Huck Finn Jubilee 2006
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May 30, 2006: Iím all hopped up on bluegrass, because Iíve been working on getting my previous travel reports on line, re-reading about some of the festivals I've attended the last few years. This has got me anticipating the Huck Finn Jubilee June 16-18 in Victorville, and caused me to start this report earlier than ever. Of course, I wonít have much to add until the event starts.

I always want to go the Huck Finn festival, because itís one of the two biggest in California, and offers the biggest collection of big names of any festival. Thereís usually one group Iíve never seen or really want to see again that convinces me to go, and this year is no exception.

Larry Sparks is one of those bluegrass legends Ė he recently celebrated his 40th year of performing, having started with the Stanley Brothers in 1965. One of his big songs is ďTennessee 1949,Ē which is a favorite of mine (actually my favorite version is by the Fox Family, but they have never recorded it). It was written by Pete Goble and Leroy Drumm, who it seems wrote just about half the great bluegrass songs in existence.

In 2004 in Arizona I saw the Lonesome River Band at the Superstition Mountain festival, and Iíve been wanting to see them again ever since. The leader is banjo star Sammy Shelor. A few years ago by mutual consent, everyone except Sammy left the band, and he put together a new lineup. I have CDs by both configurations, and I like the current group best.

As if that were not enough, there are three more groups that Iíve seen and especially liked Ė Laurie Lewis & Her Bluegrass Pals (a Bay Area band), Pine Mountain Railroad, and the U.S. Navy Band, Country Current. The Sunday night non-bluegrass closing act will be Mel and Pam Tillis. (Update: Laurie's group is now called The Right Hands.)


June 11: Five days till departure time. I donít have my trailer here at the house yet. I was going to keep it here from the Parkfield festival in May till this one, but I got a notice regarding the 72 hours parking limit, so I had to put it in storage.

Iím going to Yosemite with my daughters tomorrow for my Fatherís Day celebration, and will get the trailer Tuesday morning. This will give me about two days to get everything ready. Of course, I have a few things in boxes ready to carry out, but canít fill the water tank, check the tires, connect the batteries, or load any refrigerator items till the trailer is here.


June 13: I had a slight delay in getting ready, but everything is on track now. When I got the trailer home, I noticed that tread was peeling off of one tire. This is the third tire this has happened since I bought this set of tires in 2003. RV tires tend to go bad even with relatively low mileage due to long exposure to weather, even if theyíre not used. Supposedly the replacement tires are better and will last longer.

Iíll send this to my mailing list tonight, but there wonít be a second installment till I return, since my camping at Huck Finn is dry Ė no phone, and no electricity except what I generate with $3.25 per gallon gas. Actually the gas in the generator is a few months old, so it probably cost under $3 per gallon Ė small comfort.

We had a good time in Yosemite yesterday. With the heavy rain and snow this winter and spring, and the runoff just past its peak, the falls are spectacular. My older daughter and her husband were there two weeks ago, and she said the mist from the falls is noticeably decreased. Even so we got pretty wet at Bridalveil Falls, which is famous for intense amounts of mist.

We also visited the museum, visitor center and gift shop, and then hiked to the bottom of Yosemite Falls. A new trail was built a couple of years ago. Some people complain about it, but I think it is a nice walk, and the old trail, which is a bit shorter, is still there. Of course, parking close is impossible, even on a weekday.


June 15: I got a good start this morning, leaving at 9:30, which got me here at the festival site around 3:30. Since then I have set up my camp, had supper, taken my chairs to the stage area, and explored the area on my bike.

The festival is ďin Victorville,Ē but actually you would not know that you are adjacent to a city of thousands. Victorville is where the waves of population from L.A. splash up into the high desert, and the road to the park goes through miles of tract housing, with new construction going on.

However, the festival location is Mojave Narrows Park, a large county park in the Mojave River Valley. From my camp area near the park entrance (a half mile from the stage) you can see a row of houses on the edge of the bluff in the distance, but essentially the setting is decidedly rural. There is pasture land with horses, cows and a few camels, as well as several small lakes and a stretch of the river, which runs underground during most of its journey through the desert. At the lakes people can go boating and fishing. There is also horseback riding, and probably more stuff. There is a nice breeze, although the temperature is close to 90, so itís pretty hot in the trailer.

There is an informal musical performance tonight in about a half hour, which I will probably skip. The festival gets underway in earnest tomorrow morning at 11 or so.

Thereís no electricity, and I havenít started my generator, so I am going to shut down my laptop before it shuts itself down.


June 16: I spent a pleasant evening watching an episode of the old 1960s show Combat, which I acquired on DVD in a trade with a collector. An interesting discovery was that this episode (and probably others) was produced by A-list movie director Robert Altman.

