Marty & Nat tear it up

Bluegrass in the Foothills 2007


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September 12, 2007 : Here I am at the 5th annual “Bluegrassin’ in the Foothills” at Plymouth, on highway 49 in Amador County. This is my 3rd time for this festival; I was here last year and in 2004.

My cousin Don from Oregon came by the house last evening, and we went out to dinner with my daughter Teri and her family. Then we sat around talking a while this morning before he left, so I didn’t get as early a start as I thought I would. Even so, I got here in plenty of time, since my schedule is mainly “when I get around to it.”

I left a little before 11 a.m., came up Highway 99, and took Highway 88 at Stockton. Then it was short jogs on Highways 124, 16 and 49, getting me here around 4 p.m. After I got set up I walked around a little, rode my bike, sat outside reading, and had supper. The weather was quite nice, never over 80 on the way up here. Now at  7:30 it has cooled off to the point where I would be wearing a long sleeve shirt if I were outside (I set the thermometer out after I wrote this and it was 65 degrees).

If time and circumstances permit, I like to go somewhere else in the area, either on the “dead day” before the show starts, or after the festival is over, or both. Music does not start till Friday, so I will go somewhere tomorrow, and I have tentative plans for after the festival. Rather than say what I might do, I will wait till I have done it and tell you what I did.

Setting up required a little more effort than usual this time. I’m a bit farther up the hillside than last year, so I had to block up the wheels on one side. A 2 x 6 or a 4 x 6 are the most I’ve ever needed before, but I had to put two more 2 x 6 boards on top of my 4 x 6’s to get the trailer level this time.

September 13: The other two times I was here, on the off day I headed south on State Highway 49 to Drytown and Amador City, two tiny towns occupied by a number of antique stores. This time I decided to retrace my route here and head back to Ione, 11 miles away.

Geography lesson: State Highway 12 leaves US 101 at Santa Rosa, goes through Napa, and heads west through the Central Valley north of the Stockton Delta. It crosses Highway 99 at Lodi, and eventually goes into the foothills, meeting Highway 49 at San Andreas. My preferred route to the festival calls for leaving highway 99 at Stockton on California 88. A few miles east of Stockton, Highway 12 comes in from the northwest and the two routes are contiguous for several miles. About two miles past Lockeford, 12 continues on toward Highway 49, and 88 takes a hard left, crosses the Mokelumne River, and heads into the foothills.

In a few more miles, state highway 24 leaves 88 and soon passes through the old gold rush town of Ione . About seven miles from Ione, the bluegrasser gets on Highway 16 for about 100 yards, then immediately on to Highway 49, two miles from Plymouth.

Ione is where I spent a couple of hours today, window shopping and sightseeing. Actually, the first thing I did was check for a wireless Internet connection, and I was able to get a free connection and check my Email (there is an unreliable connection at Plymouth that requires a payment of $5 per day).

I walked around the three-block main business section of Ione, and checked out the town park and a thrift shop. I only saw one antique store, and it was closed. Next I ordered a pizza at the Pizza Factory. If you ever find yourself hungry in a small town, look for this franchise. With rare exceptions, they all provide excellent pizza and good service.

The population of the town is listed on the sign as 7,000, but it had the feel and appearance of a much smaller town – probably they are counting a lot of people in the nearby countryside. After passing through several much larger-appearing towns with populations of 2,000 to 4,000, I decided I must have misread the sign and Ione’s people number a little over 700. However, the California Department of Finance, Demographic Research Unit, lists Ione’s population as 7,617.

I was still full from breakfast when I got my pizza, so I brought it back to Plymouth, and by the time I stopped to take some pictures, got gas, and got settled back into camp, it was time for lunch, followed by a nap.

The weather has been excellent. It was 52 during the night, so it was nice to snuggle down into the sleeping bag, quite a change from sleeping without even a sheet all summer in Fresno. The temperature today was around 80. It was almost completely overcast this morning, causing a bit of worry since I got rained on severely at this location the first time, but the clouds cleared away by the time I left on my little trip.

