Friday, May 28, 2010

Dr. Tom Bibey: The Mandolin Case & The Tale of Traveling People's Mandolin

This story may take a little while to tell, but it's worth hanging in for.  In order to make it all clear, I'll have to provide a little background.  A little over two years ago, Irene and I became aware of a new blog written by Dr. Tom Bibey, a North Carolina family physician who also plays the mandolin in bluegrass bands and was working on a novel he called The Mandolin Case.  He was (and remains) a rather mysterious person, but as we read his blog, we came to know about him and to enjoy the personna emerging in his writing. After a while the exchange of e-mails led to some phone conversations and eventually a meeting that has blossomed into an enduring and valuable friendship for  us.  Now all this is coming to fruition with two events that will be unveiled at Strawberry Park in Preston, CT in early June as well as a five year project that Dr. B has put into motion called the The Tale of the Travelin' People's Mandolin.

As this is being written, The Mandolin Case is being printed.  Here's a sneak peak at the cover of this new novel:

I don't propose to review the novel here since Irene and I both read it over a year ago and it's been through a lot of editing in the meantime.  Suffice it to say that it's a rip roarin' good story of medical and musical intrigue in a small town in the rural south.  (I couldn't find an M word for golf to keep the alliteration, but golf's in there, too.) To fill yourself in on Dr. Bibey (Alan Bibey's sixth cousin once removed on his mother's side) spend some quality time in the archives of his well-written and interesting blog: Dr. Tom Bibey: Stories of the Bluegrass Road.   Bookmark the site and be sure to visit it a couple of times a week as he updates his story.  On it, you can follow the development of the book, meet the characters in it, and keep up with Dr. Tom's musings on the bluegrass scene.  You might find me in there, too.  The Mandolin Case will soon be available through Amazon, Dr. B's web site, and directly from him at bluegrass festivals from Strawberry Park, to Red, White and Bluegrass, Musicians Against Childhood Cancer (MACC), and the IBMA World of Bluegrass in Nashville this fall.  I'll be reviewing the book some time this summer.

The Tale of the Travelin' People's Mandolin

A few weeks ago Dr. B gave me a call to tell me of a new idea he'd had.  As you read his blog and when you read his book, you'll discover that he believes in the power of music in general and more specifically in bluegrass music to solve the world's problems.  People who make music together, he argues, can't possibly make war on each other.  If people learn how to play a bluegrass instrument, Dr. Bibey says, they'll discover a new kind of peace and joy they wouldn't have without it.  Given the strength of his conviction, he decided to donate a mandolin to the world to enable a bunch of people to get a first hand experience playing bluegrass music. He asked whether Irene would be willing to be the first recipient of the People's Mandolin, learn to play his version, from his blog,  of  "You Are My Sunshine" on it, and pass it on to someone else after thirty days.  She agreed, and so the journey of the Travelin' People's Mandolin began.

Gabrielle Gray, Executive Director
International Bluegrass Music Museum
Watches Dr. Bibey Give Mandolin to Irene Lehmann
At the Dine 'n' Dash, just outside the Merlefest gate, we met Gabrielle Gray for breakfast.  Gabrielle is the Executive Director of the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, KY.  She had heard of the projected journey of the People's Mandolin and wanted to be there on the first leg of its trip.  If all goes according to plan, the mandolin will move from hand to hand every thirty days or so for the next five years, when it is supposed to return for Merlefest 2015.  At that time, it will be presented to the Museum to be put on display along with its story and history.  Meanwhile, several dozen people of all ages and from all backgrounds will have had the opportunity to play the mandolin and learn a little more about bluegrass. 

Here are pictures of some of the folks who've signed the People's Mandolin since Dr. Bibey handed it to Irene:

Ron McCoury Signs the Mandolin

Sam Bush with Rebecca Lovell and Tony Williamson

Rebecca Lovell Signs the People's Mandolin

Sam Bush Holds People's Mandolin with
2010 Mando Mania Participants

Emily from Owensboro Plays the People's Mandolin

Jason Burleson (Blue Highway) Signs

The Great Tut Taylor Plays The People's Mandolin

Rachel Renee Jackson (Dixie Bee Liners) Signs for Irene

Henri Deschamps (The Bluegrass Legacy)

Bill Payne - Greensboro Promoter and Businessman

Dr. Bobby Doolittle  - Raleigh Physician

Irene Practices at Bluegrass on the Waccamaw

Robert Napier (Alabama Theater at Myrtle Beach)

Darin & Brooke Aldridge at Bluegrass on the Waccamaw

Little Roy Lewis

Alan Bibey (Grasstowne)

Steve Gulley (Grasstowne)

What Happens Next: We'll be taking the mandolin to Strawberry Park in Preston, CT next weekend and passing it on to someone who wants to play the mandolin, perhaps a young picker in the Kids Academy.  I'll post some pictures, and perhaps a video, of Irene playing the mandolin and then of her giving it to the next person.  If possible, I'd like to get it signed by Marty Stuart, who's headlining Saturday night there.  Soon a portion of Dr. Bibey's new web site, to be called The Mandolin will have a place for holders of The People's Mandolin to post their story and some pictures.  Each person will play it a little, learn a song, and in thirty days or so hand it on to the next person.  By the end of five years, who knows how many people will have played and signed the mandolin?  What stories it will have to tell! With good management and a little luck the plucky little mandolin will find its way back to Merlefest in 2015 and be enshrined in the International Bluegrass Music Museum.  

