Dr. Tom Bibey: An Inspiration, Just When One Is Needed
I woke up this morning around 3 a.m. with a four-day trip facing me, a deadline for this column, and … no ideas. The New England winter we use as an excuse to go to Florida for a couple of months of bluegrass, old (in most of its meanings) friends, warm weather, and state parks — where life slows down and lets us spend some time closer to nature — hasn’t come. We’re closing in on the shortest day of the year. Darkness prevails. We desperately do everything we can to bring light back into our world. It’s the season! But it’s raining out, with no snow in cheerless sight. Our politicians are wrangling. They struggle on with lots of noise and little inspiration. What’s the connection between this musing and my column? Thoughtfulness and creativity are hard work, and sometimes the ideas don’t want to come.
But Dr. Tom Bibey has been on my mind.
I started blogging late in 2006, which means I’m approaching an anniversary. Sometime in November of 2007, a new voice started chiming in on my comment section. He called himself Dr. Tom Bibey, and I was curious. He wrote a blog, too. I was curious about who this Dr. Bobby, as his friends, patients, golf partners, and bandmates called him, was. He said he lived in North Carolina, had attended Sand Hills Medical School, played with his band at places we were either familiar with or knew about. Irene started roving around the Internet looking for traces of this country doc. There is no Sand Hills Medical School. No Dr. Tom Bibey was listed as a medical practitioner in North Carolina, but his writing rang out truths about the music we had become devoted to.
Dr. Bibey’s gentleness and gentility, his love of family, music, friends, golf, and medicine may not have had many facts in it, but there were oh-so-many truths about life, love, commitment, and music.
In fall 2007, I wrote: “His writing is unusual in today’s literary world because it is almost without a hint of sarcasm or irony, just gentle humor. No known picture of Dr. Bibey can be found on the net or in my picture files.” Then one day my phone rang.
The playlist in my ear right now, generated in Sweden by a computer I’ll never meet, is playing Joan Baez, who’s singing Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” That’s followed with country great Alan Jackson singing Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” Both songs are heard from bluegrass bands in a variety of interpretations. The suppleness and subtlety of bluegrass can amaze, surprise, and please, if you let it.
Dr. B’s voice had a pleasing North Carolina lilt to it, as he introduced himself … and told me his real name. We agreed to meet in March at Lorraine Jordan’s indoor winter festival, the Carolina Road Homecoming, then held annually in Burlington, North Carolina, at the Ramada Inn. Dr. B wished to keep his picture and real identity off the internet, because nobody in his home town of Shelby knew about his writer’s life. In fact, his friends were coming up to him and telling him about this bluegrass musician who wrote about music on the internet, thinking he might be interested. So Irene and I agreed to keep his face and real name off the internet, and to help build the legend of Dr. Tom Bibey.
Over the next few years, as Dr. B worked on his novel The Mandolin Case — a mystery in which Dr. Bibey survives a malpractice case, plays music with his friends, and cares for the health (in all its meanings) of people in his town while defeating the medical establishment — our friendship grew. We met his wife, Marta, known as Marfar on his blog. We visited them in Shelby and were introduced to the legendary, and very real, Bomb Shelter, where there’s been a great jam for years beyond counting now, if you know someone who can get you there.
We met Darin Aldridge there, and his newly minted fiancee — now his wife — Brooke. They’ve become Darin & Brooke Aldridge, a band both well respected and popular. We saw a hot group of young musicians who since have become a band called Unspoken Tradition, showcasing at IBMA’s World of Bluegrass this year. The cinderblock walls of the Bomb Shelter display the names of most of the pickers — some names any bluegrass fan would recognize; others are the names of some of the anonymous pickers who’ve been there. We came to know and understand the deep, democratic well of bluegrass tradition that continues to feed the music some of its finest musicians.
Later, just as Dr. B’s book was published, we hosted Bobby and Marta Jones (there it is) at Strawberry Park, a fine old festival in Connecticut, his first trip north of the Mason-Dixon Line in many years, and, later, they came to Musicians Against Childhood Cancer in Columbus, Ohio, where the real Dr. Bobby helped treat some people suffering from heat stroke as the temperatures exceeded 100 degrees for four straight days.
And then, one day in late 2011, I heard the familiar lilt on the phone. He had fallen down and gone to the hospital where, after a number of tests, he was diagnosed with a glio blastoma brain tumor, one of the most aggressive brain tumors. He was going to have to reduce his practice at the Bobby Jones Clinic, which had been built in his name after he had sold his practice.
He kept playing the mandolin and working to promote Darin & Brooke Aldridge as their career developed. Dr. Bobby never gave up fighting, or providing his friends and loved ones with the courageous humility his family, friends, and patients knew so well. He died on August 26, 2012. During his viewing, a bluegrass band composed of a rotating group of his old friends played in a side room. There was music everywhere at his funeral.
The good news is that you can still get to know Dr. Bobby, as he was known far and wide. His blog is still online. It introduces you to the world Bobby Jones lived in and Dr. Tom Bibey created. His novel, The Mandolin Case, is available at Amazon. You can get to know this wonderful human being in these creations.
If you want to get close to his spirit, try to find a local picker to take you to the Bomb Shelter in Cherryville, North Carolina, on any Wednesday night. Also, visit the Earl Scruggs Center in Shelby. Dr. B played for 25 years in a band called Flint Hill with Earl’s brother Horace. Dr. Bobby lives on there and many other places, where his good humor as well as his passion for music, medicine, his patients, and, most of all, his family, is remembered. His gentle, loving, and optimistic view of the world deserves recognition in these troubled times as we head toward the celebration of a light coming into the world.