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Bluegrass Music

Why Won’t the IBMA Recognize Jerry Garcia?

There are a number of reasons why I am no longer a member of the International Bluegrass Music Association. I won’t get into the full story here; it would take five or six blogs, at the very least. However, one of the reasons I had become disenchanted with the organization is its lack of recognition of those outside the “norm” of the bluegrass community that have helped promote the genre in so many ways.

While I was a member, as well as a serving member of Leadership Bluegrass, there were a few of us who worked hard to get Hazel Dickens inducted into the IBMA Hall of Fame. She had already been presented the Merit Award in 1994 (the first female to receive it), but finally, in 2017, she was admitted to the HOF (after a lot of hard work on many members’ behalf) along with Alice Gerrard.

The IBMA has been promoting itself as a diverse community, but as for as recognizing musicians from outside of the fold that have promoted bluegrass, they turn a deaf ear.

So how about this person – Jerry Garcia? Yes, he was the founder and guitarist/singer for the legendary Grateful Dead, the group that gave us the moniker “jam band.” Those who know rock-n-roll history are aware of Garcia’s demons, most notably heroin and cocaine, and mixing that with his diabetes condition, his body could only take so much. He slipped into a diabetic coma for five days in 1986, had a few relapses, and eventually passed away in 1995 at the age of 53 – way too soon. However, his musical career and scope cannot be ignored by the bluegrass community.

Years before he started the Dead, his main musical interest was bluegrass music. He learned guitar and banjo (playing Scruggs style despite missing a finger on his right hand), and formed the Hart Valley Drifters in 1962 with future Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. While the band never released a commercial recording, a tape from a college radio performance was recently discovered and released in 2016 on Rounder Records as Folk Time. While the performance at times stumbles, one cannot deny that Jerry’s singing and his playing has a true respect for the music.

Jerry was also passionate about promoting other bluegrass bands in the area, such as The Kentucky Colonels. In 1964 he was playing in The Black Mountain Boys on banjo. But while Jerry’s musical tastes turned more toward electric rock within a few years, he never lost touch with bluegrass. Around 1969 he played banjo in an offshoot band called High Country. In the early 1970s, the Dead began adding an acoustic set to its shows, which continued throughout the band’s tenure. Songs like “Uncle John’s Band” and “Ripple” have heavy bluegrass influence, and one can hear that sound influencing today’s young, progressive grass bands such as Hawktail, Mile Twelve and Steep Canyon Rangers just as much as Bill Monroe or The Stanley Brothers had influenced them. One also has to think about the numerous jam-grass bands that were impacted by Jerry, such as String Cheese Incident, Salamander Crossing and Yonder Mountain String Band.

Garcia had a number of side projects besides the Dead, such as The Jerry Garcia Band and New Riders of the Purple Sage. However, the one project that bluegrass afficionados pay attention to is Old & In The Way. Jerry played banjo and sang, along with mandolinist David Grisman, guitarist/vocalist Peter Rowan, bassist John Kahn and fiddler Vassar Clements. Rowan and Clements were former Blue Grass Boys, and Grisman had worked with Hazel & Alice among other bluegrass/roots projects. The band didn’t last long, only a few months, but a live recording released as Old & In The Way in 1975 would become the best selling bluegrass album of all time (until 2000 with the release of the soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou?). Garcia and Grisman would continue to put out acoustic albums until Jerry’s passing.

Garcia never let bluegrass leave his heart. In an interview that appears in the 1993 documentary Bill Monroe: The Father of Bluegrass Music, Jerry talks about a time in the mid-1960s of approaching Monroe to possibly audition to be a Blue Grass Boy, but chickening out and going back to California. While he would pass away a few years later in 1995, Jerry left an impact on his fans. Many learned about bluegrass music and the magic of Monroe, The Stanley Brothers, and Flatt & Scruggs through Garcia’s praises. Bluegrass mandolinist/pioneer Jesse McReynolds respected him enough to release a Grateful Dead tribute album a few years back.

So why can’t the IBMA pay him some respect with some award? Of course, Jerry’s in the Rock and Roll HOF with the Dead, and received the President’s Award in 2008 from the Americana Music Association. Is it because he’s a rock icon? His issues with drugs? Because he’s from California and not an Appalachian? He’s done more to promote bluegrass to the younger generation than almost anyone.

In 2018 the IBMA restructured its award distribution. Gone are the Merit Awards (at least as far as I can see, it’s not listed on the IBMA website), replaced with more Industry Awards. Thus, anyone who had a previous impact on the bluegrass industry (more than a year ago) and is not a full-time bluegrass professional has very little chance of being recognized by the IBMA. If that person has passed away, the chance is even more scarce. Someone like Jerry will most likely never be recognized for his influence on bluegrass unless there is a big change in the powers-that-be at IBMA. Totally sad, since Garcia will not be the only one forgotten for his bluegrass work (except by me, I refuse to, as well as a few others). If the IBMA is so concerned with the diversity of its fan base and membership, maybe it should look at who it recognizes as those pioneers of diversity in the music itself.

Chew on it and comment.

By Matt Merta/Mitch Matthews

Musician and writer (both song and print) for over 30 years. Primarily interested in roots music (Americana, bluegrass, blues, folk). Current contributing writer for Fiddler Magazine, previous work with Metro Times (Detroit), Ann Arbor Paper, as well as other various music and military publications. As songwriter, won the 2015 Chris Austin Songwriting Contest (Bluegrass Category, "Something About A Train," co-written with Dawn Kenney and David Morris) as well as having work performed on NPR and nominated for numerous Detroit Music Awards.

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