Alan Bibey,
In the Blue Room
(Sugar Hill, 2000)

The cover photo for Alan Bibey's first solo album is as slick as you can get in terms of design and layout. It made me think that this was going to be a crossover album, with a "newgrass" blend of jazz, bluegrass and acoustic music, the kind that Compass Records has been making a mark with. What I thought when I listened, however, was that the cover should have been of several guys crowded around a single mike, holding their instruments and singing into it. Though there are a few steps outside of the traditional box here, you'll find mostly well-played standard bluegrass here, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Bibey, a mandolinist who has played with IIIrd Tyme Out, The New Quicksilver and (presently) BlueRidge, has put together an assemblage of excellent musicians here, including Jerry Douglas, Tony Rice, Del McCoury and others equally as fine, but the result is less than the sum of its parts. Though there are highlights, In the Blue Room has many of the same flaws as most first bluegrass albums: a dependence on the traditional and on hot solos rather than ensemble work. You simply don't find the unity and coherence that you do in projects that are a result of many years of everyone involved singing and playing shoulder to shoulder. Though there are moments of brilliance, the whole never quite gels the way that bluegrass at its best should do, especially in the vocal tracks.

The title track starts off as an instrumental feature for Bibey, displaying some hot picking and flashy solos for all involved. Bibey shows off a pleasant, though not particularly striking, singing voice in "Save Your Heart," a predictable mid-tempo song. "Evening Prayer Blues" is an old Bill Monroe tune that is done pretty much the way Mr. Bill would have done it (with the exception of what sound like some tricky double-stops in the mando solos). It's a nice tribute, well-played by all, but there's little that's new or particularly interesting. And speaking of retro, "I'll Be Alright Tomorrow" is an old Bobby Osborne tune that sounds pretty much the way it did when the Osborne Brothers recorded it back in 19-whatever.

At last we get into a different tradition with Bibbey entering Jethro Burns territory, with a jazzy reading of "Wild Fiddler's Rag," comped by Kenny Smith on guitar. "Lee's Reel" stays in the same bright vein, adding Ronnie Stewart's fiddle to the mix. "County Fool," however, is plagued by some weak vocals in the chorus, something I never thought I'd say about a track on which Del McCoury (my god of bluegrass singing) participates. There's some unexpected rhythms in the verse, however, with bars of 4/4/3/4 making for a hiccupy surprise for those trying to sing along.

There's another great instrumental in "Stumptowne," making me wish that this would have been an all instrumental album. Dan Tyminski's lead vocal on Monroe's "Close By," however, is strong and effective, and the song is further brightened by Stewart's overdubbed (I assume) triple fiddles. "Amanda Lena" is another instrumental, mildly rocking, and highlighted by Tim Stafford's guitar solo. Tommy Jackson's "Busy Fingers" gets a nice, old-timey treatment next.

I was afraid that "What I Am," a bluegrass ballad, was going to plumb the depths of the maudlin, but was pleasantly and touchingly surprised. Any son recalling his father should be moved, and Ronnie Bowman, who I often feel sounds too "contemporary country," sings it beautifully. Another Bobby Osborne tune, "Sure-Fire," closes things out, and features some fine Terry Baucom banjo work and more hot, jazz-laden picking by Bibey.

This is an enjoyable album, but one that owes too much to Bibey's influences. Now that he has all the tributes out of his system, hopefully his next CD will be one that owes more to Alan Bibey than to his predecessors. He's got a fine, original instrumental voice there, but it's heard too infrequently in this brief (less than 35 minute) CD. Next time I hope he stretches out and lets us see what Alan Bibey can really do.

[ by Chet Williamson ]

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