I sure hope you get to be the mandolin's steward for a while and to help it continue its journey.  Meanwhile, we'll all enjoy following it.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The "It" Factor

The essay below is a lightly edited version of a column of mine that appeared on the Welcome Page of the California Bluegrass Association's web site.

What makes some bands work while others fall to the sidelines or putter along getting dates and making some money, but never rising to the top?  Why is it that certain groups with impeccable musical credentials and capable of making marvelous music are relatively unrecognized while other whose work is objectively inferior achieve greater success?  What constitutes the “It” factor that causes some bands to achieve fame and a relative degree of fortune, while bands lacking “It” toil on, never quite understanding what's holding them back?  The answer to these questions lies in identifying a set of sub-factors and working to build upon them while eliminating other factors that reduce the chances of success.  This takes huge amounts of work and a great deal of thought and development. One thing's for certain, though. It's not “all about the music.”

Becoming a fine bluegrass band begins with musicianship, but certainly doesn't end there.  For the most part, it can be said that most players in professional bluegrass bands play their instruments at a professional level.  Individual musicians need to be able to blend together within the group to become a unified and complementary ensemble. Making bluegrass music is a highly competitive enterprise, but doing it in a band means setting the bar high while working to create a sound, a vibe, that's bigger than any individual within the group.  Bands are also billed as acts.  The word “act” suggests a group of musicians should at least seem to be enjoying themselves and each other in what they're doing.  Making music should look difficult as well as eminently enjoyable.  The more a band acts as if it were together and having a great time, the more the audience and the musicians themselves will believe this to be true. 

Having great material that becomes immediately associated with the band is a crucial element in having “It.”  Great material means selecting songs well-suited to the sound and nature of the band and, better still, having fine songs come from band members themselves.  No matter how well a band presents songs by Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, or the Stanley Brothers, they're still a cover band if they do more than about twenty percent of the traditional material in a fashion similar to that of the pioneers.  It's not necessary for a band to have song writers, but it sure is helpful.  It is necessary, however, for a band to select original material which tastefully represents the sound and image they wish to cultivate.  Highly successful bands develop such a recognizable sound that a listener to XM/Sirius radio or a personal player can identify them after three to five notes without looking at the radio's screen. The more material a band originates, the more recognizable they can become.

Honesty and authenticity really work for a band in helping it rise above the crowd.  Unfortunately, neither of these elements can be manufactured, although some artists seem to get away with fooling the audience longer than others do.  In the end, a manufactured image will show itself.  How are these very important elements of a successful band made apparent to an audience?  First, it's very important that members of the band enjoy each other and love making music together.  If there's an unhappy person in the band, no amount of showmanship or faked camaraderie can cover the difficulties forever.  Spontaneity is another element that works in many groups' favor.  A group that can authentically react to each other and to situations in a spontaneous fashion can more easily win and keep audience affection.  The banter between the Gibson Brothers, Darin & Brooke Aldridge, or Kenny & Amanda Smith endears them to audiences.  Similarly, Rhonda Vincent's ability to key in on a particular fan's request, even from the stage wins over many people.  Cynicism and hypocrisy are easily seen and annoy audiences no end.  Humor can work for a band, but silliness is less endearing.  Forced humor almost always falls flat.

Professionalism from a working band almost always works well in its favor. Professionalism never means being cold, distant, or unapproachable.  Rather it suggests a series of behaviors that communicate themselves to the audience.  A truly professional band can't show that it's disappointed when it takes the stage to a tent full of empty seats.  It comes out and performs at its to level all the time.  Professional bands perform with energy and commitment.  They dress with an eye to the image they wish to project, but no particular form of dress works for each group.  It's not necessary to come on stage wearing coats and ties or with shirts all tucked in, but a particular look contributes to a specific image.  I've heard band members scoff at the idea of developing a business plan and then sticking to it, but thoughtful and careful planning seems to really pay off for most bands who want to succeed in this difficult and competitive business. 