I also brought along season two of Arrested Development, one of the most original shows to appear in recent years (needless to say, itís been cancelled). I watched three of these and went to bed around10:30.

This morning is warm with very little breeze, so itís going to be a hot festival in more ways than one. It kicks off at 11 with the Navy Band, one of the best bluegrass groups around. To appreciate their ability, consider first the fact that the group was founded by a professional bluegrass artist who joined the Navy a number of years ago specifically to launch this group. Then consider the number of people in the Navy, and the number who might play and sing, and you realize that there is a huge talent pool to choose from.

A few words about festival hours that I donít think Iíve covered before: Most festivals start on Friday around 10 a.m. The ending time is part of the unique ďpersonalityĒ of each festival. This one will go to nearly 11 p.m. There is a ďdinner breakĒ around 5 p.m. each day. Some festivals wind up the on-stage music around 6 p.m., which allows more time for socializing and jamming. Those festivals often have no lunch break. On Sunday the show usually ends by six, in recognition that some unlucky people still have to go to work Monday morning. The Huck Finn event always features a ďnameĒ country star on Sunday, so it will go till about 8, with Mel and Pam Tillis.

Nearly every festival has other things going on besides the main stage performances. These usually consist of workshops presented by members of the performing groups Ė a guitar workshop, a songwriting workshop, etc. I almost never attend any of these because it is too late and hopeless considering my talent level. I did attend a guitar workshop once and picked up a couple of pointers, one of which would be useful if I knew how to pick melodies, and the other I am too lazy to use.

This festival also has many more activities Ė in keeping with the Huck Finn theme, there is a fishing contest, fence painting contest; as well as nickels in the haystack search, and a Huck Finn look-alike contest (these are all for kids). There are performances on secondary stages by amateur artists, and a music workshop for kids. Add to this balloon rides, horseshoes, log cabin building, quilting demonstrations, arm wrestling, cow chip toss, a car show, and a circus, and thereís no need to spend even a minute actually listing to bluegrass. Of course, thatís just about all I do, except for visiting the food and craft booths.

Tonightís show concludes with a Mark Twain impersonator (not Hal Holbrook, but he has been sued by Holbrook). I saw him the first time I was here, and was not greatly impressed, so Iíll pass on that.


Itís now 8:45 ; Iíve got the generator running and will watch some TV when I finish this. As I expected, my favorite band was the Lonesome River Band (please donít confuse them with the 70s pop group the Little River Band). The personnel of this group has changed quite a bit since I saw them at the Superstition Mountain Festival in 2004. However, banjo wizard Sammy Shelor is the leader and guiding light and molds the band to his specifications regardless of who is in it. One of the better-known alumnus is Dan Tyminski, who has played with Allison Kraus, and did the singing for George Clooney in O Brother Where Art Thou.

The Navy Band was also outstanding as always, and another group I saw at Superstition Mountain, Pine Mountain Railroad, proved again that I was right in listing them among my favorites. They have been around for about seven years, but only recently became an ďovernight success.Ē

The other bands were all contestants in the National Bluegrass Playoff. Each year four bands from the west compete at this festival, and the winner gets an all-expense paid trip to the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) convention in Nashville in October, and the opportunity to be heard by producers and record label executives. This yearís bands are from Idaho, Utah, Arizona, and California. The Golden Stateís entry is the Donner Mountain Band from the Bay Area. Iíve heard them a couple of times, but I did not think they nor any of the other three really stood out above the rest. The judges are members of bands performing at the festival and other music experts.

The weather was TOO HOT, but not unbearable for a San Joaquin Valley boy. To sit close enough to the stage you must sit in the sun, so I poured on the sun screen, wore my big hat, and even put on a long sleeve shirt for part of the day. By the time the evening show started at 5:30, the sun was at a low angle, and shade was moving quickly in my direction, so it was very pleasant for the second performances by the Navy Band, Pine Mountain Railroad, and Lonesome River Band.


June 18: Yesterday was a long day of music, starting at 9:30 a.m. and ending around 11 p.m. The show ran a bit long in the morning, and the only break, scheduled for 40 minutes, was more like 15. I didnít see every bit of the show, but I missed very little. I guess my favorite was Laurie Lewis and the Right Hands. I had not seen her since the Mariposa festival in 1999. Sheís been performing for several decades, and is a great singer and fiddler.

Also meeting expectations was the legendary Larry Sparks. He got his start with the Stanley Brothers in 1965, and has performed with his own group, the Lonesome Ramblers, since 1969. Last year he released a 40th anniversary album, with many big name guests. As might be expected from a long-time performer, his approach is quite traditional.

