The Beginnings of IBMA

1985: A Personal Memoir (written for International Bluegrass)

by Art Menius

How much it has accomplished in but ten years proves the remarkable thing about IBMA. Few industry organizations have filled out the original vision so fully in so short a time. So as our collective tenth birthday approaches, I’m taking the opportunity to recall how we came about. I decided not to look up a lot of materials to compose a pseudo-academic piece, but just to recall things off the top of my head in a very personal manner.

In 1985 I was trying to piece together a living in bluegrass writing for the Raleigh News & Observer, Bluegrass Unlimited, and Country News, working for the Linear Group, producers of “Fire on the Mountain” and the radio strip “The Liberty Flyer,” and renting out two rooms in my house. After two years of this, I realized how much bluegrass needed an industry organization. We talked about this at the Linear Group, and I’d mentioned it to a few folks and sketched out a few ideas. Allen Mills was vocal about the need for an industry event that he compared to the old DJ conventions which pre-dated the Country Music Association. Sonny Osborne had, for several years, advocated for the creation of a bluegrass trust fund modeled on the Opry Trust Fund. He remained understandably bitter about the failure of the Bluegrass Music Association in Honoker, KY. Pete Kuykendall and several others had, 20 years before, created Bluegrass Unlimited to be more an organization with industry-wide goals than a magazine. More recently the Nashville Bluegrass Music Association International had sought to act as a trade group, SPBGMA networked a number of midwestern bluegrass clubs and began presenting awards, while Hey Rube! tried to unite acoustic musicians of all kinds for group medical insurance.

With all this cotton dust in the air, someone merely needed to strike a match. Lance LeRoy emerged as the person with the guts to do it. Just about the time the Linear Group began disintegrating, he arranged for a June weekend’s use of the sumptuous board room in Nashville’s BMI headquarters. Many of us from those days still retain the complimentary BMI notebooks. Some folks felt slighted were they not invited, but I simply called Lance and quickly received an invitation. I rode to Nashville with Milton Harkey. We stopped at a festival northeast of Knoxville Friday evening and enjoyed a typically hot set by Larry Sparks. Hearing someone that powerful, yet so underappreciated gave both of us a lot to think about going into that first meeting.

I hope I recall correctly the names among those two dozen there. Lance, Allen, Sonny, Pete, Milton, and myself, obviously, attended. Bill & James Monroe with their assistant Betty McInuff dropped by for a while and listened quietly. Bill suggested that another organization needed to be “headed off at the pass.” Eventually James blurted out that they were interested whether this not-yet-extant organization would buy their Blue Grass Museum. The elder Monroe bought everybody lunch at Shoney’s, then they departed. Jim & Jesse came, as did Mac Wiseman. Larry Jones from MBOTMA represented associations and Ray Hicks radio. John Hartin and Joe Carr, as I recall it, came up from South Plains College. Len Holsclaw was there, Doyle Lawson, Randall Hylton from the Nashville Bluegrass Music Association International, and, perhaps, Keith Case, Norman Adams, and Howard Epstein. This was a long time ago. I remember better than names the potent mixture of energy, skepticism, commitment, distrust, and enthusiasm. We spent a lot of time sharing dreams and goals, arguing such pressing issues as whether to capitalize the ‘b’ in bluegrass, talking about the past, and somehow sliding toward consensus.

We agreed that we wanted to continue developing a bluegrass music trade association, although we could not decide on a name for it. We looked at the CMA as a model and charged Randall Hylton to obtain copies of its bylaws and investigate setting up a corporation in Tennessee. We created a committee to draft bylaws. We elected a Steering Committee with Pete Kuykendall its chair. We resolved to meet again on August 14-15 to discuss bylaws, elect an interim board of directors, and plan a public event. Most important of all, we agreed not to try to define bluegrass.

What drew folks to such passion about a bluegrass business league in 1985? Some issues remain–medical insurance for performers, eventually provided by NARAS, and performance rights agencies. Others wanted bluegrass airplay charts, a Grammy for bluegrass, group festival insurance, bluegrass awards, or a bluegrass museum–all of which came to fruition directly or indirectly due to IBMA. The foremost concern, however, demonstrates how far IBMA has come, for many people in 1985, and as late as 1988, felt the bluegrass industry was on its last legs. No new bluegrass group had been signed to a major country label since the 1970s. The number of festivals had declined since 1977. The Stoneman Family, for example, had grossed $114,000 in 1969, $60,000 in 1977, and but $32,000 in 1981. Over the past several years only Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Hot Rize, and the Johnson Mountain Boys had emerged as exciting new superstar acts. Major record chains interested in product sold per amount of shelf space, replaced the network of Mom & Pop stores that provided bluegrass, and the frightening new world of compact disks loomed.

