Bluegrass Music & IBMA, A Look toward the Future—An Interview with Cindy Baucom, of Knee Deep in Bluegrass

By: Nancy Cardwell

As a part of the celebration of the first 25 years of IBMA’s existence, we’re taking the opportunity to look back at what we’ve accomplished as a trade association so far, to examine our current challenges and opportunities as we prepare for the next two and a half decades as the trade association for bluegrass music.

Cindy Baucom is the owner and on-air personality of “Knee Deep in Bluegrass,” a Raleigh, North Carolina based syndicated radio program. Described as a “two hour weekly celebration of bluegrass music,” the show airs in 25 states on 76 stations, plus three internet stations. A graduate of IBMA’s Leadership Bluegrass program, Baucom is the broadcasting rep on the IBMA board and the chair of the association’s membership committee, as well as serving as the co-producer of the International Bluegrass Music Awards with Trisha Tubbs in 2010.

Challenges & Opportunities for Bluegrass Music--
“I think one of the biggest challenges for bluegrass now is for bands to be open to technology and embrace opportunities they have through social media networking and other forms of technology,” Baucom notes. “My feeling is that you either embrace it when the trends are going that way, or you as an artist are left out of a lot of great opportunities….  Rather than fight the changes, we need to embrace them.”

Baucom has been in the broadcasting business for 27 years, and the changes have been “tremendous,” she says. “When I first started, music was delivered on vinyl, and then I saw that change to the CD and then to the hard drive.  Even with my syndicated show, the delivery of the show is so convenient for radio stations through an FTP download, although I’m still finding a lot of stations in regions where they have slower, dial-up speeds. I would think that would be true for bands trying to deliver their music to stations, too.”

On the “opportunity” side of the future, Baucom thinks the music itself is strong. But like a tree that’s been growing for more than six decades, bluegrass music has “branched out” in several new directions. “There are many styles and forms of bluegrass, and I think there’s a place for all of it,” Baucom says. “I look as music as art,” she continues. “If I went to a museum and looked at a painting, and then saw another painting hanging right next to it that looked just like it, I would feel like the artist just tried to copy the original.  Bands that try to copy the pioneers of bluegrass, note for note…are just copying another artist. To be a true artist, you need to create your own work of art through your music.

“It discourages me to read about people being negative about new bands creating their own styles of bluegrass,” Cindy says. “I think the longer time goes on, the more the music is going to branch out, and I don’t think people should be criticized for following [the path] where their influences in bluegrass are taking them. I think we can embrace change, while still holding on to a traditional base.”

Of course, not all of the growth in recent years is in the “progressive” direction. There’s an enormous fan base of young people interested in the pre-bluegrass era, old-time music.

“I see music fans embracing the old-time sound,” Baucom agrees, “but I also see bands emerging over the last decade like The Steep Canyon Rangers. They came forward writing their own material, but it’s still a very traditional style delivery of their songs.

The bottom line, no matter what shade of bluegrass a band plays, is the importance of “taking advantage of opportunities out there, and being open to the different ways a band can be promoted,” Baucom says.  “It comes down to educating yourself and moving forward—not just in terms of promotion, but also recording the best product you can and  just common sense things like putting your best professional foot forward. There are lots of tools offered by IBMA for bands that sort of do the homework for them. These things are available to members so easily, by just picking up the telephone or going to the website, or going to World of Bluegrass where you can put yourself in front of industry leaders. Now with webinars and some other new developments, IBMA tools are even more accessible.”

Challenges & Opportunities for IBMA---
I think convention models are changing, just like technology is changing,” Baucom notes. We want to host a “gathering that is very welcoming—while still providing what the music fan is looking to get out of World of Bluegrass, and also what the bands and musicians are looking to get out of it.”

As chairperson of the IBMA Membership Committee, it’s no surprise Cindy is enthused about the opportunities for growth in this area. “I think growing IBMA membership is a definite need, and one way of doing that is in the works now with the new re-vamped Grassroots Club membership program that will largely include the fans.”

Baucom notes the figures from Simmons market research data in 2009 that say there are 18 million individuals in the U.S. alone who say they like bluegrass best or purchased a bluegrass recording last year. Her husband, the legendary banjo player Terry Baucom, is a member of Banjo, a website that recently passed the 50,000 with interactive participants. “The Bluegrass Legacy page on Facebook has just gone over 25,000,” she adds. “We need to be growing the membership of IBMA by looking at giving folks something we currently don’t offer, and doing the research to find out what those things are. There are so many people we could be reading, by finding out what their needs are and discovering what they want to get from an organization such as ours.”

Baucom is enthusiastic about the new “Bluegrass Nation” idea the board is hoping to launch. “I saw a lot of enthusiasm from other board members at our fall meeting, and I feel like there’s such a good mix of people on the board now—from younger, progressive artists like Jeremy Garrett all the way to seasoned veterans and scholars of the music like Neil Rosenberg, and everyone in between, just in terms of experience levels and ways of thinking.  Everybody is there for the same reason. We want the organization to be the best it can be, and reach the most members it can.  I feel like that’s our biggest challenge: growing the membership. And the way to do that is to find out what we can do best for the bands and the fans.”

Baucom quotes the old adage: “’If you want to see the same results, keep doing things the same way you’ve been doing them.’  If you’ve gotten in the habit of doing things the same way year after year—with a radio show or whatever,” she emphasizes, “it’s a good idea to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. It’s a different year. It’s a new age. Is there something I can do to step this up a notch, that hasn’t been thought of before?”

It’s time to take a new look at IBMA member services, Baucom says. “Things over the past three to five years have changed so much in terms of how music is delivered and different venues now open to presenting the music, and it’s time for a fresh look at how IBMA can best serve its members.

“There are so many personalities in bluegrass because of what bluegrass is and where it started, who like to keep things the same,” she says, and many who “really feel that we’re abandoning our forefathers if we change anything. I’m a firm believer that the first generation of artists sang about cabins and working in fields because it was relevant to their time. I think we can bring the instrumental style forward. New lyrics can apply to our lives today, and it can still be a good bluegrass song.”

There are a whole new group of fans now, Baucom notes, “for whom the music doesn’t go back any farther than the Lonesome River Band. They don’t have the background that those of us do, who grew up with the music. I was reading on IBMA-L recently about how (blogger) Ted Lehmann grew up listening to classical music, but it was Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas that caught his ear and he worked back from there. Dan Keen (at Belmont University) heard the Nitty Dirt Band and Lynn Morris’ City Limits Band in Colorado, and then he worked his way back. The main thing is to get there any way you can get there, and then explore the music, going all the way back to the first generation.”

We need to continually look for opportunities that present themselves. “I’ve been very proud of the way Steve Martin has brought the banjo and a style of bluegrass to his fans,” Baucom credits. “It’s important when people who are in a position to do so, can introduce the music to other people. I’m originally from North Carolina, and bluegrass music has been all around me from the time I was growing up.  But I really admire the fans and musicians who came and wanted to be a part of bluegrass because somewhere down the line they were introduced to it and they wanted to be there.”

The next five to ten years---
Nothing is cast in stone, Cindy believes.  “There’s no need to keep doing things the same way just because we’ve always done them a certain way. We have to look at new ways to open bluegrass music up to as many people who want to participate, as possible. There are guidelines to follow [that define the music], but it’s important to avoid “getting stagnant in the way you approach things.”