They are going to be showing a movie of a 1970s era bluegrass festival at the stage area tonight, so I will probably wander over and check that out, getting in the mood for serious bluegrass music for the next three days.

September 15: A day of music is behind us, with the second day starting in about an hour and half. As always there were highs and maybe not lows, but certainly mediums. The first four bands were part of the “emerging artist” program – usually new young bands that play for free. The reward for the winner is the opportunity to come back next year and get paid, and to compete in the regional program at the June Huck Finn festival for the chance to present a showcase at the national IBMA convention in Nashville.

The emerging bands were OK, some more than others. The best was the Barefoot Nellies, who have played extensively in the Bay Area. The one needing the most work was the Itchy Mountain Boys, four high school seniors who have been playing together for only two years. However, their female singer was the best female vocalist of the whole bunch – she just did not sing lead enough. She could carry the band until the others learn their instruments better.

The professional bands included some that were new to me and some I’ve seen before. My favorite of the day was Nothin’ Fancy. I had read about the band but had not heard them that I know of (I have bluegrass on XM going in the background a lot, but I’m not necessarily aware of what band is playing). Anyway, they put on an entertaining show with music and humor. Equally good was the Williams & Clark Expedition. They are all long-time musicians, including a banjo player who worked with Lester Flatt, and for ten years with Bill Monroe, and for a number of years with Mike Snider.

The U.S. Navy Band was at the top of the pinnacle as always, although we got some sad news – a couple of its members are getting ready to retire. Hopefully, the second best bass and guitar players in the Navy will step into their shoes.

The weather was cooperative, a bit warm during the middle of the day, but with a good breeze all the time, and cooling off slightly by 3 p.m. In the evening, several layers were needed by the end of the show, but it was never unpleasantly cold.

I’ve been up long enough to shave, exercise and write this entry, now I’ll have breakfast and be ready for much more music.

September 16: It always seems I do pretty good writing every evening the first couple of days, then get busy with the music, eating, miscellaneous camping chores, etc., and don’t write again till the festival is over. This time is no exception. Saturday started out with The Mighty Crows, last year’s emerging artist winner. They were good, nothing special.

The new bands for Saturday were The Bladerunners, IIIrd Generation, Sawmill Road, and Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road. The Bladerunners are from southern California and are all second generation performers. Pat Sauber of this group was in the movie A Mighty Wind, and appears on the soundtrack of Wild Hogs.

My favorite was Sawmill Road, which includes several musicians I am familiar with. Lead singer Steve Spurgin is a well-known singer-songwriter. Banjo player Dick Brown was a long time member of one of my favorite bands, Lost Highway. I’ve seen fiddler Bruce Johnson in other bands, although I don’t recall which ones. And singer-guitarist Charlie Edsall played with Ron Spears and Within Tradition for a number of years – sort of a mid-level bluegrass supergroup.

Carolina Road is from – obviously – the Carolinas, and are a great traditional band. IIIrd Generation falls into the category of good, not spectacular.

Today’s (Sunday) highlight was Kids on Bluegrass, one of the best performances in this program that I’ve seen. Of course, what the younger ones lack in skill, they make up in cuteness, so their performance always goes over big with the audience. This is a project directed by Frank Sollivan Sr. Working with the kids on Friday and Saturday, he does not teach them to play. His contribution is to teach them to work together as a band, help with song selection, and schedule who will sing what and when. It’s a great program, and more than anything, helps to ensure the future of the music. The success of the program can be judged by the fact that his son, Frank Jr., is a member of the Navy Band.

I had a pleasant surprise yesterday. I was watching the morning show when I heard my name called – and there was Bryce Green, a member of my high school class. Like most of my classmates, I’d seen him only once or twice over the 50 years since we finished high school, but we’d talked briefly at a funeral several months ago, and discussed bluegrass at our 50 year reunion in June. He and his wife, Alma Rhoan Green, had gone to their first bluegrass festival in February, and had a good time. I told them about this festival and encouraged them to attend. Their schedule made it impossible to decide in advance, and they were able to come only for Saturday. We had a good visit, had dinner together, and agreed that we should return next year.

