Bluegrass Raleigh

'World of Bluegrass' throws a spotlight behind the scenes

dmenconi@newsobserver.comSeptember 23, 2013 

— 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.

It’s 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.” She’s won four IBMA awards in years past, but this will be her first time attending.

“I’m a notorious introvert,” Meyer said with a laugh. “I’m very comfortable behind the scenes, and I’m not a big schmoozer. Being amongst a bunch of people with the focus on me is out of my wheelhouse, so I’ve never gone. But it’s five minutes away. So I have no excuse not to go this time.”

Meyer’s career mirrors the music industry’s 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. Meyer’s photographer husband, Kent Thompson, took the cover shot for 1994’s “Ditch Diggin’” in the couple’s 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 label’s album covers, including IBMA-winning packages by Doc Watson, Jerry Douglas and Bad Livers.

‘Still steady’

But then the Welk Music Group bought Sugar Hill in 2008, absorbed the label’s 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 it’s six to eight - more for artist-released albums than label projects.

“I’ve been waiting for the bottom to fall completely out of the CD packaging business for 10 years,” Meyer said. “Somehow it hasn’t. Maybe the little niche I’m in, people still want a physical product rather than just downloads. I don’t have the volume I used to, but it’s still steady.”

Meyer’s current nomination is for Don Rigsby’s “Doctor’s Orders,” a tribute to bluegrass icon Ralph Stanley, who appears on the cover. That won’t hurt her chances to win, even if she feels some uneasiness about Thursday’s function.

“In years past, it was always just easier for me not to go,” Meyer said. “But it’s a luncheon, so it can’t 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, Raleigh’s Charley Pennell already knows he’s won. Pennell, a cataloger at NC State’s 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 colleague’s Bill Monroe discography into a database and grew from there. It has been online since the mid-1990sand is now part of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Ibiblio.

“It’s 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. He’s never made any compensation for Bluegrass Discography, unless you count a few record-company mailing lists he wound up on. But it’s a priceless resource for fans, especially bluegrass-show radio disc jockeys.

“We understand the value of Charley’s work and were happy to give it a home,” said Ibiblio director Paul Jones. “He’s 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.” He’s still mulling what to say when called onstage for his award on Thursday.

“Some poor sucker who’s never met me has to talk about me for five minutes,” he said. “I only get three, which is probably just as well. Still, it’s nice. It’s not all famous Japanese brother acts or Kentucky family bands getting awards!”

Menconi: 919-829-4759 or

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