RALEIGH — When the World of Bluegrass festival opens in Raleigh on Tuesday, most of the attention will go to Steve Martin, Del McCoury, Bela Fleck and other onstage stars of the bluegrass world. But the spotlight will shift behind the scenes for a few hours on Thursday, at the International Bluegrass Music Association's Special Awards Luncheon.
Its the equivalent of the Oscars Scientific and Technical Achievements awards, which honor the people working behind the camera. Similarly, IBMA will be handing out awards to those who labor outside of the public eye in categories including broadcaster of the year, best liner notes and so on.
Sue Meyer of Raleigh is one of five nominees for Best Graphic Design for a Recorded Project. Shes won four IBMA awards in years past, but this will be her first time attending.
Im a notorious introvert, Meyer said with a laugh. Im very comfortable behind the scenes, and Im not a big schmoozer. Being amongst a bunch of people with the focus on me is out of my wheelhouse, so Ive never gone. But its five minutes away. So I have no excuse not to go this time.
Meyers career mirrors the music industrys arc of the past two decades. A longtime graphic designer, she got started with music packaging in the early 90s with Chapel Hill roots-rockers Southern Culture on the Skids. Meyers photographer husband, Kent Thompson, took the cover shot for 1994s Ditch Diggin in the couples living room.
From there, Meyer went on to 15 years of contract work for Sugar Hill Records. She designed about 90 percent of the Durham-based bluegrass labels album covers, including IBMA-winning packages by Doc Watson, Jerry Douglas and Bad Livers.
But then the Welk Music Group bought Sugar Hill in 2008, absorbed the labels operations and shut down its Durham office. By then, the record industry had already been contracting for years. Music has become an ever-smaller part of Meyer's business. Where she used to do several dozen covers a year, nowadays its six to eight - more for artist-released albums than label projects.
Ive been waiting for the bottom to fall completely out of the CD packaging business for 10 years, Meyer said. Somehow it hasnt. Maybe the little niche Im in, people still want a physical product rather than just downloads. I dont have the volume I used to, but its still steady.
Meyers current nomination is for Don Rigsbys Doctors Orders, a tribute to bluegrass icon Ralph Stanley, who appears on the cover. That wont hurt her chances to win, even if she feels some uneasiness about Thursdays function.
In years past, it was always just easier for me not to go, Meyer said. But its a luncheon, so it cant be that fancy, right? At the same time, getting recognition for the work is lovely.
While Meyer will have to wait to see if her name gets called, Raleighs Charley Pennell already knows hes won. Pennell, a cataloger at NC States Hunt Library, is one of five people receiving a Distinguished Achievement Award recognizing his work with the Bluegrass Discography.
A labor of love
Known as the Nexus of bluegrass, the Bluegrass Discography is a compilation of information about tens of thousands of bluegrass records going back more than half a century. The project began with Pennell turning a colleagues Bill Monroe discography into a database and grew from there. It has been online since the mid-1990sand is now part of UNC-Chapel Hills Ibiblio.
Its an iterative project, constantly being built, Pennell said. There are 23,534 records in it as of this morning, and there will be more tomorrow because I entered a bunch more this morning while I was trapped at home with roofers working. It will never be finished.
Bluegrass tends to be a labor of love for most of its practitioners, including Pennell. Hes never made any compensation for Bluegrass Discography, unless you count a few record-company mailing lists he wound up on. But its a priceless resource for fans, especially bluegrass-show radio disc jockeys.
We understand the value of Charleys work and were happy to give it a home, said Ibiblio director Paul Jones. Hes done a great job.
Pennell actually plays old-time rather than bluegrass himself, joking that he was once thrown out of a band for being so laid-back I was almost not there. Hes still mulling what to say when called onstage for his award on Thursday.
Some poor sucker whos never met me has to talk about me for five minutes, he said. I only get three, which is probably just as well. Still, its nice. Its not all famous Japanese brother acts or Kentucky family bands getting awards!
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