IBMA 2021 Lookback: Come pick a tune!

Image of the author, 14-year-old Nikolai Margulis, posing in front of the IBMA World of Bluegrass banjo balloon art display.
Written by: Nikolai Margulis
“Come pick a tune!”

I feel like those 4 words really capture the spirit of IBMA. There’s a sense of excitement, openness, and humbleness that every musician I met at World Of Bluegrass shares, which can make even a first-timer like me feel like they’ve been going for years. I'm a 14-year old banjo player, and I got to go to IBMA this year to play in the kids award show band. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I hoped that I could find someone to welcome me in, show me around, and maybe even sneak me into a jam… 

After the Momentum Awards Luncheon, where Kara Kundert won the Industry Involvement Award (woot woot!), I went off to the Exhibit Hall. That’s where things really started to kick into play. After checking out Bluegrass Pride’s booth and grabbing some stickers for my case, I found my way to Blue Chip’s station. Danny Roberts was trying one of their picks, so I freaked out and gawked over the reality that he was in front of me for a couple of minutes until he asked:  “You wanna pick a tune?” Wow. I was shocked that standing there with a banjo case was all it took to be invited to play with a hero of mine. We played Lonesome Road Blues, and to be completely honest, it was enough—that was way more than I ever expected to happen, and I would have been perfectly content if we flew back right then. But it didn’t end there. By the end of the day, I’d played with Pete Wernick, Greg Cahill, and Eli Gilbert, all of whom are absolute legends to me.   

I haven’t even gotten to the hotel jams yet. I’d tell you when I stayed up to, but my mom’s probably gonna read this*. These weren’t your normal jams either—I got to play with Tray Wellington, all the members of Fair Black Rose, Keith Billik, and tons of other incredible musicians whose demeanor suggested they were just another anonymous jammer, but whose playing revealed otherwise. I didn’t want to force my banjo playing on people, but every time anybody in a jam saw me with a banjo case, they eagerly invited me in and let me lead songs.

Kids On Bluegrass is an incredible opportunity for kids like me to meet other youth who share the same enthusiasm for bluegrass. Kimber Ludiker and Deanie Richardson are the masterminds behind the program that gives kids a chance to play with each other, and I owe them a huge thanks. Kimber and Deanie put together a group of kids to play at the award show reception, which included me (banjo), Nathan Beaumont (bass, though he’s great at every instrument there is), Malachi Freeman (mandolin), Amelia Freeman (mandolin), Mei Lin Heirendt (fiddle), and Ella Hennessee (guitar). We started practicing Thursday morning, and thanks to everyone involved in KOB, the set that night went really well! (We’ll forget about the moment when I kicked off Old Home Place though some of us thought the song was Little Cabin Home on the Hill…) I also got to see my teacher Kristin Scott Benson—who for two years I’ve only worked with over Skype—in person! She took Nathan (my KOB bandmate and new best friend) and I to the Exhibit Hall’s cafe, and we talked about Sonny Osborne licks over some banana pudding. That was pretty great. But really, it was amazing to meet other kids that could flip out over a Tony Rice solo—you don’t get that too often (ever) at New Jersey high schools. 

I think that jamming in itself is one of the best things about bluegrass. You don’t go to a Taylor Swift concert and sing Shake It Off with her afterwards—but if you go to a Special Consensus concert at IBMA, you just might find yourself playing Groundspeed with Greg Cahill the next day. At the end of the day, though, it’s not about the bluegrass: it’s about the people. Greg Cahill didn’t have to nor did he probably want to play banjo with me. But the people in bluegrass have created a community where that's possible. 

Til next year, IBMA!!
Nikolai Margulis

*30 minutes after 2:00. I know that probably doesn’t sound that scandalous to those of you who were there and jammed all night, but just to put this into perspective, my bedtime is 10:30.

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