Yet, thanks in part to IBMA, this turned out to be simply the market correction I perceived it to be back then. The end of the back-to-nature movement and of party-down bluegrass festivals resulted in a powerful demographic shift that produced the growing family-style crowds of today. Sugar Hill and Rounder, which modern packaging and promotion, were emerging as the industry powerhouse labels, able to do business in the modern world. CD’s would come to make classic and contemporary bluegrass more, not less, available. Eventually Alison Krauss, then the wünderkind of John Pennell’s unsigned band called Union Station, would achieve country stardom as a bluegrass artists. This was all yet to come in the summer of ‘85.

A number of us, both skeptics and enthusiasts threw ourselves into the project as July slouched toward August. Pete Kuykendall and I drafted a press release about the June meeting stating that “…the purpose will be: 1) Promotion of the bluegrass music industry and unity within it. 2) Coordination of the industry’s public image and recognition.”

A lot of issues came into focus, and many proposals were ready when we returned to the BMI building on August 13-14. By now we call the unofficial creators as a whole “the core group,” as distinct from the elected Steering Committee and the soon-to-be Board of Directors. I unearthed what appears to be a complete list of the August participants: Norman Adams; Larry Jones; Joe Carr; Pete Kuykendall; Keith Case; Doyle Lawson; Mary Tyler Doub; Lance LeRoy; Howard Epstein; Wayne Lewis; Harry Grant; Art Menius; Milton Harkey; Allen Mills; John Hartin; Sonny Osborne; Ray Hicks; Barry Poss; Len Holsclaw; Mac Wiseman; and Randall Hylton.

By the time the new Board of Directors adjourned on the evening of August 14, the idea of an bluegrass organization had become the International Bluegrass Music Association. The core group selected that name from among about ten candidates, all of which now sound unnatural. Hylton proposed six categories of membership: 1. Record Companies, Publishers, and Merchandisers, 2. Artists and Composers, 3. Agents and Managers, 4. Talent Buyers, 5. Media and Education, and 6. Associations. We adopted the two points quoted above from the press release as our mission statement.

Len Holsclaw suggested a $100 founding membership fee, available until 31 December, with no attendant benefits other than listing as a founding member. This device raised $5700 for the fledgling organization. Harry Grant proudly produced the first C-note.

I moved that we elect a temporary Board of Directors. The core group members then voted for five persons each by secret ballot. Elected to the temporary Board were Kuykendall, Lawson, Mills, Osborne, and Poss. The next two highest vote getters and thus Alternate Directors were Adams and Hartin. The core group moved quickly to elect Randall Hylton temporary treasurer and myself temporary secretary. Randall and I were charged with revising the CMA bylaws to fit IBMA. I recall working long into the night on a Leading Edge PC clone in some accountant’s office in downtown Nashville. I already knew that I could lose myself in this project.

Kuykendall deflected the centrifugal force swirling around charts by promising to begin airplay charts in Bluegrass Unlimited. Finally, Lawson moved that “The Board should meet in Nashville from 9:00 AM until noon on Tuesday, 15 October 1985. That the Core Group, defined as those present at the first four IBMA meetings 17 & 18 June and 13 & 14 August 1985, along with potential founding members, meet from 1:00 PM until 5:00 PM on 15 October, and from 9:00 AM until Noon on Wednesday the 16th. And that a general meeting open to all interested parties be held at 1:00 PM on Wednesday, 16 October 1985.” The core group adopted that, turning the fine points of dues and bylaws to the new temporary Board of Directors.

That body, including Randall and I ex officio, began meeting that afternoon. They rapidly established a dues structure and worked through an amazing amount of bylaws issues, reconstructing the CMA documents to fit our vision of IBMA.

Over the next two month period we contributed greatly to the phone company planning our first public outing, discussing who should speak and what they should say. I knew that the success of such organizations depended upon drawing together enough different agendas that a critical mass of potential members could identify their interest in joining. I tried to delineate such a bag of goals:

“Paramount in my thinking,” I wrote at the time, “is that we must walk before we can run, yet we must also move forward carefully but relentlessly. We must undertake projects we can complete to demonstrate our worth, then build to bigger things. If we move too slowly we’ll appear useless, too rapidly and we’ll fall on our collective face.”

