Thursday, June 12: May is the time for
one of our favorite bluegrass festivals –
at Parkfield. It’s been held every Mother’s Day weekend for the
last five years, and my daughter Teri, grandson Mikie and I have
been to the last three.
Parkfield is in the hills directly west of
Avenal and south of Coalinga, but access is via
Parkfield Road off Highway 46 from Cholame, or from San Miguel on US 101. It sits
right smack dab on the
San Andreas Fault, and is a center for earthquake study when a shake is threatening.
Except for impending quakes, bluegrass and the annual rodeo, it’s
a quiet, tiny town of about 30. There is a lot of hay farming and
cattle ranching in the area, and the town has a school, a
restaurant, a motel, and a CDF fire station.
was started by a couple who reportedly were kicked out of another,
big-time festival (Grass Valley, I believe), for being “rude” and other crimes. So they
started their own festival, adopting the motto “More fun, less
rules.” It’s a fairly small, informal and exceptionally fun
festival, and this year was no exception.
The week before
was rodeo weekend, and they had two inches of rain (you
residents will remember our wet April and early May). Since the road
from the main street to the rodeo grounds is dirt, a lot of mud got
moved around – so much that the main paved street looked like a
dirt road when I arrived.
Although most festivals run Friday through
Sunday, the astute fan arrives no later than Wednesday, to ensure a
good camping spot. During the 100 mile drive from
I had light rain for much of the last 25. It was sprinkling when I
arrived, and the effects of the previous weekend’s downpour were
still much in evidence. In some places in the dry grassy camp area,
trailers and motor homes created deep ruts. Over by the rodeo
grounds (another camping area), a large section normally in use was
a combination of mud, straw and horse manure, too deep and gross for
anything less than a Bradley or M60 tank.
I got set up in a fairly dry, solid spot, with
water and electricity (both are in limited supply, another reason
for arriving early). I said hi to a few people I knew from other
festivals, and got acquainted with Ted and Ida, my next door
neighbors. They have a band and play “folkgrass” in Twain
and sing and play very well together. During that first evening they
were joined by dobro player Ivan
Rosenberg, Uncle Slosh himself, who
I visited in
Missoula, Montana, last
Thursday is exploration day, since there are no
official events. The first year we drove up the road that goes to
Coalinga. It turns to dirt as soon as it starts up from the northern
end of the valley, and goes over a pass. Area residents say “never drive on it in the winter.”
In 2002 we took the 24 mile drive to San Miguel, through rolling
hills, hay fields, and oak and pine woodland. This year, I drove
back down the Parkfield road toward Highway 46 a few miles and took some
pictures of the scenery, then went up
Turkey Flat Road, which heads east from
Parkfield Road. The clouds created a dramatic effect
for this photo.
Since Mikie is now in kindergarten, he and his
mother did not come with me, but instead drove over Friday when he
got out of school at 11:30. They arrived during the first
group's performance, so did not miss much.
The rest of the weekend was devoted to some
great bluegrass music, including performances by
whom I have seen a number of times, starting with the second
Mariposa festival I attended back in 1999. Another group that I
first saw in
last October and wanted to see again was Cliff Wagner and the Old
Number 7. He’s from
and does fairly traditional stuff. Ivan played with two groups, Iron
Lasso, which is the latest incarnation of the group he’s played
with at all three festivals; and Chris Stuart
& Backcountry, a group based out of
San Diego, who proved to be very good.
Another group worthy of mention is the Grateful Dudes,
who play every week in a pizza parlor in southern California. The
bass player and lead singer is Bill Bryson, who played with Chris
Hillman in the Desert Rose
Band. He was also with the popular but
now defunct California bluegrass band, The Bluegrass Cardinals,
plays with another southern California group, Laurel Canyon Band,
and performs with an outstanding three-man combo,
Etc., with Dennis Caplinger on guitar and banjo; and John Moore on
mandolin and guitar. I've seen them at two festivals and they are
artist that was new this year was 12-year old Frankie Nagle. As of
2006 she was playing with the northern California group Donner Mountain, who won
the band contest at the Huck Finn festival that year. She has developed into a good
singer and very good banjo player.)
groups that appeared are shown below, and were mostly average.
