An Alabama treasure was lost when William Eugene “Gene” Ivey, 88 of Ider, Alabama, passed away on March 16, 2014. His influence in the areas of instrument making, fiddling, teaching, and the traditional music culture of Alabama’s Sand Mountain region, were wide and diverse, reaching people spanning from the beginning fiddle player, to the luthier student learning to craft instruments, to players of all instruments at all levels. He was one of a kind. He was always welcoming to everybody, and encouraging them to play. Gene was truly an amazing man, and music was a huge part of his life. He gladly shared his stories of how he came to play music, how he came to make instruments, and other life experiences.
Saturday jamming at Gene’s workshop in Ider was a wonderful experience. His house was in a very rural area up on Sand Mountain. He lived down a dirt road, with a homemade sign that read “Drive Slow. Dust Zone.” His workshop was just to the side of his house. Each Saturday would be different. There at his workshop, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, was all this music. Dobro players, fiddlers, banjo players, mandolin players, upright bass players, and guitar players, some from surrounding states, would venture over to play with Gene. Bluegrass tunes, old-time fiddle tunes, Irish tunes, blues, gospel songs, waltzes, breakdowns, and old Arthur Smith tunes are just a few that come to mind when I remember these jams. Lots of singing too. His wonderful wife Louise would be right up in there singing, along with other friends. I loved singing “Camping in Caanan” with her. Louise passed away a few years ago. She was a real sweet lady.
On one occasion, I remember bringing my two young sons, then about ages four and six, with me, and before we left, Gene went over to his garden and picked a few cantaloupes and gave them to the boys to take home and eat. This was Gene.
Once a year, Gene would call everyone and invite them to Fiddler’s Picnic, held the third Saturday in July at Ider Community Park. Players would start showing up about nine o’clock in the morning, and break off into jam groups, spreading out all over the park. Everyone would bring a potluck dish, and at noon jamming stopped, grace was said over the meal, and everyone ate lunch. Once appetites were quenched, the music resumed, going until about three in the afternoon. These picnics were a huge social event. Friends got to visit, play tunes with each other, and meet new people too, as kids roamed and played on the park’s playground. Crowds varied over the years, but usually about 100 people attended this event.
Gene was a member of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, listed as a master fiddle maker, and his instruments have been displayed at the Smithsonian. He made mandolins, guitars, fiddles, and an assortment of other instruments, his technique mainly self-taught. Gene was the kind of man who could craft just about anything he needed. Some people can just look at a tool, a design, or realize they need something, and just go make it. At one jam, he had an enormous ice cream maker over in the corner of the shop. He designed it for making ice cream to sell at Ider Park during their annual Mule Days celebration. It looked like a 40-gallon drum he had mounted a motor on, with a fan belt, and would make an enormous batch of ice cream in one batch. I had never seen an ice cream maker this big, all home-made.
One night, Gene had the tragedy of his workshop catching on fire when he was asleep. He and Louise slept right through most of the fire, and the local fire department knocked on their door and woke them up. A neighbor had seen the fire burning and called the fire department. Gene’s shop burned to the ground, and it was a total loss, instruments and equipment included. This was just a setback, and being the man he was, the next year he rebuilt the entire shop, and started again making his instruments.
Gene was a man of faith, who served as deacon of Five Points Baptist Church. A veteran of the US Marines, Gene fought in hand-to-hand combat in the South Pacific during World War II. He had owned Ivey’s Service Station and Tire Center for many years. He was also a master mason and member of the Ider Ashlar Lodge, and a charter member of the Ider Rescue Squad.
With Gene’s passing, the music community experiences a great loss. During his 88 years, he influenced so many people. I wonder just how many people crossed paths with him over the years. This humble, smart, polite Southern gentleman, this amazing craftsman, this teacher, this wonderful Sand Mountain native musician, who introduced so many to his culture of music and craftsmanship, has left us. Alabama has indeed lost a true treasure.