And The Winner Is… Alan Bibey

Bibey insideAnd The Winner Is… Alan Bibey
By Alan Niederland

The anticipation was indeed palpable. Music awards shows can be dry affairs, with either a ho-hum sense in the offing or with foregone conclusions having deadened any sort of spontaneity presiding over the winner’s circle. The 2019 IBMA Awards night, hosted in Raleigh, N.C., at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts on October 1, 2019 was of a different hue, however. This year, a name was being bandied about in the final cut for Mandolin Player Of The Year, a name for which any serious fan of bluegrass music and of the particular instrument itself would immediately elicit an “Of course!” After all, the mandolin is so integral a part of bluegrass, due to its provenance tied to the Father of Bluegrass, that one can hardly imagine a band not having one. And the group of nominees for the award itself read like a who’s who of prominent pickers that everyone knew. Up for consideration for the coveted award were no less impressive artists than Sierra Hull, Ronnie McCoury, Sam Bush, Frank Solivan, and Alan Bibey.

As the presenter was unfolding the envelope, there was a buzz in the crowd. Would it be a repeat winner? Would the name be a complete newcomer to wear the crown? Then the reading: “The winner for the 2019 International Bluegrass Music Association’s Mandolin Player Of The Year award is Alan Bibey!”

A momentary pause, then a raucous ovation in the hall with many in the audience standing and cheering for the man who, despite being on the scene for decades, had until that moment yet to win the prestigious award. Previous winners have included such luminaries as Ronnie, Sam, Sierra, Adam Steffey, Jesse Brock, and many other excellent musicians. The winner stood, clearly emotional and seemingly more surprised than anyone, and made his way to the stage. A poignant moment occurred when he passed Sam Bush, seated nearby. Sam stood and the two embraced in an emotional “passing of the torch” moment.

As Alan approached the podium, someone hollered out, “It’s about dang time!” Hearty laughter ensued, with the underlying realization that indeed it was true. The recognition was long overdue for such a stellar and prominent musician whose stylistic prowess has graced literally hundreds of recordings throughout the years. Once at the mic, Alan proceeded to graciously thank the awards committee, his wife Pam and daughter Kasey, his dad James, his friends, and all of the fans who had voted for him. The accolade provided a nice bookend to the six-time Society For The Preservation Of Bluegrass Music In America (SPBGMA) mandolin award winner, with Alan gaining that prize the last three years in a row.

The Beginning

   It all started in the central North Carolina hamlet of Walnut Cove in Stokes County where The Piedmont meets the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Alan was born into a musical family, as both his father and his mother’s family were avid bluegrass pickers and exposed the youngster to the sounds of Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs by means of family get-togethers and local pickings. Early on, mandolin became the focus of his attention. He likes to tell the story about the first time he saw Bill Monroe, perched on his daddy’s shoulders, and he came home that night chopping chords. Clearly, a natural bonding with the instrument was beginning to take hold with a unique musical style that made fans and seasoned musicians alike sit up and take notice.

Outside of school and sports, much of Alan’s childhood was spent at local bluegrass festivals and fiddler’s conventions throughout the area, soaking up the sounds at jam sessions and stage performances, trying to learn the nuances and details of the craft. Early on, he embraced the contest scene and took home many first-place trophies for both individual instrument and band performance. A professional career in bluegrass and mandolin was fairly well-ordained by now and the young man was off and running.

Alan joined Interstate Exchange at age 14, a group which included Barry Berrier and Sammy Shelor. They traveled the regional circuit of festivals and concert venues. This band was Alan’s first real glimpse into the life of a professional musician, providing insight and awareness of the band experience. Here, the teen learned valuable performing, stage, and recording skills and further refined and developed his mandolin technique.

Next, he was recruited into Wes Golding & Sure Fire, Wes having recently been a key part of the seminal band Boone Creek. By that time, Alan had absorbed much of the mandolin’s stylistic bedrock—everything from Bill Monroe, Bobby Osborne, Herschel Sizemore, and Buck White to the more adventurous sounds of David Grisman, Ricky Skaggs, and Sam Bush. He continued to enter mandolin/band contests throughout the South and, during this time, took first place at the prestigious 1982 Knoxville World’s Fair mandolin contest, judged by none other than Jethro Burns.

The next opportunity to present itself to the growing musician came in the guise of the New Quicksilver, a veritable super-group made up of Terry Baucom, Jimmy Haley and Randy Graham. All three had until recently been key members of Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver. They had come to see Alan perform in Roanoke with Sure Fire, with the idea of recruiting him for mandolin in the new band they were putting together. Clearly, in their eyes, there was simply no other mandolinist better suited for the position. By then, Alan was well-known in the fold and he was asked to join the band on the spot. Indeed, he proved to be the perfect ingredient to complement Baucom’s banjo and Haley’s and Graham’s vocal stylings and the group was off and running. They toured throughout the United States, appearing at such key venues as The Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., at Nancy Talbot’s Berkshire Mountain Bluegrass Festival in upstate New York, as well as headlining at Wind Gap, the long-running eastern Pennsylvania festival promoted by Harry Grant. This band was at the time of the pinnacle of Alan’s musical experience and they released one studio album titled Ready For The Times (the vinyl LP now being a collector’s item) which firmly established New Quicksilver within the top-tier of touring bluegrass bands of the day. A legal wrangling over the band’s name resulted in the recording being subsequently re-released (with additional tracks) by Rebel Records under the title Baucom, Bibey, Graham and Haley.