September 17: More geography: California Highway 49 is known as the Golden Chain Highway, and also as the Mother Lode Highway. It more or less parallels the Mother Lode, which is a mile wide network of gold-bearing quartz that runs from Mariposa, 120 miles north to Georgetown.

This area in the Sierra foothills produced millions and millions of dollars worth of gold, starting with the California gold rush of 1849. Most of the towns along the highway originated as gold mining camps, and many got their start with names somewhat more colorful than they carry today. Placerville was Hangtown; Plymouth was Pokerville; Bottileas (named for the empty beer bottles scattered around) became Jackson; and Jimtown was formalized into Jamestown. Once the wild and wooly miners of gold rush days were replaced by civilized folks and the bawdy houses and saloons by churches and schools, the citizens felt that those early names were no longer appropriate.

I’ve traveled most of Highway 49, never all at once, and most of it not recently. Until about 1960 the southern terminus was Mariposa; at that time the road to Oakhurst was improved and became the final segment of the Golden Chain.

Highway 49’s northern beginning is at Vinton on Highway 70 in Plumas County, a few miles west of US 395. However, this is quite a ways north of Georgetown and well past the actual Mother Lode. Georgetown itself is not actually on Highway 49, but is about 25 miles northeast of Coloma, the original gold discovery site, on Highway 193.

Today I went south on Highway 49 from Plymouth to Columbia, a state park and one of the state’s best preserved gold rush towns. Columbia is also not actually on the highway; it’s about two miles to the northeast, and less than ten miles from Sonora, the county seat of Tuolumne County

Before arriving here I went through the Amador County seat of Jackson, about ten miles from Plymouth , through Mokelumne Hill, the original county seat of Calaveras County, through the current county seat, San Andreas, and through the town of Angel’s Camp, home of the celebrated "Jumping  Frog of Calaveras County."

The highway bypasses the main street of many of these towns, and there is a new bypass that completely misses Amador City and Sutter Creek, two towns I’ve visited before during the bluegrass festival.

I stopped in Mokelumne Hill and walked down the old main street, but this is pretty much a ghost town. I chatted briefly with an old gentleman who seemed to be the proprietor of a junk shop; he and a man working in his yard were the only citizens visible. There were some men working with a backhoe, and a Calaveras County sheriff’s car drove around the town several times. The junk wrangler and I concluded that he was probably lost. Actually there is a small commercial section right on the highway, a quarter mile from the old town center.

At San Andreas I stopped and got lunch at a Subway, then drove on down the road to a better stopping place to eat. I finished the day’s drive, about 60 miles, just at 1 p.m., check-in time at the RV park where I had made a reservation.

After getting set up, I drove the half mile to downtown Columbia, and did the tourist thing for a couple of hours. There are several eating places, souvenir shops, and a candy store now operated by fourth generation owners, where I invested in some almond bark and peanut brittle.

I made a few other purchases, mostly edible, had an ice cream while sitting on a shady bench, visited the old school house (a half-mile drive up a hill) then came back to the trailer for some reading, a short nap, and work on this report. We have free wireless internet access here, so I shall now go on line and delete the dozens of junk Emails that have no doubt piled up since Thursday.

September 18: Today I continued down Highway 49 to Mariposa, where I’m camped at the fairgrounds (they offer RV hookups when there are no conflicting events). I was going to go home, then go to Mariposa from Fresno Thursday, but decided to come straight here and get in an extra day of work in Mother’s house. Tomorrow my younger daughter and her husband, Rod & Jennifer, will come over after work and we’ll have Jennifer’s birthday dinner, five days early.

Highway 49 is never a high speed road, but the middle part of today’s trip has the reputation of being exceptionally slow, narrow, and winding, and it certainly was that. Of course, I have driven over it before, but never with a trailer.

Once I left Columbia and got past Sonora and Jamestown, I went through the smoothest part of the entire trip as far as travel was concerned – there is a stretch of about ten miles that goes through a wide, rolling valley, with gentle curves and speeds of 55 MPH even with a trailer.

