What’s up with Grasstowne? That’s a question I’ve heard more than a few times this past few years.
Founder and mandolinist Alan Bibey has seen a lot of changes with this band in the nine years since they formed as a partnership between he, Steve Gulley, and Phil Leadbetter. Bibey’s partners peeled off over the years to follow their own solo efforts, but Al has consistently found new members to keep his vision of a contemporary/traditional bluegrass outfit in clear view.
In fact, about three years ago he had such a strong group together that all the guys made a pact to stick together for at least five years to see how far they could go as a team. But you know what they say about best laid plans. Soon fiddler Adam Haynes was gone to The Grascals, singer Blake Johnson moved to IIIrd Tyme Out, and bass man Kameron Keller was with Junior Sisk. Suddenly it was just Alan and ace banjo picker Justin Jenkins.
But through all this time, Grasstowne had been recording, and the results can be seen in Grasstowne 4, undoubtedly the finest album they’ve ever made under this name. The tracks on this new Mountain Fever release cover several years of the band’s history, with contributions from former members Haynes, Keller, and Johnson, plus now-departed vocalists Dustin Pyrtle and Shannon Slaughter, and guests Ronnie Bowman, Dwight McCall, and Ron Stewart.
Alan Bibey has now put his name on the band, in both the literal and figurative senses of the word. Rebranded now as Alan Bibey & Grasstowne, Al tackles the bulk of the lead singing on this project, and his voice comes across as strong and mature, something he says he has worked on consistently this past few years. He’s also a primary songwriter here, with four of the twelve songs being his co-writes. I guess it really is his band.
Bibey’s voice was always far better than serviceable, but the bump in his confidence is on display throughout Grasstowne 4. Right from the opening track, an Elmer Burchette number with a nasty groove called Cry Baby Cry, Alan delivers the mean right on cue. He’s just as strong on more traditional fare, taking the lead on You Can Feel It Your Soul, which Flatt & Scruggs had cut in the early ’60s. Justin Jenkins lays down a solid Scruggs-style guitar on that one as well.
I’m Country reunites Alan with a song he had recorded in his first high-profile gig with New Quicksilver in 1985, one written by Wes Golding who had recorded it previously with the Shenandoah Cut Ups.
The first of Bibey’s originals to appear is Look What I’ve Done To Me, a co-write with Ronnie Bowman. It’s an upbeat song that takes a hard look at the mistakes the singer has made. Dwight McCall adds a fine tenor vocal. Cold Dark Ground, from Bibey, Bowman and Mark Collie, was released two years ago as a single and was prominent on our Bluegrass Today Weekly Airplay chart, ending up as the #20 track for all of 2014. Blake Johnson sings it here, a beautiful rendition in every way.
Alan adds swingy singing to his repertoire on You Let Me Down, yet another written with Bowman. This is a fun song where Bibey’s mandolin also shines, as does Jenkins’ Crowe-inflected banjo. Former guitarist Shannon Slaughter sings high lead on Can’t Stop The Rain, a fast moving trio arrangement with another wicked mandolin break.
The album’s other prior release is This Old Guitar and Me, sung by the inimitable Ronnie Bowman, as smooth a male voice as bluegrass has ever seen. Grasstowne cut this one back when Haynes and Pyrtle were still in the band. An easy-going, mid-tempo ballad, it also did quite well with bluegrass radio in 2013 when it hit.
Heaven comes next, a lovely Gospel waltz from north Alabama songwriter Stacey Peek. It’s performed by Alan and Shannon and Heather Slaughter, with just mandolin and guitar accompaniment. The simplicity of the arrangement serves this heartfelt testimony just right.
The last two tracks may be my favorites on the record, both well familiar to those who have followed bluegrass for years. Worried Man Blues gets a super driving delivery from Jenks’ opening break to the last note of the ending. This is straight bluegrass played by people who have it deep in their bones. Bibey sings lead with McCall again on tenor. If anyone can find a fault with this one, your ears are better than mine. It’s textbook.
Drawing this to a close is a grassy version of Kris Kristofferson’s Darby’s Castle. Shannon takes the lead and entirely sells this distinctly tragic story of a man so obsessed by his vision to create something for the woman he loved, that he forgot to be present in her life. The band gives the song a reading reminiscent of the ’70s New South, and again, is note perfect.
We can’t finish without some mention of the picking on this album. Though most comment here has been about Bibey’s strong vocal work, one could never forget that it was his stellar mandolin playing that first brought him to wide attention. Each track shows again why he is held in such high regard, with carefully constructed solos appropriate to every song. Banjo man Jenkins is also a standout, on the CD’s lone instrumental, the old timer Old Hen, often known as Cluck Old Hen, and on the various vocal numbers in turn.
Special kudos to Ron Stewart, whose fiddle is as spot on as ever, but even more so for his rhythm and lead guitar which drives the band on nearly every track. We all know what a superb fiddler and banjo player Ron is from his work with Lynn Morris, J.D. Crowe, and The Boxcars, though many fewer recognize his expertise on every other bluegrass instrument as well. Flatpickers will find a reason to resent him on this album.
They will be celebrating the release this Friday night (11/6) at Nashville’s Station Inn with a performance by the current edition of the band. Bibey will be on mandolin, with Gena Britt on banjo, Zak McLamb on bass, Courtney Rorer on fiddle, and Greg Luck on guitar (Justin Jenkins is on vacation). Look for them to pick and sing songs from the new CD, with some special guests expected.
Anyone who appreciates contemporary bluegrass played with precision, soul, and authority will want this one in their library.