In the end, no band has “It” for every listener, but a surprising number of bands develop long and lasting appeal because they adhere to many, if not all, of the principles I've outlined above.  They have a good and solid work ethic, but their appeal reaches beyond hard work to creating a total package that's distinctive, identifiable, and long lasting.  Think about the bands that particularly appeal to you to see whether they reach these standards.  If you're a member of a band, apply the ideas here to see where you need to make some changes and what has worked for you.   Bands, and people, which find themselves stuck in unproductive behavior may make a splash for a while, but surely aren't going to succeed over the long haul.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Strawberry Park - Preston, CT - Preview

Strawberry Park Amphitheatre
Perhaps the premier New England bluegrass festival, Strawberry Park kicks off its 2010 outdoor season opening program on Thursday, June 3 with three great bands and closes on Sunday with Rockin' Acoustic Circus followed by The Greencards, two bands which ought to keep the audience glued to their seats right through the end.  From top to bottom, this year's lineup at Strawberry Park is exciting, engaging, and crafted to appeal to nearly everyone, offering bands new and unfamiliar to the region, while bringing back tried and true favorites well-loved in New England.  If you've never been to Strawberry Park before, this is the year to come!

Strawberry Park Debuts
 A number of bands will be making their main stage debut at Strawberry Park this year, including music ranging from quite traditional to progressive bluegrass through plugged in country rock with bluegrass roots. 

Marty Stuart and the Fablulous Superlatives
The exquisitely an ironically named Marty Stuart and  Fabulous Superlatives will appear for one long set on Saturday night. Stuart's long career began in the 1970's when he played with Lester Flatt for several years before touring for six years with Johnny Cash.  Stuart has won four Grammys, is a member of the Grand Old Opry, and is well-known as a collector of bluegrass and country memorabilia.  He still plays a mean bluegrass mandolin.  His show is lively and fun.

Marty Stuart

Junior Sisk & Rambler's Choice

Junior Sisk is noted for having one of the best tenor voices in Bluegrass Music.  With his band, Rambler's Choice, he was nominated as IBMA Emerging Entertainer of the Year for 2009.  His sound is traditional, and most of his songs are as contemporary as yesterday, many written by his cousin and band mate Tim Massey.  The band has recently had some personnel changes, adding Jason Davis (formerly of Grasstowne) on banjo and Greg Moore (formerly a member of the James King Band) on fiddle. Junior is a master of the contemporary high lonesome sound.

Junior Sisk

Tim Massey and Junior

Dailey & Vincent
Dailey & Vincent have only been on the bluegrass circuit as a band for three years.  During that time, they have twice won the IBMA Entertainer of the Year Award as well as seven other major IBMA awards, an unprecedented showing for a start-up band.  This band has, however, impeccable bluegrass lineage, with Jamie Dailey having spent nine years singing for Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver while Darrin Vincent spent an equal amount of time in Ricky Skaggs' band.  Other band members have similar distinguished experience.  They are currently touring in support of their tribute to the Statler Brothers CD available only at Cracker Barrel. 

Jamie Dailey, Jeff Parker & Darrin Vincent

Red Molly
Red Molly appeared on the Folk Stage last year and conducted a workshop on vocal harmony.  This will be their first appearance on the Strawberry Park Amphitheatre.  This band, composed of three young women, is noted for its singer/songwriter compositions and fine, close harmony.  They recently attracted a huge crowd on the Americana Stage at Merlefest and garnered kudos for their interlude set on the Cabin Stage.  This is a very satisfying bluegrass/folk tinged band whose songs range wide in subject matter.

Wayne Taylor & Appaloosa

Wayne Taylor's voice has long been familiar to bluegrass audiences for his leadership of the U.S. Navy band Country Currents.  On his recent retirement from the Navy he formed Wayne Taylor & Appaloosa.  Taylor's highly recognizable voice and intelligent song selection combine with Emory Lester's very fine mandolin play to form the core of this excellent band.

Darin & Brooke Aldridge

Darin & Brooke Aldridge come from Cherryville, NC and have been broadening their audience as a band for about two years, having produced two well-received CD's.  Their latest self titled album was produced by veteran Jerry Salley and contains a solid mix of bluegrass/southern gospel music and country/bluegrass songs.  Darin and Brooke came together as a bluegrass gospel duo and have added secular material to their repertoire without diluting their spiritual commitment. Darin toured with The Country Gentlemen during the last nine years of Charlie Waller's life and was also a principal in The Circuit Riders. Brooke's powerful singing combines with Darin's solo tenor and harmonies to create a perfect duo backed by an excellent band.  This is the band's first appearance north of the Mason-Dixon line.