My ideas included: Group health insurance for IBMA members; Create a bluegrass news service to keep the media aware of bluegrass news and potential features; Create a generic bluegrass press kit; Compile rosters of: Media people and outlets; Bluegrass organizations; Businesses involved with bluegrass; Radio and TV programs on all levels using bluegrass; and venues and promoters; Begin acting as a block within the CMA, encourage dual membership and bluegrass participation in mainstream events; Represent bluegrass to new venues such as colleges, fairs, and folk events; Publicize our success stories; Collect bluegrass data. Gather business information and conduct surveys of bluegrass fans. Define what the bluegrass audience is and how much they spend. Include this data in expanded sales kit and use the data to represent bluegrass to investors, record companies, ad agencies and the like; Lobby for bluegrass postage stamps, Hall of Fame members, etc.; Secure discounted hotel and transportation rates for IBMA members; Issue IBMA pamphlets, for example: How to publicize your band; Festival promotion guidelines; What’s bluegrass and how to find it; What you should know about talent and recording contracts; Hold symposia for members, the press, and the public on all aspects of the industry; Establish at least one major bluegrass publicity garnering event such as a convention/fan fair with awards for lifetime achievements and annual contributions to bluegrass; Establish Bluegrass Week and coordinate Bluegrass Week activities; Support and encourage in-store bluegrass displays; Establish a bluegrass foundation and create a bluegrass hall of fame.

I would present a lot these ideas in my speech on October 16, allowing a long print-out of bluegrass industry contacts to scroll out of my hands for dramatic effect. We had a wonderful turnout that Wednesday afternoon at Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music. That setting projected more than I appreciated at the time the image we wanted to establish for IBMA and bluegrass music.

The office has a guest book from that day. The day proved a swirl for most of us involved, so I cannot begin to enumerate who was there. All the core group folk, of course, had plenty of duties from speaking, to greeting, to collecting founding memberships. The Brush Fire band took off from their day jobs and drove up from Atlanta. Ricky Skaggs attended, as did Ronnie Reno and Doug Dillard. The Nashville music media showed up in force. Thanks to people like Ed Morris and Bob Oerman, IBMA quickly appeared in such publications as Billboard, Performance, International Musician, Country News, the Nashville Business Journal, Goldmine, and the Nashville Tennessean.

Most of the officers and directors spoke at least briefly. They had met on Tuesday and again that morning, confirming that IBMA would be a non-profit organization and revised the Bylaws accordingly. The directors elected Larry Jones to the Board and voted to hold to next general membership meeting in October 1986 during Country Music Week. They appointed Lance LeRoy Chairman of Fund Raising Activities. A suggestion, never made into a motion, surfaced to postpone the presidential election and a decision on hiring an executive director, and establish January 1, 1987 as target date for regularly constituted board.

That would soon become IBMA’s first real controversy, but on that early autumn afternoon in Nashville, everything glowed. We accomplished our goal of establishing that IBMA already was a serious, professional organization with industry-wide support and sufficient oversight and safeguards to avoid the pitfalls of failed predecessors that dated back to Carlton Haney’s efforts 15 years before. As at any commencement ceremony, it proves hard not to look upon all the work that led up to this day and view it as a completion rather than a beginning. It became an afternoon of hugs, handshakes, and high fives. Two dozen people had collaborated to create something that could change the field of music we loved in a positive way. Sometimes just the working together provides its own reward.

We failed to see that some folks we beginning to feel left out. Enthusiasm is like a drug masking differences and personality conflicts. Especially when an organization remains still mostly an idea. Everyone can still pour their own vision into the empty vessel. Then some people get elected, and others don’t. Somebody has to miss a conference call, and a decision gets made without them. Real world budget decisions force priorities that require sometimes arbitrary choices. All organizations make mistakes, especially in their infancy. Typically in the early days key people can force compromises to their view simply because the other leaders feel their support must be obtained. As organizations grow and become more than just the sum of the membership the influence of any individual member, even staff or director, decreases. This process always proves very painful and generally colors most of years two through six of lucky society, much longer for the less fortunate.

We failed to imagine how fast IBMA would grow. With Pete Kuykendall as board chair, we plotted a solid, conservative course. Talk about maintaining the leadership status quo for a year continued to circulate. Our own success soon pressed issues into earlier decisions.

It became immediately apparent that we could not continue as an all-volunteer group. Nor would that enhance our professional image. Both Randall and I expressed interest in the acting executive director, but only I would go for the $4/hour IBMA could afford to pay. At the time I truly believed that it would be four or five years before IBMA would need full-time staff. I had great hope for the association, but felt bluegrass people would join slowly as IBMA proved itself to them. Since “Fire on the Mountain” had just made its final shoot, I was happy to get a 15 hour a week job in the field. I even took a six month, 20 hour a week job with the NC Department of Cultural Resources doing agricultural history.