Aside from the music, we had fun watching Mikie
try to catch lizards. He always brings his net and a plastic bug box
and catches bugs, and he was convinced that he could also catch a
lizard. I assured him they were too quick and too smart, but one
thing I should know by now is that Mikie is not easily discouraged.
At the end of the festival, he went home with two lizards, who are
now enjoying a lazy life eating crickets in a big cage in his
June is the big month for major festivals in
California. The California Bluegrass Association (CBA) puts on an event at
on Father’s Day weekend, and at the same time a private group,
with support from the Southwest
Bluegrass Association (SWBA) sponsors the Huck Finn Festival at
near Victorville. Officially it’s called Huck Finn’s Country
and Bluegrass Jubilee.
Both of these festivals feature some of the
biggest names in bluegrass, with some of the same artists appearing
at both events. The decision on where to go is more a matter of
whether you want to go north or south, rather than who you want to
see. This year’s festivals feature Rhonda Vincent, who is
considered the number one female artist in Bluegrass; Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, a veteran group with many popular
Blue Highway, the Del McCoury Band, and Patty Loveless. Patty is better known as
a contemporary country artist, but had huge success with an
acoustic, semi-bluegrass CD that she released about 18 months ago.
McCoury played with Bill Monroe, and his own group is one of
today's best known.
Since there is a danger that I might at some
point act rude, I knew I had to avoid
Valley, and made my reservation last March for Huck Finn. I set out hoping
the cool weather we’ve been enjoying in
would carry over to the high desert.
My route took me south on California 99 to
Bakersfield, east on CA 58 over
Pass, and through Mojave to US 395 at Kramer Junction. It was 66 degrees
in Tehachapi at 4,000+ feet, but 81 at Mojave, 20 miles and a
thousand feet in elevation down the road. At Kramer Junction I
turned south on 395, then cut across at Adelanto to I-15, south a
couple of exits, then northeast to the festival location.
I arrived about
three and got set up in my reserved
spot. The fellow next to me came over and said, “You know, my
friend Cliff Warner is supposed to be in this spot.” Of course, I
was exactly where the festival staff had directed me, and had a
ticket with number 27 on it, so I figured Cliff was out of luck.
Nevertheless, I rode my bike over to the entry station to let them
know about the discrepancy. About a half hour later a guy in an
orange vest appeared at my door to inform me that they had given me
the wrong color confirmation sheet, and that I should be in B27, instead
I finished dinner, threw everything in the
truck or trailer, took the awning down, folded up the stabilizing
legs, and hitched up to move. The new spot was tight and narrow, and
I had to wind around the “roads” a bit and come in from a
different direction so I could back into the spot, but I eventually
got set up again, only moderately pissed off. As I explained to my
new neighbor, I would really be mad if I had never made a mistake,
but I’m pretty sure I did once.
The weather here is very nice…probably about
85 with a slight breeze this afternoon, and 59 now at . I am comfortable inside in shorts and T-shirt with all the vents
and windows and door open, but having looked at the thermometer, I
now think I need to close the door.
North of where I am now camped is a huge
pasture with horses (just two spaces away). West of us is a very
busy railroad track. I hope it’s not too busy during the music.
One train blasted his horn for 30 seconds straight while I was
trying to talk on the cell phone today.
The location is
flows north from the
San Bernardino mountains, disappearing about 50 miles from the
border. It flows underground most of the way, but comes up for air
in this area, creating a wide river valley with lots of grass and
Friday, June 13: The structure and
format of a bluegrass festival is pretty well formalized,
standardized and choreographed. There are two non-performers who are
essential to the success of any festival. The Master of Ceremonies
introduces the groups and talks, tells jokes and makes announcements
between sets. For the last six festivals I attended, the MC has been
T. J. Lyons, musician, iron worker and president of SWABA. He is
friendly and outgoing, major qualifications for the job.
