Barn Bluegrass Festival
year I had never heard of the Brown
Barn Bluegrass Festival, Jake
Quesenberry, or the town of San
Martin. Having won tickets to the 2009
festival, I decided to attend, and enjoyed it so much I
returned this year as a paying customer. And it is my
favorite of the five festivals I've attended this year.
the location was new to me, all but the last two miles of the route
are very familiar - north from Fresno on CA 99, west over Pacheco
Pass on State 152, then north a few miles on US Highway 101.
Martin is a small town located about a mile west of Highway 101,
halfway between Gilroy and Morgan Hill, a drive of a little over 125
miles from my home in Clovis. The setting is the Ludewig Ranch Park, a small privately owned park. Since you can't camp before
Friday, I set out about 10 a.m. on September 10, and arrived about
12:30. Everything is very informal, and after checking in, you just
pick a spot on the grass to set up your RV or tent.
year I mentioned that the
barn is actually red, and one of this year's MCs explained the
color discrepancy - it seems that Jake was color blind and really
thought the barn was brown. By the time someone corrected him,
flyers had been printed, and everyone decided to leave well enough
"official" start of the festival is not till 9 a.m.
Saturday, but Friday night features an open mike event, at which any
group of musicians can sign up to do a 20-minute set. Although the
talent at last year's open mike was notably at the amateur level,
there was a bit more planning this year, and any of the Friday
this year could have performed as part of the festival.
impressive was Luke Abbott, a young man who sang solo, accompanying
himself on banjo, guitar, or fiddle. In fact, he performs
professionally with a family band as well as solo, and teaches music
throughout the west. For one song he was joined by the amazing AJ
Lee who was here last year, and who will be mentioned later in this
report. At the age of 12, she was named female vocalist of the year
by the Northern California
entire Friday show, from 7 to 9, was good, and instead of heading
back to the motor home early like I did last year, I stayed for the
whole two hours.
year there were only about three groups here I'd ever heard of, but
at the end of the festival I said I would attend again if it were the exact
same lineup. This year there were 15 different groups, six of which
I was familiar with, and again I make the same statement.
the big crowd pleasers was OMGG (Obviously Minor Guys and a Girl),
which consists of the aforementioned AJ, 16 year old Nate
his 11 year old brother Max, and 14 year old
Varner. I had
seen the boys as part of the Kids on Stage presentation at the Plymouth
Festival, but AJ was new to me at last year's Brown Barn, and
I was blown away by their performances. They have all become even better
this year, and should be entertaining bluegrass fans for decades to
and Max also appeared with Oak
Grove, which includes their parents
and six year old sister, and again it was another of those pleasant
surprises. The other outstanding group that was new to me, was Windy
Hill, which includes three young men who attended high school
together (not more than a half dozen years ago, I'd guess), plus
Yoseff Tucker and Ella Naiman of the Dalton Mountain Gang, the number
one bluegrass band in Fresno.
back for another year was Angelica
Grim and Friends. Angelica was one of the "kids on
bluegrass" from an early age, and now performs professionally.
Her husband, TJ Doerfel, is part of a musical family, and they spend
much of their time in the Midwest, but Angelica returns to her roots
for the Brown Barn Festival, this time bringing TJ and their 8-month
old son Jake. She performed with various local artists, including
Luke Abbott, Molly
Tuttle, and AJ.
was also another Fresno band I like very much, the old-time music
ensemble Red Rag Andy
Band. Barry Schultz, the spokesman and main singer, usually
gives a little history of each song, and more often than not it
starts of with "this song dates from the 19th century..."
Despite their age, some of these songs are familiar, having become
part of the bluegrass repertory.
give another shout-out to Snap Jackson and the Knock on Wood
Players, who were here last year and also played this year at
Parkfield. They are a three-man group from Stockton whose musical
style defies description, other than to say it is rousing and always
gets an enthusiastic reception. Chatting with Snap, I told him I had
a hard time explaining his music to people, and he said they have
the same problem..."just come and see us and find out!"
stage, Snap told how his best friend in 8th grade belonged to a
family who were all Grateful Dead fans. Snap also enjoyed the Dead,
and the father of the family suggested he might want to check out
one of Jerry Garcia's side projects, the bluegrass group Old and in the Way. As Snap explained it, "When I heard that, I said
'That's what I want to do'...and that's how a Mexican boy from Stockton
became a bluegrass musician."
excellent band, that I've seen several times over the last dozen
years, is Sidesaddle
and Company, based in the general area of Santa Cruz-Hollister.
They've been around for 20 years or more, and did a great job this
"only at a bluegrass festival" moment came during the
performance of the Pleasant
Valley Boys, who take a traditional approach. They've recently
released a recording - not a CD, not a vinyl album, but a 78
RPM record. Even I don't have anything to play that on, but it's
good to preserve history like that.
enough, the best set of the festival was the Saturday night closer,
the Dalton Mountain
Gang. They were received with loud enthusiasm,
and it seemed to inspire them to play the hottest set I've ever seen
them do (and they have been at every festival I've been to in the
last year except one). Happily, DMG, Red Rag Andy and Snap Jackson
will all be at the Hobbs Grove festival, 20 miles from my house, at
the end the month.
usually do, I stayed over Sunday night, but the place is nearly
deserted. I think a large majority of the attendees live in the Bay
Area, so it's not too far for them to drive to get home tonight.