The Rockin' Acoustic Circus
 Promo Photo from Band web site

The Rockin Acoustic Circus is a young band reaching out from its home in Oklahoma.  Since I've never seen this band before nor really heard of them, I had to rely on their web site, a list of some of their upcoming bookings, and the videos shown on their web site.  Based on this information, they should be well worth staying late into Sunday afternoon for their set preceding The Greecards' closing.  Here's one of the video's that particularly caught my attention, but, if you're interested, you should look at several of them:

Field Pickin' in the Rough Camping Area

The Schedule

(All concerts to be held at our Amphitheatre, unless noted)
Program & Performers subject to change

6:00 PM Amy Gallatin & Stillwaters Amphitheatre
7:00 PM The Farewell Drifters Amphitheatre
8:30 PM Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice Amphitheatre

FRIDAY, JUNE 4, 2010
12:00 NOON Daily & Vincent Amphitheatre
1:00PM The Farewell Drifters Amphitheatre
2:00PM The Gibson Brothers Amphitheatre
3:00 PM Amy Gallatin & Stillwaters Amphitheatre
4:00PM Peter Rowan Amphitheatre
6:00PM The Boston Boys Amphitheatre
7:00PM Daily & Vincent Amphitheatre
8:15 PM Peter Rowan Amphitheatre
9:30PM The Gibson Brothers Amphitheatre

and introducing our Folk Music Stage on Saturday, featuring…
Dala, Della Mae, Vance Gilbert, The Kennedys, Red Molly & Tracy Grammer

12:00 NOON Red Molly Amphitheatre
1:00 PM Dry Branch Fire Squad Amphitheatre
2:00 PM The Greencards Amphitheatre
3:00 PM The Boston Boys Amphitheatre
4:00 PM Kenny & Amanda Smith Amphitheatre
5:00PM DINNER BREAK Amphitheatre
6:00 PM Wayne Taylor & Appaloosa Amphitheatre
7:00 PM Kenny & Amanda Smith Amphitheatre
8:15 PM The Greencards Amphitheatre
9:30 PM Marty Stuart & Fabulous Superlatives Amphitheatre

Folk Music and Dance Venue
 1:00PM  Tracy Grammer
2:15PM The Kennedys
3:30PM  Dala
5:00PM Della Mae
6:00PM Dinner Break
7:00PM Vance Gilbert
8:15PM Red Molly
9:30PM Tripping Lily

SUNDAY, JUNE 6, 2010
Our Sunday morning Gospel Hour will be hosted by the Dry Branch Fire Squad
10:00 AM Dry Branch Fire Squad Amphitheatre
11:30 AM Darin & Brooke Aldridge Amphitheatre
1:30 PM Rockin’ Acoustic Circus Amphitheatre
3:00 PM The Greencards Amphitheatre

Old Favorites Returning

A bunch of Strawberry Park favorites will be returning, brought back by popular demand.  Space limitations prohibit lengthy comments.  A number of these will be vying this fall for major IBMA awards while others are pure pleasure to see again and to hear live.  So many of these bands are among our favorites, it's difficult to highlight any of them, but here are some pictures. I'll be posting daily from Strawberry Park with more pictures of all these bands.

Leigh Gibson

 Eric Gibson

Amy Gallatin

Carol Young  (The Greencards)

Kym Warner (The Greencards)
Dry Branch Fire Squad

The Farewell Drifters

Kenny & Amanda Smith

Peter Rowan

In addition to first rate performances on the main stage, Strawberry Park attendees can expect to see and hear a strong Saturday set of singers and pickers on the Folk Stage.  Their schedule is above.  Of particular interest is the band Della Mae, which had a very strong reception at Merlefest.  The schedule for instrumental workshops has not yet been finalized, but last year's lineup included some of the finest instrumentalists and song writers in bluegrass music.  

Red Molly Presenting Vocal Harmony Workshop

The Kids Academy

Each year the Kids Academy for Bluegrass Music, under the direction of Tim St. Jean and Vickie Baker, has provided first rate instruction for two days and then showcased the young pickers on stage early Sunday afternoon.  In order to get further information about enrolling your child in this very worthwhile and enjoyable program, click here.   

Strawberry Park is a full service resort campground with lovely, shaded campsites. It also has park model trailer rentals and other trailers for rent.  Campground facilities include a full service camp snack bar that offers delicious breakfasts, ice cream, and full meals.  Several swimming pools and a range of other recreational activities provide plenty for children and a morning bingo game offers a popular change of pace from bluegrass.  Last year's festival vendors were more varied and interesting than in previous years and included two high quality food vendors to complement the Park's food services.

 The Snack Bar

The Bouncer

Kim Cyr - Emcee

Jammin with the Shaws

Strawberry Park Can Be Found Here

Information concerning tickets and camping can be found here. This is one of the premier bluegrass events of the New England season.  As I worked on this preview I became increasingly excited about the event.  I hope to see you there, and please stop Irene or me to say hello. Incidentally, there's a good chance that Dr. Tom Bibey will be making his first bluegrass trip to the northeast for this festival, maybe with his new book in hand.  Look for him, too.  He's the guy with one blue eye and one green eye.