However, once the road descends to the Tuolumne River and Lake Don Pedro, all bets are off. It climbs a steep section from the Moccasin Creek complex (power house and fish hatchery), then drops down into Coulterville, a once bustling, now very sleepy gold rush town that is the “capitol” of northern Mariposa County. The road climbs up from there, and drops down the steepest and deepest stretch of all into the Merced River Canyon, crossing the upper part of Lake McClure at Bagby.

This was once a station stop on the long defunct railroad from Merced to El Portal, just outside of Yosemite Valley. It was also a popular fishing, swimming and camping spot, in the days before Exchequer Dam was raised, and the upper end of the lake was still downstream a few miles. My aunt and uncle and their kids used to come from San Diego to camp there, and we made a number of fishing/picnicking trips during my early childhood.

Once the dam was raised, the old bridge was flooded out, along with what little remained of the town, and a bridge now crosses high above the water. It's impossible to even tell where the camping area was. On the south side of the bridge is the start of Bagby Grade, the steepest and most winding section of all, a few miles up out of the canyon to Bear Valley. However, I took it easy and made it with no trouble.

I made a number of stops along the way, the most interesting of which was near the top of Bagby Grade. When I was a kid I had been told that there was a place on the grade where you could see into Yosemite Valley. About a year or so ago Leroy Radanovich, historian and keeper of all Mariposa information told me how to find the spot – a short walk past a gate across from where the Pine Tree Mine used to be. I found the gate, and in less than 100 yards I was looking at a very hazy and distant view of El Capitan and Half Dome.

Since my dad worked at that mine in the 1940's, I walked down the weed-grown dirt road to the mine site to see what I could see. Nothing remains but some concrete foundations and piles of dirt, but in its day, it gave up a large amount of gold. It was originally owned by John C. Fremont, who had his headquarters nearby at Bear Valley.

I traveled the much straighter and faster final 15 miles or so to my destination with no further stops, arriving around 1:30. Since the rest of my time here is mainly business, I will end this report here.

--Dick Estel, September 2007


Itchy Mountain Boys Rita Hoskings & Cousin Jack Julay Brooks & the Nightbirds
Barefoot Nellies Williams & Clark Expedition The Mighty Crows
Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road
Nothin' Fancy Flint Hill Special Sawmill Road
Charlie Edsall & Dick Brown of Sawmill Road Sawmill Road & the Anderson Kids U.S. Navy Band
Navy Band with Carl Spagter IIIrd Generation Kids on Stage (Meagan)
Kids on Stage (Marty) Marty & Nate tear it up Anderson Kids
Kids on Stage encore The Bladerunners City of Plymouth sponsorship sign
Big Block Trailer Old shed on Highway 24 northeast of Ione Countryside between Ione & Plymouth
Old fence at the edge of
Plymouth beside Highway 49
Old Dodge Brothers truck finds the
end of the road in Mokelumne Hill
Columbia opts for a slower pace
Inside the Wells Fargo office in Columbia The Fallon Opera House Mariposite rock outcropping by
Highway 49, between Coulterville & Bagby
Dick's truck & trailer by Highway 49 View of the Merced River Canyon,
Yosemite Valley in the distance
Concrete & rock work at the site of the Pine Tree Mine
The notorious Bagby grade;
new bridge visible in the distance

Related Links


Recommended CDs, DVDs, Books

Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road Williams & Clark Expedition Nothin' Fancy
The Mighty Crows Highway 49 Mother Lode
Columbia Columbia State Park California Gold Rush
Plymouth Mokelumne Hill Jackson
San Andreas Angel's Camp The Celebrated Jumping Frog
Sonora Jamestown Mariposa
Dick's Bluegrass Links Coulterville Another Mariposa Site
Bagby Bagby Again More About Bagby
Yosemite Valley Railroad More about the Railroad    

Nothin' Fancy

Charlie Edsell & Dick Brown of Sawmill Road

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