This week's column continues my thoughts from last week about how I got to bluegrass (and other music throughout my life).
… And then life happened. We (that’s Irene, who’s always the “we” in my blogs and columns ... has been for 53 years) got married, I taught English in more than a few places, we had a couple of sons, I went to school and earned a couple more degrees, and played the itinerant teacher and college teacher game in Pennsylvania, New York, Texas, and somehow reached retirement. We found ourselves looking for something to share that we could agree on, enjoy, and turn into ... something. While living in a large campground in Myrtle Beach, looking for something to do one Saturday night, we read in the local paper about the monthly meeting and jam at the Rivertown Bluegrass Society in Conway, SC, and our lives changed. That’s how the bluegrass journey began.
We arrived late in the afternoon and found groups of four or five musicians scattered around the school, jamming in the hallways and a lounge. That night, Alan Bibey & BlueRidge were the featured band. A local band called the Morris Brothers also performed. There’s no photographic or video record of these performances, but these were two of the songs we heard that night with roughly the same personnel. We were hooked on the music and the crowd while admiring the fervor found in the faith expressed there, too.
Alan Bibey & BlueRidge – Ten Plagues Cast on Pharoah
Alan Bibey & BlueRidge featured mandolin great Alan Bibey and, still in the earlier phase of his career, singer Junior Sisk, who was named IBMA Male Vocalist of the Year in 2013. Meanwhile, the Morris Brothers, from just up the road, are part of the backbone that keeps this music alive: local bands that play together regularly for the love of the music and perform at local and regional festivals for a pittance, but help fill the bill, assuring wall-to-wall entertainment at festivals and concerts.
The Morris Brothers – Victory Is Sweet
A few years later, we followed Grasstowne, a new band with Alan Bibey, on a three-day tour in North Carolina and Tennessee. Irene had begun playing the mandolin and finally decided she wanted a good one. Gibson had produced the Alan Bibey signature model, and Bibey agreed to pick one out in Nashville for her, at an attractive price. At the Down Home, a fabled bluegrass venue in Johnson City, TN, he began the band’s second set playing a song he had written about his grandparents called “Side by Side.” On finishing it. He stepped off the stage to hand Irene her new mandolin.
Here’s Bibey singing the song a few years ago:
Alan Bibey – Side by Side
In 2003 we stepped onto the Wilkes Community College campus for our first MerleFest, a large and important music festival founded by Doc Watson in memory of his son Merle. This was before I started my blog, but I was, even then, maintaining a website and, as I found the other day, I had written about this first experience at Merlefest. Here’s that entry, which includes the first picture I ever took of Rhonda Vincent. This series of entries represents my first, uninformed and unformed writing about bluegrass music.
Here’s a video from the first MerleFest in 1988:
And from a much more recent one, an example of the kind of jam you’re likely to find there:
This week I noticed that I was getting “Work Anniversary” notes from LinkedIn, congratulating me on the 11th anniversary of the blog I started on Dec. 22, 2006, with the clumsy, but now unchangeable, title of Ted Lehmann’s Bluegrass, Books, and Brainstorms.
A year or so after I started off on this photo/journalism path, Irene decided that sitting in our bag chair at the stage wasn’t exactly her thing. She volunteered to watch the merchandise table for Nothin’ Fancy because they looked both tired and sick. Mike Andes, mandolin player and lead singer for the band, handed her the cashbox, told her how much items sold for, and the band disappeared until their second set. Since then, countless artists have availed themselves of her skills, and several promoters have assigned her the position of merch manager, where she organizes the tables and oversees the area while bands take a break. Sometimes she finds time to go to our seats.
It’s been a long journey since, including festivals the size of MerleFest to small country venues in the midst of the piney woods in south Georgia or in small campgrounds in Florida. We’ve seen some of the top bluegrass bands, watching them develop through our years. Like the Wilson Family, from Folkston, GA, who we saw from the time Katy Wilson was 11 years old. Katy graduated from Valdosta State and got married within the last few weeks. We saw the Infamous Stringdusters from a fresh young band just hitting the stage to being headliners at Red Rocks, and the Gibson Brothers from a struggling band from the North Country in New York to IBMA Entertainers of the Year. Here are a few samples:
The Wilson Family Band at Arcadia, FL
The Gibson Brothers at Jenny Brook Bluegrass Festival
In the Spring of 2015 Kim Ruehl, then the editor of No Depression, asked me whether I would like to write a column for this storied enterprise. I jumped at the opportunity, which I’ve tried to fulfill faithfully since April 4, 2015. It’s been both arduous and fulfilling for the past nearly four years. It has opened a new and interesting audience for my musings, for which I’m deeply grateful. All in all, bluegrass and its wide-ranging cousins have opened a world of friends and acquaintances to us, and we’re grateful to all those who have enriched our lives, giving it form and purpose.