By Larry Morrisey, MAC Deputy Director
Bluegrass musician and bandleader Alan Sibley of Ackerman is taking his music to a national audience through a new cable TV show. Sibley and his group The Magnolia Ramblers are the hosts of “The Bluegrass Trail,” a new music show on RFD-TV, the national cable channel that focuses on programming for rural America. The show features performances by Sibley and his band as well as guest bands from throughout the Southeast.
Sibley, who sings and plays multiple instruments, has been leading his own band for ten years and has been a member of MAC’s Artist Roster since 2012. He has worked as a musician since he was a teenager. Sibley started learning the guitar at thirteen and two years later was playing mandolin for The Sullivan Family, a highly regarded bluegrass group from Alabama. He toured throughout the country with the band and learned many lessons about being a professional musician from bandleader Enoch Sullivan, including how to connect with an audience.
“He really knew how to engage an audience, how to endear [the band] to a crowd of people that they had never laid eyes on before,” Sibley recalled. “Seeing that really helped me tremendously, both with our live shows and this television show.”
After leaving the Sullivan Family, Sibley worked with several groups, including singing lead for (former MAC Folk Art Apprenticeship Master Artist) Larry Wallace’s band. In 2008, he started The Magnolia Ramblers. The group, which includes guitarist Butch Hodgins of Philadelphia, Miss., banjo player Larry Wallace of McCall Creek, bassist Mark Tribble from Starkville, and multi-instrumentalist Robert Montgomery from Moulton, Alabama, focuses on performing bluegrass in its original style that came out of Bill Monroe’s early bands.
“I’ve kept the music as traditional as I can,” Sibley explains. “We try to approach the music about the same way as it was done 80 years ago.”
Sibley and the band had been seen on RFD-TV before. They were regular guests on “The Cumberland Highlanders,” a bluegrass show recorded at an annual festival at the Bill Monroe birthplace in Kentucky. When this show stopped production and went to re-runs a few years back, Sibley noticed the slowdown in his booking requests. Last year he reached out to the network, emailing its president to ask about the possibility getting a show on the network.
“I hit the send on the email and stuck my phone back in my pocket,” he remembered. “I went to working in the yard and I felt my phone vibrate . . . I’m thinking man, it can’t be them, it hadn’t even been fifteen minutes. And there was an email from (RFD-TV president) Patrick Gottsch, saying ‘Let’s do it. We’ll film it in Nashville.’”
Sibley and the Magnolia Ramblers traveled to RFD’s Nashville headquarters last fall to record the shows currently on-air. The program opens with a couple of songs by the band, then Sibley introduces their guests. The guest bands are chosen by Sibley and all play in the traditional style like the Magnolia Ramblers. The show closes out with an “around the fireplace” segment where the band talks about bluegrass and tells stories from their years playing music. Interspersed throughout the show are short segments that show Sibley at home and around Choctaw County, giving viewers a feel for the musician’s rural Mississippi upbringing and daily life.
The show debuted in July and the response has been strong. “The main complaint we’ve been getting is that it isn’t long enough,” Sibley notes. “Everybody wishes that it was an hour long.” The band has already been getting some attention, and Sibley hopes that it will increase their visibility on the festival circuit.
“It is nice to have folks in other parts of the country talking about you,” he said. “I hope to get around to some of the larger bluegrass festivals in the next year or two. Hopefully through the power of television, those promoters will be looking at us.”
“The Bluegrass Trail” with Alan Sibley and the Magnolia Ramblers can be seen on RFD-TV on Sundays at 6:00pm.