Even more essential is the sound crew. They
arrive at least one or two days before the festival, set up speakers
and microphones, run cable, and hook up a huge mixing board. Their
job is to make sure the performers can hear themselves and each
other in proper balance through the stage monitors, and that the
sound is right for the audience. Between sets they rearrange
microphones and adjust levels, but the job is not done. Since volume
varies, singers shift around, and microphones get bumped, they must
stand ready to tweak the sound any number of times during a set.
At the last six festivals I’ve attended, Old
Blue of Colorado, ably headed by Art Kershaw, has handled the sound.
Although I have described these two jobs as “non-performers,” I
have seen T. J. with a group called
Crystal River, and Art plays a hell of a mandolin, as well as bass. He used to
perform with a southwestern group, Flint Hill Special. (September
2006 update: The head of Old Blue is actually Dick Curley, although
Art was running things on the ground. He's now moved on to something
else, but Old Blue still provides a guarantee that the sound will be
The performances usually start right on time,
and each group plays for 40 to 50 minutes. Depending on the
schedule, there may be an obligatory encore for each group; or they
may just end their set (at this festival, a few groups got called back
for encores). Then there is ten minutes intermission, while the MC does his
thing and the sound crew sets up for the next group. There are no
prima donnas in bluegrass, so the group just does the sound check
right there in full view…no one descends from the wings on a rope.
A daily schedule may start anywhere between
nine and two, with a later start normal on Friday. Saturday and
Sunday start times are nearly always between nine and ten. The first
few festivals I attended went on till ten at night, but a couple of
them have finished up around six. This allows fans time to fix
dinner and have plenty of time for picking and grinning.
For some, this is the main part of the festival
– the chance to get together and play with old and new friends.
Those of us whose strength lies in listening are the “grinners.”
At each festival there are always a few groups who never attend the
main show; they prefer to spend the time picking.
Prices are very reasonable – the Huck Finn
festival was $50 for the three days, plus Thursday, Friday and
Saturday night camping. Electricity is available at some events, and
at this one it costs $70 extra – fairly expensive considering RV
parks typically charge $18 to $25 for full hookups (water, sewer and
electric). No festival offers sewer hookups, although this one is in
a public campground, where you normally find a sewer dump. There are
no water hookups here. At other festivals it’s been first come,
first served on electrical and water hookups. The festival at Parker
AZ in March had no hookups available.
Of course, there are plenty of opportunities to
spend more money. All festivals feature vendors, selling food,
crafts, musical instruments and CDs, and various other things. In
addition, most of the performing groups have CDs and tapes for sale.
This event has more venders than I have ever seen, plus several
portable ATMs, a climbing wall, and balloon rides. In keeping with
the name, there is also a fence painting contest, raft building
contest, and other events, including a Huck Finn look-alike contest.
(This assumes that someone knows what Huck actually looked like.)
The music is starting, so I gotta run.
: Had some great music today, as well as some average and so-so
music. The best was Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver; in fact, theirs
was the best live bluegrass performance I have seen anywhere,
anytime. They are known for their outstanding harmony, but everyone
in the band is also first rate on his instrument. Doyle has been
touring for 40 years, and has had his own group, Quicksilver, since
1979. As with most bands, members come and go, and some of the
present group were not born or were very young when he started out.
They played two sets, and are heading for
way above average was Karl Shiflett and Big
Country, a group that is also from the east or maybe
Texas. They play a traditional, Flatt & Scruggs style, although Karl
does not measure up to Lester as a vocalist.
The music wrapped up about 8, and was followed
by a Mark Twain impersonator (NOT Hal Holbrook). He was OK, but I
did not stay to the end. One of the groups that played this morning
appeared on a secondary stage last night and again tonight, and I
watched them for a while both nights.
I didn’t get a good night’s sleep last
night, so I will read a bit and try to get to bed early.
Tomorrow’s show starts at 9:30.