Despite the title, my work mostly proved more secretarial than executive. IBMA’s first executive office consisted of a small “sewing room” appended to my house and most of the table in the adjoining dining room. I somehow ran the organization for two years on an 8086 processor at 6 mhz with no hard drive and two 5¼ floppies. I processed regular and founding memberships, immediately dispatched press releases that Ray Hicks and I prepared, made up letterhead, answered the phone and mail, and began developing resource lists. I endeavored to recruit chairpeople for our various IBMA committees including Owensboro (Barry Poss), group insurance (Norman Adams), Radio (Ray Hicks), Budget (Randall Hylton), Special Events (Milton Harkey), International (Reink Jansen), Certificates of Merit (Mary Tyler Doub), and Fund Raising (John Hartin). With typesetting provided by Bluegrass Unlimited, I sent out the initial, one page, self-mailer edition of International Bluegrass early that December. We distributed of 1000 of these, including some 250 that member Doug Hutchens was kind enough to include in his December mailing to his clients. Chairman Kuykendall developed out first membership brochure carefully explaining what IBMA was and was not about.

By the end of 1985 we had 55 individual members (52 who paid the founding fee as well), 11 organizational members, and 14 patrons (now called Grass Roots Club) coming from the USA, Canada, the Netherlands, and Thailand. Yet only eight of the 25 core group people had become regular IBMA members. In fact, but three of the six directors belonged to IBMA.

We finally had settled the first big controversy concerning when the regular board would be elected. Anyone who has put together a democratically run organization can understand why young democracies prove so unstable. I’m convinced people perceive far more power plays and dastardly deeds than ever actually occur. The flashpoints, like this one, erupt among well intentioned people who deeply care about the organization. The temporary board had just begun functioning well together. Naturally conservative folks wanted to maintain the status quo for a year and lay a solid foundation. Hard choices had to be made, and they would rather have the people they know make them. The other faction felt it was time to move ahead with a regular election and get the organization fully functioning as soon as possible. By December we had reached a compromise that called for postal elections in the spring with the first regular board taking office on July 1, 1986.

That issue simply masked deeper divisions and concerns, I believe. IBMA has done its job well enough that the regional divisions so apparent then have largely faded. Others wondered whether IBMA should be headquartered in Nashville or elsewhere. I’m sure many folks thoughts were colored by whether they believed IBMA should establish a bigger place for bluegrass as part of the country music industry or of IBMA should be the declaration of bluegrass music’s independence. I thought IBMA could become the mother church of all roots musics.

Other people, meanwhile, were trying to achieve their own dreams two hours north of Nashville. Civic visionaries in Owensboro had realized that with Bill Monroe born in the next county, bluegrass music was a natural resource for that part of Kentucky. Without knowing about IBMA, people in Owensboro talked about a bluegrass trade association, a bluegrass trade show, a bluegrass museum as part of a broader downtown revitalization, and a bluegrass festival. In August 1985 the Owenboro-Daviess County Tourist Commission presented a free concert called “Bluegrass With Class” featuring the Osborne Brothers and the Owensboro Symphony. Eventually Barry Poss met Terry Woodward of the Owensboro-based Disk Jockey chain and thus IBMA met Owensboro.

Our relatively brief courtship during the winter of 1985-86 proved nonetheless heated. Most of the opposition to making Owensboro the home of IBMA concerned timing rather than Owensboro itself. Some may have remained loyal to Nashville, but most not immediately in favor of locating on the banks of the Ohio felt pressed to make such a significant decision within just a couple of months during IBMA’s infancy and concerned about merging Owensboro’s timetable with ours. Still for an organization with such hopes and so few resources, the boost Owensboro offered proved far too much to spurn.

“If Owensboro did not exist, we would have to invent it,” quipped Poss. More than the money, support, and a home, Owensboro’s true value may have derived from its geographically neutral position still convenient to Nashville.

The next March I would fly to Owensboro to formalize an agreement with the Owensboro Daviess County Tourist Commission. IBMA would make Owensboro its home, hold its major events there, and work with local interests towards a bluegrass museum. IBMA received $30,000 in seed money, rather liberal use of the staff of the Tourist Commission, and eventually, use of a two story building belonging to Woodward until the RiverPark Center was completed.

By August 1986 would become a full-time employee of IBMA, although I still lived in North Carolina. Those years, ‘85 through ‘87, I count among my best. In my early thirties I had a focus and energy that I can no longer sustain. During organizational infancy an administrator must personally be involved in every aspect of its operations. One knows almost everything that happens. Until membership surpasses around 750, one can maintain something of a relationship with each member. I made some lasting friends and met my future wife that way. I feel that I deliver superior performance with organizations of that size and age, not an unmixed blessing. By the time Dan Hays, far better equipped than I to handle the challenges of growth and maintenance, took over in 1990, IBMA had surpassed more than 1000 members and more than 1000 folks at the Trade Show. We–those first members, board, officers, staff, and allies in Owensboro–had laid the foundation for the strong IBMA of the 1990s, the time when so many of the dreams of 1985 reached fruition.