Posted tagged ‘Merle Fest’

More on Mandomania

May 7, 2010

        There were three other mandolinists on the stage at Mandomania last last week. They might not be quite as well-known as the others yet, but this does not change the fact they are all superb players.

        It might be the first time one band (Missy Raines and New Hip) had two mandolinists on the stage. Ethan Ballinger was on your far left, and Dominick Leslie was on the other end of the stage. I think Ethan plays guitar in Missy’s band. He joked that he finished school with a degree in commercial mandolin. The idea this young man might not play mandolin on a regular basis and perhaps borrowed one for the gig is remarkable in itself. It reminds me  of a young man who used to fill in for us at times. Once I called and asked if he could cover the bass and he said, “Yeah, but I’ll have to borrow one.” Most of the players at this level play many different instruments well.

        I had not heard Dominick before this festival, but he was a very slick player. He has won a number of national level contests and should be a mandolin force for years to come. 

        Jason Norris tours with Alaska’s Bearfoot. I have run into him before when he played one of my mandolins after a show. Jason has an aggressive but clean style worthy of any mandolinist’s study. 

        All these guys signed the People’s Mandolin to kick off its journey. Like Rebecca Lovell, they are all very young, but very talented, and I look forward to following their careers over the years.

        Here are their websites: and

        Tomorrow I’m gonna sum up a few more MerleFest thoughts. Then Monday I plan to launch into a series on the writer journey, how I got into the writer gig, and share some insights as to how I came to see my book project through to publication. It is due out soon, likely no later than mid summer. The saga has been a wild roller coaster ride and more fun than the county fair. After almost a decade I’m just now at the starting gate, and I can’t wait to stretch out and run a while.

Dr. B


Merle Fest 2010

May 1, 2010

        First let me tell you even when you’re a musician you’re still always a doc first. I ran into a couple of my patients who some urgent (although nor emergent) problems. With a couple quick phone calls I was able to make their MerleFest stay better. So, I wanted to thank both CVS pharmacy and Aero Care. Wilkesboro is a whole bigger than Harvey County, but they treated me and as fine as if we’d grown up together. I wasn’t too surprised. Wilkes County is true bluegrass too.

        One patient apologized. “Doc, I hate to bother you, but if have to go back home to get my blood pressure medicine, I’m afraid I’ll miss Sam Bush.”

        “Not to worry. I can’t allow that for lack of one phone call.” I didn’t mind. It is what I do. “Besides,” I said. “I don’t think Sam is gonna hire me to play mandolin do you?”

        The patients smiled. “I reckon not Doc.”

        One disclaimer here, though folks, When I’m out a festival I love to talk to anyone, but state law does not allow me to treat anyone without an established doctor patient relationship. It’s okay to refill blood pressure medicine on a patient I have already seen, but I can’t treat without an exam, and most folks aren’t too keen on the notion to disrobe in front of 60,000 people.

        So, back to Merle Fest. This has been a different year for me. I spent almost as much time jamming as playing, and I met all kind of new people. One fellow came up to me and said, “Are you Tommy Bibey?”

        “Yes sir.”

        “When is the book coming out?”

        “I’m almost certain we’ll be able to make an announcement in June.”


         Tim Stafford and Caroline Wright (the Aloha kid) were there with the new Tony Rice book they co-wrote. I sped read about fifty pages at lunch, and can already see this is gonna be an insider’s view of a complicated artist. It is true bluegrass. Tim knows. He was a big part of Alison Krauss’s early signature sound, and has been the lead guitar man for Blue Highway for fifteen years, so he is connected with most everyone in the biz. Many of them contributed to the development of the book. I’ll get it finished next week and report back to you.

        I heard the Gibson Brothers at the Walker Center. Tight sibling harmony, precise picking, they delivered just as true a bluegrass as if they’d grown up in Kentucky. Backstage, mandolin player Joe Walsh was the first pro to sign the people’s mandolin.

        I ran into old friends, pro pickers, radio personalities, luthiers, and tons of regular pickers like me there to get way from reality for a weekend. The folks at GHS strings were quite interested in “The Journey of the People’s Mandolin’ and said if a string broke while it was on tour to bring it up to their booth at a festival and they’d put one on for us to keep the journey alive.

        I went by one of the jam tents and got to pick with the Snyder family. It was a jam session for kids, but I couldn’t resist sitting it. “Is this session for children of any age?” I asked.

        Samantha cut her eyes my way and broke into that trademark toothy grin. She nodded for me to sit down without ever missing a note on her fiddle break. Her brother Zeb came up as a guitar player. He’s an old veteran at thirteen, and was wearing out the mandolin today. I noticed the finish was already worn of the neck of his F9. For a while I didn’t take a break; this was a session for the kids. I was more interested in hearing them play than me, but Samantha was insistent I was gonna be one of the gang. I did a twin part to Zeb’s lead on “Gold Rush.” Samantha turned and smiled again.

        I’ve been around the North Carolina music scene a long time, and these kids are the best new young players I’ve heard since when Darin and Brooke Aldridge were coming along. Even more important they are just a fine genuine family whose parents are raising ‘em right. They are respectful of their elders, and even let old Doc play! How many places are left in this world where the kids are like that? They make me proud of bluegrass.

        We ended up the evening with Sam Bush. Mix in bluegrass, reggae, rock ‘n roll and the best right hand in the mandolin world and you’ve got a start on Sam. He’s still the most energetic show in acoustic music, but then Sam is like me. Even though he’s a famous pro, and I am an obscure amateur, we’re both just perpetual young’uns.

        The People Mandolin will start it’s journey today so I’ll report back tomorrow.

MerleFest 2010

April 30, 2010

        We rolled in late. I stopped at the desk. An elderly man in overalls and a railroad hat is seated in a chair in the lobby. “Evening, Doc.”

        “Good to see you, John. I trust you’ve had a good year.”

         He stroked a long gray beard, turned his head to the side, and coughed. “Breathing but not bragging, Doc.”

        “Been out to the music?”

        “All day. Too cold at night for me anymore. My back freezes up. Down with old Arthur most of the winter.”  

        “”Hope it gets better.”

         “It won’t, but what the hell.”

         The desk clerk checks us in. “Your usual room, Doc. The one by the pool.”

        “Thanks, kid.” 

        Friday morning. We crest the last hill before the grounds. An American flag flaps in the breeze. Vendors of every brand of acoustic instruments have begun to set up shop. It’s early, but people from all over the world already mill around. There are T-shirts and hot dogs and sand castle artists and kids with their faces painted by some street artist for  a couple bucks. If your idea of a rocking good time is a Board meeting with a bunch of rich guys in suits who hope to finagle another million from someone else who has more than they know what to do with, you don’t need to come here. You’d be bored to tears; this is too real.

        I can smell the roasted peanuts. I think I’ll have a bag of those and a cup of black coffee. It makes a fine bluegrass breakfast. I might follow it up with the morning paper and a nap before the Gibson Brothers crank up.

        It’s Merlefest, the only event I look forward to as much as the Harvey County Fair. I’ll eat all the wrong food, I’ll stay up half the night and sleep in between sets. I’ll sleep with one eye open, though. I ain’t gonna miss a thing.

Dr. B