Pickin’ Perfection

Written By: 
Dawn Bryant
A conversation with bluegrass legend Alan Bibey

PHOTO: (from left to right) Alan Bibey with Grasstowne; Alan Bibey; performing in 1986.

Alan Bibey still remembers the moment it all started.

Growing up amid a musical family in Walnut Grove, North Carolina, Bibey tagged along with his parents to fiddlers’ conventions, where bluegrass musicians competed on banjos, guitars, mandolins and more for ribbons, prize money and the thrill of being called the best.

The young Bibey had already taken in his dad and uncle playing, but the moment the five-year-old saw legend and “Father of Bluegrass” Bill Monroe jam on the mandolin at a convention, it solidified Bibey’s destiny.

“Dad had to hold me on his shoulders so I could see,” Bibey said. “I remember I told him, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”

And he wanted to be the best at it.

Mission accomplished.

PHOTO: Accepting the “Mandolin Performer of the Year” award in 2010 from the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America

Bibey, 53 and now a Surfside Beach resident, is considered one of the best mandolin musicians in bluegrass—and has a collection of awards to prove it. He’s jammed on stages from the Grand Ole Opry to MerleFest, been a member of some of the most notable bands in bluegrass and produced numerous No. 1 albums and songs. Gibson even produced a signature Alan Bibey mandolin that he helped design.

“Alan is one of the very best mandolin players in bluegrass music today and is a leader in our community,” said Paul Schiminger, executive director of the International Bluegrass Music Association. “Alan’s great instrumental skills are both traditional and soulful while also being fresh and innovative.”

Bibey and his band, Grasstowne, which plays about 70 to 80 shows a year, will hit the stage in Myrtle Beach over Thanksgiving weekend at the popular South Carolina State Bluegrass Festival at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center.

It’s a far cry from the stages he dominated at the fiddlers’ conventions as a young boy, urged on by a dad whose passion for music rubbed off.

“When you get better than me on mandolin, I’m going to play banjo,” Bibey recalled his dad James telling him when he was five years old. “When I was eight, he laid down the mandolin and never picked it back up.”

Also when he was eight, Bibey won his first ribbon—third place—at a fiddlers’ convention in Madison, North Carolina.

“I won five bucks,” he said. “I was hooked.”

It wasn’t long before Bibey was bringing home the winning ribbon at every convention he attended. He collected hundreds of them that covered the walls in his room, including the coveted first place on mandolin at the World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee, when he was 16.

“People would see him come in the door and they would drop their heads because they knew he would win,” James Bibey said.

Driven to be the best, the young Bibey sought out the most impressive mandolin players at the conventions, jamming with them to learn how to be better.

“Whoever was the best—that is who I would gravitate toward,” Bibey said.

That’s how he met Ricky Ellis. The pair would “just exchange pickin’ licks” to see what each could learn from the other, Ellis said, adding that Bibey eventually surpassed Ellis’ skills. Ellis said he is still amazed at Bibey’s triplets.

“He can do that with ease,” Ellis said. “He can do awesome stuff that other mandolin players could only dream of. There aren’t many mandolin players that can hang with him.”

Bibey’s pickin’ caught the ear of the band Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, who asked the teen to go on tour with them. It was a gig with one of the hottest bands at the time that thrust him into the big time.

PHOTO: Bibey with Ricky Skaggs

He went on to be a founding member of The New Quicksilver, IIIrd Tyme Out and BlueRidge and won over crowds with songs such as the 2004 hit “Side by Side,” which he wrote about his grandparents.

He’s racked up a collection of notable awards, including “Mandolin Performer of the Year” from the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America in 2007, 2009 and 2010 and a trio of awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association including “Recorded Event” and “Album of the Year.”

But instead of the awards, a wide-eyed Bibey, full of excitement, is more likely to tell you about the time he jammed with the legendary Ricky Skaggs or when he sold nearly every instrument he had to have enough money to buy a prized 1920s signed Gibson Lloyd Loar mandolin.

“It sounded soooo good,” Bibey said.

Or the time he played the mandolin of Bill Monroe, the musician credited with creating the bluegrass music genre who inspired Bibey all those years ago at the fiddlers’ convention.

“That’s pretty cool,” Bibey said, gushing at the memory of playing the mandolin of the man known as the “Father of Bluegrass.” “Monroe’s mandolin? Oh man, that’s pretty awesome.”

It’s that excitement about those moments and an enthusiasm for still wanting to get better on the mandolin—reminiscent of a wide-eyed youngster—that fuels Bibey.

“If I lose that, I don’t want to do it anymore,” he said.

The pace of touring has slowed, but Bibey remains just as busy. He still writes songs, lays down guest tracks for other artists in his small home studio in Surfside Beach, plays in a swing music trio and has a number of projects, including putting together a compilation album of artists from his home state of North Carolina.

He strives to be the inspiration for the next generation of pickers, just like he had as a young boy. Bibey mentors mandolin players through his own mandolin camp at Ocean Lakes Family Campground in Myrtle Beach every August and by participating in other camps as part of bluegrass festivals across the country.

He’s still amazed that bluegrass folks use his name alongside many of the mandolin musicians he always admired.

“Part of me, I feel like I’m still that little boy,” Bibey said of the excitement he still has for the music and legendary musicians. “That’s pretty cool.”