There is one other trailer, a van, and a few cars still here, but
otherwise everyone is gone.
weather was good to great throughout the festival. We've had a nice
breeze with the ocean only about 25 miles away. On Sunday morning it
was foggy, but it burned off by 11 a.m. Monday was also foggy, but
not detrimental for driving, and it stayed that way through my trip
to Watsonville and most of the day.
the festival ended, I did not head home on Monday, but instead drove
south a few miles, then west on State Highway 152 over Hecker Pass
to Watsonville. This is a narrow, winding road, forbidden to
vehicles over 45 feet in length, but I had no trouble with my
28-foot motor home. The road rises to 1300 feet at the pass, and
goes through dense forest, marked by coast redwood trees. It drops
down quickly on the west to the level country around Watsonville,
where it ends at State Highway 1, more commonly called the Pacific
Coast Highway (PCH).
destination was Pinto Lake
Park, a public park with a small natural lake and a
full-service RV park. There's another route from 101 to State 1 just
a little farther south that is accessible to long vehicles, and I
had brought directions for that route instead of the route I took. However, with the help of my
GPS I easily found my destination, and got set up a little before
made arrangements to get together the next day with Gerry and Linda
Barnes Davis (she was in my high school class), so I called them and
we made arrangements for them to pick me up Tuesday to go out to
arrived about 10:30 and we drove south a few miles on the PCH to Moss
Landing, where our destination was Phil's
Fish Market. Although I had never before stopped in Moss
Landing, I had heard of Phil's, because they have bluegrass music
there several nights a month, and one of the groups at Brown Barn
had mentioned that they played there.
a nice lunch (fish and chips for me), walked out on the beach
behind the restaurant for a short time, then headed back to the RV
park. Along the way we drove past many acres of strawberries, as
well as a big field of Brussels sprouts, and various other crops.
Throughout the area there are also many acres of berry bushes, all
under canvas or plastic "sheds."
we got back to Pinto Lake we sat outside and visited for a while,
talking about old times in Mariposa. Linda and I both played in the
school band and a town band, but I sold my trumpet decades ago.
Linda, however, still plays saxophone in a local band in
After Linda and Gerry said their goodbyes and
left, I spent the rest
of the day reading, napping, and for a while, watching a Little
League baseball game. This park includes a very nice ball
with outfield fences, bleachers, and covered dugouts.
was fog at Watsonville both mornings, but it cleared off each day. On Tuesday it
broke up a bit earlier than before, about 10 a.m., but there is
always a slight breeze and sometimes a strong one, with the ocean
just a mile or so away.
Wednesday morning I got up about 8:30 and got started for home by 9:30.
For variety I took State highway 129 over to US 101. This is another
scenic drive that follows the Pajaro River most of the way, and goes
through berry farms, then enters a narrow canyon, which opens up to
more agricultural land before it gets to 101. From here I zigged and
zagged across short sections of several highways before getting back
to state 152, which took me back over Pacheco Pass to the San
Joaquin Valley and home.
After eight days back at
home, I set out Friday about 10:30 a.m., September 24 for the
Hobbs Grove Bluegrass Festival. My friend and sometimes traveling
companion, Janell Sidney, had taken the day off from work so she could
attend the entire festival for the first time.
The route to this
location is quick and easy, only 20 miles from home, south for ten
miles on Clovis Avenue, then east toward
the town of Sanger another ten miles on Central Avenue. About a half
mile from the festival location it becomes Goodfellow Avenue, and
there you are at Hobbs
We got there a little
after 11. Since the music didn't start till 3:30, we had plenty of
time to get set up, walk around a little, and fix dinner. Janell
brought stuff to make some excellent chicken tacos.
Several of the groups
here were ones I had seen two weeks earlier at the Brown Barn
Festival, but there were also several I had not seen or heard
anywhere. The thing both Janell and I commented on at the end of the
festival was that every
group was good to excellent, no "average" or below work.
We were particularly impressed with the first group, Highway 65
from Bakersfield, who performed and dressed in traditional style.
Probably my favorite
"partly new" group was The Tuttles with AJ
mentioned Molly Tuttle and AJ Lee before, and saw them with Angelica
Grim at Brown Barn both years. Molly has two brothers, 15 year old
Sullivan and 12 year old Michael, who are among the best young
players (guitar and mandolin respectively) I've ever seen. Their
father plays fiddle and bass, and sings, along with AJ and Molly.
They appear regularly around the Bay Area.
We also were impressed
Special, another San Francisco group, and Belle Monroe and
her Brewglass Boys, also from the Bay Area (I saw them at Parkfield). The
most pleasant surprise was Smiley
Mountain, a group I've seen a
number of times. I had them ranked squarely in the
"average" category, but they have had some personnel
changes, and they are much better in my opinion (without saying the
changes are necessarily the cause). They had a new fiddle player, a
Fresno guy, who was the best fiddler at the festival. They also had
a guest bass player, Tom Phillips from Mariposa, whom I've known a
few years. He drove down with another Mariposa musician I know,
Charlie Wildt, so we had a nice visit with them before the music
Of course, I greatly
enjoyed three favorites from Brown Barn - Red Rag Andy, the Dalton
Mountain Gang, and Snap Jackson. Janell had seen the first two, but
became an instant Snap Jackson fan, declaring it her favorite group
of the festival.
This is a nice, relaxing,
low-key festival, with plenty of shade in the audience area, and
pleasant rural surroundings. One of the hired security guards for
Friday night was my friend Ike, who I'd seen there last year. We
worked together for the county, and he has
also worked with Janell and knows her well, so it was nice to have a
short visit with him.
The festival ended a bit
earlier than most, about 3:15. We had most of our stuff ready to go,
so it took only about 15 minutes to get ready and get on the road
for the 20 mile drive back to my place. After unloading the motor
home, I fixed some dinner, and we took it easy until Janell's
daughter came to pick her up at 5:30.
There are more festivals
this year, mostly in Arizona, but I think it's time to give myself,
the motor home, and my patient readers a rest, so this will probably
be the last big trip of any kind this year. But be forewarned - a
really BIG trip is in the works for 2011.
--Dick Estel, September