Everyone was blown away by Bluegrass Etc., whom I saw in Plymouth a couple of years ago. They are a three-man group, but produce as much music as a band twice the size. They do a lot of swingy material, drawing largely from the Bob Wills songbook.

The group that was new to me, although I have read about them, was the Grascals. This is sort of a super-group, in that several of the members, in addition to their bluegrass experience, have toured with one or more of the Osborn Brothers, Larry Cordle, Dolly Parton, Garth Brooks, and Brooks and Dunn. They were a big audience favorite, and Iím looking forward to their final appearance today.

Also on todayís bill is Larry Stephenson, whom Iíve seen on TV but not live. Heís been performing quite a while, and his group includes a singer who was with the Lonesome River Band when I saw them in Arizona.

All the bands in the Bluegrass Playoffs performed another brief set followed by the announcement of the winner. I thought the Donner Mountain Band picked up their performance a bit from the previous day, and they were the winners.

The weather has been HOT and HOTTER. I try to stay in my chosen seat in the sun, since itís close enough to the stage for a good view, and the heat keeps most people in the back, so there is not much annoying chatter around me. However, I had to move back to the shade for a while a couple of times yesterday.

Nights are cool Ė before the show ended last night I put on a long sleeve shirt, and had another one draped over my bare legs.

There was no time last night for TV, and so no time to run the generator. The battery was getting very low during the night, so I dragged out of bed at 7 and started it up; will run it till about 9.


Off on a tangent: A year or two ago I got involved with a video trading group on the Internet. People trade tape or DVD copies of shows that are hard to find, mostly to complete their collections. I acquired several episodes of two shows I enjoyed a few decades ago, Combat and The Invaders. The guy threw in a couple of random DVDs, so Friday night I watched Tales of Wells Fargo, a show Iíd never seen when it was on the air. The young actor playing the bad guy looked familiar, but it was a poor video tape copy, and I was not sure of his identity. The closing credits cleared things up when I read ďstarring Dale Robertson; introducing Steve McQueen.Ē

Another tangent: Between acts Saturday night, we were informed that the International Space Station would be passing overhead at 9:30. Everyone looked up (probably making Larry Sparks wonder what in the world was going on), and we got a good view. It was quite bright, about as bright as Sirius when directly overhead, and moved across the sky in about 20 seconds.


It is now 9 oíclock Sunday evening, and the show is over. The Larry Stephenson band was good, nothing outstanding, but the Grascals put on another great performance and Bluegrass Etc. appeared twice more.

Each year the closing act is well-known country performer. I believe Iíve mentioned that this draws a lot of people who would not come for the bluegrass, so helps to pay for the bluegrass acts. I can take it or leave it, but every Sunday night performer has been great.

Tonight Pam Tillis starting things off, singing a bunch of her hits, mostly from the 1990s, and mostly familiar to me. Then her dad, Mel Tillis took over, and did a bunch of his hits and a couple of newer songs. Since these go back to the 1950s, they are also familiar.

Finally Pam joined him for several duets. As he mentioned, the last two songs they sang, ďDetroit CityĒ and ďRuby, Donít Take Your Love to Town,Ē helped pay the bills for Pam and her four sisters and one brother. If youíre not familiar with Melís work, he also wrote ďSaginaw Michigan,Ē ďIím Tired,Ē ďI Ainít Never,Ē "Diggin' Up Bones," and many other hits. Many of his songs were hits for other performers rather than Mel.

An interesting side note is that Iíve recently seen Mel on a couple of shows on the RFD Network. One of them was probably taped ten years ago, and was mainly an interview, discussing many of his songs and performing a few. The other was the old Porter Wagoner Show from the late 1960s and 70s, when Mel looked younger than Pam is now. In fact, he let us know that he is 73, and he shares my birthday. Well, he didnít mention the latter fact by name, but he did give the date.

I will now get this ready to send, watch a little Arrested Development, and get to bed so I can get a reasonably early start in the morning. 

--Dick Estel, June 2006


(Photos open in a new window)

US Navy Band Country Current Pine Mountain Railroad Donner Mountain Bluegrass Band
Lonesome River Band Laurie Lewis & the Right Hands The Grascals
Larry Sparks & the Lonesome Ramblers Bluegrass Etc. Larry Stephenson
Pam Tillis Mel Tillis Pam & Mel
National Bluegrass Playoff Contestants Audience at Huck Finn's Jubilee
Related Links
Recommended CDs, DVDs, Books
Bluegrass Etc. Grascals Lonesome River Band
Pine Mountain Railroad Bluegrass Festival Guide Huck Finn Jubilee
Mel Tillis Pam Tillis IBMA
Country Current (Navy Band) Larry Sparks & Lonesome Ramblers Laurie Lewis & the Right Hands
Southwest Bluegrass Association Larry Stephenson Band

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