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Grasstowne takes road headin' home

By John Lupton, October 2007

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What made the band click from the start was not only that the core was a trio of established veterans, but also that their mutual friendships were based in large part on having much in common as far as their musical tastes and directions.

"It was real neat being with three guys who were all on the same page. When you've got three guys working toward the same goal - as opposed to some bands where you've got one guy working toward a goal - it just gives you a lot more energy."

Bibey in particular seems to be thriving in the new environment.

"I'm hearing Alan play with us more like he played during the time of IIIrd Tyme Out, when he helped form that band. He's playing a lot more 'in your face' style, and since he's come into our band...I'm starting to hear Alan in the way I used to hear him and realize why I was such a fan of Alan Bibey's. He's really making waves again on his mandolin - he was the 2007 (SPBGMA) Mandolin Player of the Year, and he'd never won that before."

A lot of energy, Leadbetter says, went into choosing a name for the band as well.

"I knew we wanted something short and something fairly easy to spell, but more than that, we - Steve and I especially - had come out of bands that were a little progressive and a little more progressive than I wanted to be, and Steve would tell you the same...We were wanting to try not to alienate any of the people that really had supported us through the years, we didn't want to leave the music that we'd had, but we wanted to put a different turn on stuff without being, you know, a progressive band - still being true to roots, but bringing material in that sounded old with a new message. So I felt like the name 'Grasstowne' with the word 'grass' kind of told that we were a bluegrass band...and we kind of put an 'e' at the end of it to make it look a little different, and that's kind of how we came up with that name."

The CD's opening track, Leadbetter says, is a prime example of that desire to put their own distinctive, yet traditional twist on tunes that struck their fancy.

"I was sitting around one day talking to Steve about a Travis Tritt tune and told him about a tune, 'Dixie Flyer,' and I said, 'Man, I always thought that would be a great tune to do,' and Steve started laughing and said, 'Man, you know I've wanted to do that tune also.' But like in (Wildfire), I'd talk about it, but it would never carry any farther, and Steve told me he had done the same in Mountain Heart with that tune. They just didn't think it was the right thing. When I told him about it, he started singing it on the other end of the phone, and I thought wow, he does know this song?"

Leadbetter also enthuses about the fun to be had in recording classic country and bluegrass chestnuts like "Lizzie Lou."

"I tried over and over to get ...Wildfire to do 'Lizzie Lou,' and they pretty much laughed me off and said, 'That song won't work,' - and I'm glad it didn't, I'm glad we got to do it with our band because Steve Gulley sings it so good."

"With this band, like I said, we're friends first, and we don't ever say, 'We don't want to do that' because sometimes bands have egos come into play, and we don't have that in this bunch. We don't have guys that think they have to sing 'X' amount of songs on an album or whatever. We just find what's there and what works and who sings it the best, and if it's Alan or it's Steve or whoever, it doesn't matter, we just do them the way we think they're the best and record them."

There have been satisfying individual accomplishments in recent times as well in addition to Bibey's mandolin award. In 2005, Leadbetter himself became the first - and so far, only - person to break the stranglehold of Jerry Douglas and Blue Highway's Rob Ickes on the IBMA Dobro Player of the Year Award.

And, both Bibey and Leadbetter currently have deals for "signature" models with Gibson, and in Leadbetter's case, it means that for the foreseeable future at least, all instruments bearing the Dobro trademark will have his name stamped on them as well. Capping it all off is the joy in seeing son Matt Leadbetter following in the old man's footsteps at age 22 as Dobro player for the venerable Lonesome River Band. In the end, though, Phil Leadbetter is content to be in a band that speaks in one voice.

"When you play in a band that it doesn't matter who's out there getting credits or what - I don't care about the credits I bring...it's more of a compliment to me when somebody comes up and says, 'The band sounds great,' as opposed to 'You (personally) sounded really good tonight.' I mean, that's all really good, but I'm all about the band."

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