Just got back from Friday night and Saturday at the SPBGMA annual festival in Nashville. It was my first time at a major festival of any kind, and I'm still a little bit blown away by some of what I saw.
SPBGMA is held at a gigantic Sheraton in Nashville. This place is the same shape as the Pentagon and seems about as big. And for SPBGMA, it is completely overrun with bluegrass enthusists. Infested might be more like it--there's not one square inch of the place that's not a part of the festival. When we showed up on Friday night at about 7:30PM, we walked into a lobby that was about the size of three or four basketball courts. It was filled to utter capacity with people and pickers. There were probably about 25 different circles of pickers, all shapes and sizes from prodigious pre-teens in matching outfits to guys that are probably on life support when they aren't at a festival. It was quite a scene to walk into.
As we moved through the hotel, we found groups of pickers in every nook and cranny....every stairway was a makeshift amphitheatre, every elevator lobby a practice room. One of every 15-20 hotel room doors were propped open with a pair of boots or a smashed Bud can, meaning there was an open jam taking place in the room. The musicianship in these rooms ranged from merely entertaining to nearly unbelievable. At one point there were two rooms going side by side....one featuring a solid group of semi-pro's with two strong girl singers, and another made up of some of the slickest pickers I've heard anywhere. Wandering from one room where the girls were harmonizing on "Say Won't You Be Mine" to the next where two mandolin players were playing twin fiddle-style harmonies on Big Mon at about 140 bps was pretty incredible.
After my friend and I wandered around half the night picking, eating moonshine-soaked fruit and watching the light snow fall, we decided to pack it in about 2AM and head back to the hotel where we had a room. I figured the lobby would have cleared out a little since earlier in the evening, and I was exactly right: there were about 10% less people there at 2AM than at 8PM. Remarkable. No one was showing any signs of letting up.
We went back over today to check out the main stage acts and the displays of instruments, cd's and accessories. Saw some "star" luthiers like Dude, Sim Daley, Charlie D. and even Steve Gilchrist (more on this momentarily). Played all the new mandolins from Gibson, Daley, Silver Angel, Tut Taylor's Prodigal 5, Lebeda, and Mark Bluett. It was interesting to see the differences in them all, particulary in issues like neck angle and how far off the body the necks were set. To be honest, I didn't play anything that I'd trade mine to buy, but I'll say I liked the Bluett's best. One of his was sort of an orangey blond made of incredible wood that I think will be fantastic as it matures. $5K price tag. Bluett was a nice guy, as was Daley. I wasn't that impressed with Daley's detail work, but he had an A5-style there that really had a strong tone. The Wayne Benson was the best of the Gibson's I played, but I didn't like the cosmetics too much, particularly the signature on the fingerboard. My friend ended up buying a 1907 Gibson A-style, oval-hole, I don't know the model. $2K.
Equipment-wise the biggest thing I noticed was the prevalence of Gibson mandolins among the better of the "next-generation" players. Lots of Bushs and Steffeys being played out in the lobby. They really stood out for their dry, loud chop in a jam setting, which I think is the main factor for some of these guys. That chop made a strong impression on me--I think it's something in my playing I need to put more time into. In general, being at SPBGMA and hearing so many great pickers in one place really showed me where I need to make progress in my own playing.
SPBGMA was the site of the first-ever Gilfest, where Gilchrist owners were gathering to meet Steve, compare mandos, and register their instruments with the guy who is doing the Gilchrist book. My friend's other mandolin is a Gilchrist A3, so we went up to have it put in the registry and see what was going on. We didn't stay very long....it seemed like most of the guys there were just picking their own mandos and waiting to kneel at Steve's feet or pick a tune with him (turns out he plays pretty well, which I think is rare for a luthier from what I know of them). The prettiest Gil I saw during our brief stay was a blackface that just looked right somehow. A couple of the older Gil's had sort of gross finishes on them, which I thought was interesting. I think what I learned from 15 minutes of Gilfest is that I am not as big a gear junkie as I thought I was.
If you can ever get near SPBGMA I suggest giving it a go. In the future I will always make sure to get a room in the Sheraton to get the absolute most from the experience.