After New Quicksilver disbanded, the band which perhaps most established Alan’s prominence in the bluegrass and mandolin world was formed in 1989 with Alan joining forces with Russell Moore, Ray Deaton, Terry Baucom, and Mike Hartgrove as the inception of IIIrd Tyme Out, so named because for each of its members, this band represented the third professional bluegrass band for each. Alan’s time with this band lasted for three years and two highly-acclaimed recordings, with many of the songs featuring his advanced mandolin grooves. To this day, the solos on “Thanks A Lot” and “Moundsville Pen” are still studied by aspiring mandolinists around the world.

After a brief sojourn in Lou Reid & Carolina, Alan (along with former members of New Quicksilver) formed BlueRidge, the award-winning band which continued to reinforce his place at the forefront of bluegrass instrumentalists. Undergoing some personnel changes throughout its tenure, the band produced four recordings (with one under the title Baucom, Bibey & BlueRidge), including a well-received gospel release.

Indeed, the listing of band members in the BlueRidge roster reads like a who’s who of seasoned pros—Terry Baucom, Junior Sisk, Joey Cox, Alan Johnson, and others. During this time, Alan released his premier solo project In The Blue Room on Sugar Hill Records. Featuring a mix of standards and original tunes, the album showcased many prominent guest artists such as Tony Rice, Ronnie Bowman, Sammy Shelor, Del McCoury, Jim Mills, and many others. The fact that so many bluegrass luminaries jumped at the chance to appear on this project is testament to the high regard Alan holds in the field amongst his peers.

In 2002, Danny Roberts at Gibson Mandolin & Guitar Company approached Alan with the idea of manufacturing a limited run of a mandolin model, based on Alan’s instrument preferences and choice of stylistic appointments. In 2004, fifty instruments were produced and marketed under the banner Alan Bibey Gibson Signature Series mandolin, joining Doyle Lawson and Wayne Benson within that august group of artists selected for the same honor. (The Sam Bush Model was a regular production number for the company.)

In 2013, Alan partnered with Wayne Benson to release The Mandolin Chronicles, a showcase project highlighting the two artists’ musical breadth and talents. Soliciting assistance from Russell Moore, Ron Stewart, Wyatt Rice, and others, the project won rave reviews from fans and critics alike.

From a musician’s standpoint, Alan’s mandolin style and technique can be characterized by an adherence to clean picking and sophisticated musical ideas, along with a high regard for melodic awareness and structure. His solos breathe with the ebb and flow of a picker who knows exactly where he’s heading, exhibiting a skill set which allows him, at will, to apply musical motifs and lines to just what the song at hand needs. Rooted in tradition with modern flourishes, the artist’s personal style is immediately recognizable. It must be stated that Alan brought well-placed triplet cadences into the mainstream bluegrass mandolin framework, truly bridging the gap between the modern-day virtuosi and what came before. Indeed, it is not uncommon to hear youngsters in the hallway laying down licks that clearly were learned by listening to Alan Bibey. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, his influence extends far and wide in today’s picker community. In his own playing, one can hear Monroe, Skaggs, Grisman, White, and Sizemore, all tweaked through the polished and facile lens of the musician himself. This stylistic essence has been, and continues to be honed by a dedicated practice regimen which the artist rarely fails to pursue on a daily basis.

There have been several oeuvres published over the years which have documented Alan’s approach to bluegrass mandolin playing. Both Acutab and Homespun have created transcription books and videos which, for aspiring mandolinists, have been instrumental in breaking down his technique and unlocking the secrets to his musical ability. Ginny Hollon’s superlative Mandolin Magazine ran a feature issue on Alan, and Mel Bay included a transcription of his daunting solo on “Wild Fiddler’s Rag” in its Mandolin 2000, a tome dedicated to transcribing the works of a handpicked set of the world’s greatest mandolin players. A recent Pinecastle instructional DVD documents his approach to bluegrass mandolin improvisation and soloing.

Current Events

   For the past 13 years, Alan has fronted Alan Bibey & Grasstowne, the band that has firmly allowed his artistic and creative vision to be realized. Tweaking the band’s line-up over the years, Alan now leads a unit at the forefront of contemporary bluegrass, having released five projects. The band’s latest release Gonna Rise And Shine features the #1 Gospel Song Of The Year (Bluegrass Today) “When Jesus Swings The Wrecking Ball.” Building on this momentum, the band recently signed with Billy Blue Records, headed up by Jerry Salley and Ed Leonard.

Alan has added his signature stylistic footprint to no less than thirty recording projects by some of the bluegrass world’s top artists and producers, including Herschel Sizemore, Phil Leadbetter, Dwight McCall, Ronnie Bowman, Carrie Hassler, and Jimmy Gaudreau. His personalized and unique musical presence clearly enhances the dynamic that these artists strive for and embrace.

In 2016, Alan created a learning/teaching experience at the Alan Bibey Mandolin & Guitar Camp, a multi-day educational seminar held each year in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Gathering mandolin students and instructors in a supportive and constructive environment, the camp continues to grow each year. Led by Alan, along with such notable instructors as Wayne Benson, Don Stiernberg, Emory Lester, Matt Flinner, and Wyatt Rice, the camp supports the growing field of aspiring mandolin students throughout the world.

So, the winner of the 2019 IBMA Mandolin Player Of The Year continues to create, participate in, and give back to the bluegrass community the musical gifts he has been bestowed and will undoubtedly continue to do so and improve upon long into the future.