Sunday, June 15, 2003
: The music is over, and I had a great time. The big groups
Saturday were Rhonda Vincent and
Blue Highway. I had never seen either group, but have had several of their CDs.
Rhonda was in her family’s band, The Sally Mountain Show, and I
have a videotape
of their appearance on Fire on the Mountain, a show that was
on The Nashville Network in the 1980s, featuring bluegrass and
traditional music. I had not heard of her as a solo act till a
couple of years ago when she started getting a lot of attention for
a couple of bluegrass CDs, after trying a career as a straight
country artist. She is now considered the number one female singer
Blue Highway started up about ten years ago,
and I bought one of their CDs after reading about them in a
bluegrass magazine. Both groups were outstanding, giving clear
evidence of why they are considered at the top of their profession.
I was able to get CDs by both groups autographed.
Today the big event was a rare west coast
appearance by the Del McCoury Band, and a closing show by country
star Patty Loveless, who went “back to her roots” with an
acoustic/bluegrass CD that she released a couple of years ago. She
is an honest-to-goodness coal miner’s daughter and grew up
listening to the Stanley Brothers, Flatt & Scruggs, and other
performed with Bill Monroe in the 1960s, then started his own group,
with moderate success. In the early 1990s he formed a group
featuring his sons, Rob and Ronnie, and they really took off. The
band and each individual member has won a number of awards.
Patty Loveless did the first half of her show
featuring songs from the Mountain Soul CD, performed on acoustic
instruments. The band then switched to electric guitars, drums,
keyboards, etc. and got very loud. A number of people who had been
sitting in the first ten rows or so (including myself), moved to the
back to avoid hearing damage. The songs were good, just too loud up
close. I have three or four of her country CDs.
The most enthusiastic band at this
or any other festival was the Lampkins Family, who I also saw at
NV. They are a mother, father & daughter plus daughter’s best
friend out of
Las Vegas, and 20 year old Jamie
is the spokesman, banjo player and does half the lead vocals. She
has as much energy as a room full of five-year olds! This group won
a four-band competition for an all expenses paid trip to the
International Bluegrass Music Association convention in
Louisville, KY, giving them a chance to rub elbows with top stars, agents and
record company scouts. Most of their music was very fast bluegrass,
but they did a knockout version of the old doowop hit
“Sincerely” that put the McGuire Sisters to shame and gave the
Moonglows a good run for their money.
I will get hitched up and head home right after
Wednesday June 18, 2003
: I had an uneventful trip home on Monday. I got started early,
about, and arrived home at . The total one-way mileage was 255 miles. When I got home, there
were no cars in front of my house in the spot where I need to park
the truck and trailer, so I was unhitched and unloaded
in short order. When I got home from the
Rude trip, a red and white pickup was in my spot. The friends of the
owner, living across the street, would have been willing to move it,
but he had gone to Coalinga (60 miles away) for the week and took
the keys. I had to park facing the opposite way, which meant using
an extra length of electrical cord, and an extra hose when I filled
the water tank. Besides, it just didn’t look right.
A Short, Mostly Accurate History of and
Essay on Bluegrass
There was a time when bluegrass was considered
just another variation of country or hillbilly music, rather than a distinct genre as is now the case. The
“Father of Bluegrass,” Bill Monroe, started out with his
brothers playing typical country music of the day, what is now
generally referred to as “old time” music.
From the start, Bill Monroe established a
hard-driving, high speed sound; but it was some time before anyone
(including Bill) thought that he had created anything new or
different. The band name, The Bluegrass Boys, came from the nickname
Monroe’s home state of
Kentucky. The band achieved its greatest acclaim when Lester Flatt (vocals
and guitar) and Earl Scruggs (banjo) joined up. Earl played in a
“new” style, using a three-finger picking technique rather than
the more common two-finger or clawhammer method. He was not the
first to use this method, but he is certainly the most acclaimed and
is responsible for making it the standard in bluegrass music.
