie Lewis, pioneering women of bluegrass. Certainly not Lynn Morris, Rhonda Vincent, Alison Brown, or Alison Krauss. Nope, the Hall of Fame needs more guys.
The Hall of Fame should represent the spectrum of bluegrass music. It needs to reflect all of bluegrass, the entirety of the industry. It must show appreciation for and comprehend the deepest of bluegrass traditions-refined vocal harmony, instrumental proficiency, a perceptible appreciation for the country and associated songbooks, sacred songs and perspectives-and that certainly includes acknowledging the females who have made our music vibrant and exciting. They must do this not out of tokenism, but from a viewpoint of equality and vision, correcting the blatant marginalization women have endured since 1946, including that which has existed almost annually as women have been overlooked time and again since 1991.
Will the women I mentioned eventually be elected to the Hall of Fame? Most likely, although I believe Ola Belle Reed is, unfortunately, a long shot. But, if the last few years have revealed anything about our society it is that we can make amends for the past by taking tangible, obvious, and deliberate steps to right injustices.
Naming Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard was an obvious if belated first step. But additional female bluegrass influencers must be added to the Hall of Fame, not at the exclusion of deserving men but as a complement to the richness of bluegrass music's vitality.
Failing to do so makes the Hall of Fame appear similar to the current Male Vocalist list: outdated and irrelevant.