Balsam Range has been among the very few bluegrass acts to spend serious time as a headlining act with no changes in personnel over the past two decades. But that reign came to an end when mandolinist and vocalist Darren Nicholson left to pursue a solo career late last year.
So what does an established group do in the face of such news? Well, in the case of Balsam Range, they bring in perhaps the most decorated mando guy in the business, Alan Bibey.
Though he has spent much of his career as a solo artist and band leader, the two-time IBMA Mandolin Player of the Year says that once he started talking seriously with the guys in Balsam Range about coming aboard, it just made perfect sense.
Buddy Melton, fiddler and vocalist with the band, agrees.
“We were all fans of Alan’s from touring on the road for years, but I think we were at a place where we were needing somebody, and he was ready to look at it, and it just seemed to worked. We all got together for a weekend down in South Carolina, getting to know each other, musically and otherwise, and now there’s a whole new excitement to create music.
Alan’s played every show with us since the first of the year. We didn’t make any announcements yet, though one of our fans responded after one of the shows with, ‘Alan Bibey with Balsam Range – the combination we didn’t know we really needed.’
It’s really given us a spark.”
For Bibey, the move allows him to alleviate some of the stress of running his own group, and join up with a thoroughly professional organization.
“They are just the best guys. We all get along so well, and everything is laid out perfectly.
Even though I live in South Carolina now, I still think of myself as a North Carolina boy. So it’s five North Carolina boys – such great guys. The personna you see of them being good friends, it’s no joke. It’s real.”
So what about Alan Bibey & Grasstowne, his primary performance vehicle in recent years?
“We will continue to do select dates when they don’t conflict with Balsam Range, which will be my main gig. So far, none of the Grasstowne dates that we have booked are in conflict.
Grasstowne is really supportive. They all have straight jobs too, so there have been times when they couldn’t do gigs, and they have been very supportive of my choice.”
The newly revitalized Balsam Range is in the studio now, with a number on new songs completed. Buddy tells us to be on the lookout for a new single coming soon.
“We are so happy to have Alan Bibey as a part of Balsam Range,” is how he describes the feeling in the band.
And Alan says, “That feeling is mutual.”