Earl and Lester soon realized they could make
more money as band leaders rather than employees, and left
Monroe, amid a certain amount of acrimony that continued for a number of
years. At first their band, the Foggy Mountain Boys, avoided playing
music associated with
Monroe, but audiences soon began asking for some of those “bluegrass”
songs, meaning songs associated with Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass
Boys. This reportedly was the genesis of the name as a musical
The other group that is considered to be among
the pioneers and greatest practitioners of the music, along with
Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs, is the Stanley Brothers and the
Clinch Mountain Clan. Of these early pathfinders, Ralph Stanley and
Earl Scruggs, both around 80 years of age, continue to perform.
Many other musicians are included in the
“first generation” or early “second wave” of bluegrass
artists – Jimmy Martin, Don Reno & Red Smiley, the Osborne
Brothers, and Jim & Jesse. The latter two groups, and others
that followed, took the music in new directions (and took some heat
for doing so). Even so, they are all considered quite traditional
Over the years there have been some extreme
experiments, including the long-standing Newgrass Revival, and
others of more recent vintage. The debate over what is “real”
bluegrass music has continued for over 30 years and will probably
never end. However, the typical bluegrass band generally avoids
drums and electricity, and includes some combination of guitar,
banjo, mandolin, bass, fiddle and dobro (AKA resonator guitar).
Electric bass is fairly accepted, because of the hassle of carrying
a big acoustic “doghouse” bass around, but the majority still
use the stand-up.
Some bass players have been using standard
electric instruments, the same thing you’d see Bill Wyman or John
Entwhistle play; but recently the hollow-body
“acoustic-electric” bass has seen some use. This instrument
looks like a large guitar and is held on a strap. One player at the
Huck Finn festival had a stand-up electric bass, with the long neck,
but no “box.”
One bluegrass group, plus Patty Loveless (who
is more country than bluegrass) had small snare drums at Huck Finn;
other than this I have not seen drums of any kind used. The first
time someone set up a drum kit at the Grand Ole Opry, they were
nearly run out of town on a rail, but of course, drums are a standard part of
today’s “modern country.”
Most bluegrass fans enjoy older country music,
but us “old curmudgeons” are not too happy with the direction it
has taken in the last decade. Country icon Ray Price calls it
“nothing but ‘70s Rock & Roll.” Give us the honky tonk
sound of the 50s and 60s!
Many bluegrass festivals include performers who
are not exactly bluegrass, but are at least acoustic. Huck Finn
featured two solo artists, one male and one female, who performed
alone with only their guitar as accompaniment. Another group played
music that would be defined more as “old time.” And it’s not
unusual to hear groups whose leaning is more Celtic or Irish. At the
Kings River Bluegrass and Country Festival (held at Hobbes Grove in
Sanger each September), there is more country than bluegrass (and
too much electricity in my opinion).
There have always been mumblings about
bluegrass performers who do “country” songs instead of
“bluegrass” songs – but a study of the Flatt & Scruggs
repertoire reveals many titles that are considered straight country
songs today and were then. More questionable is the adaptation to
bluegrass of songs by the Beatles, Bob Dylan and other such artists.
Such efforts range from laughable to very successful. Flatt &
Scruggs recorded a number of Dylan songs, presumably in an attempt
to be more “up to date” as traditional country and bluegrass
fell out of favor in the 1960s.
Although the acoustic standard is maintained in
99% of what is presented as bluegrass, the overall sound is quite
different from Bill Monroe or Flatt & Scruggs. Some of this is
due to improved recording techniques, but most contemporary
bluegrass has a much more polished sound, both vocally and
If you’re looking for what I think are the
best groups today, go with Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, Doyle
Lawson & Quicksilver, the Country Gentlemen,
and Del McCoury. These are all “big name” bands, but there are
many regional and lesser known artists who are also very good – and
these are the ones you will see at most festivals. For pure country
soul, check out Hazel Dickens, another authentic escapee from the
coal mining life.
Photos (click to enlarge;
photos open in a new window)