The Rarely Herd

Dalton Mountain Gang

Parkfield Bluegrass 2010

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For the 9th time in 10 years I'm at the annual bluegrass festival in Parkfield.

But first, a little about my second ever non-bluegrass trip to Parkfield. I go to lunch every Friday with a group of fellow Fresno County retirees. We take turns picking the restaurant, and early this year I suggested an outing to Parkfield, home of the V6 Ranch Grill (formerly the Parkfield Cafe).

Clayton, Patrick, Rod and I set off at 10 a.m. on April 16 for the 100 mile trip, arriving a little after noon. Rod had attended dances there 50 years ago or so; the other two had never been to Parkfield before. 

We enjoyed our lunch and all were impressed with the quality of the food, including the best French fries I've had in about 20 years. We then walked around town a bit, took a short drive out the Parkfield-Coalinga Road, and headed home. Along the way we enjoyed a spectacular display of spring wild flowers.

For me, it was a bit strange to see the town virtually empty. Although the population is now listed as 18, when I'm there for the bluegrass festival, it's closer to 800, with trailers, tents, and lots of activity. It was also nice to see the area when it's a little greener than it will be a month later.

May 6
: I got started from home a little before ten a.m., after a fruitless search for my sunglasses, which defied the laws of physics by waking away and hiding somewhere, hopefully in my house. My "indoor" glasses are the kind that darken in the sun, but they adapt to the light inside my vehicle, and are not really dark enough for driving. It was a bit bothersome, but I managed. (After returning home, I looked in every reasonable place and a number of ridiculous places, finally finding them after two or three days.)

Since getting there is supposed to be half the fun, I thought I would write a little about what's along the way on a trip from Fresno to Parkfield. Clovis (where I live) and Fresno (right next door) are located in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley, a huge, flat valley about 250 miles long and roughly 60 miles wide. It's one of the world's primary agricultural areas, so for many miles on a trip out of Fresno in any direction, you will pass orchards, farms and related activities. I go south on State Highway 41, which bends to the west and ends at the Pacific Ocean at Morro Bay. Highway 46 comes in at Cholame from Bakersfield to the southwest, and it's here that I turn north on the Cholame Valley Road towards Parkfield.

The first part of the trip of course is in Fresno County, entering Kings County about 20 miles to the south. There are three towns along the way, two of them very small. The largest is Lemoore, with 20,000. It started life as a farm town, but is now the location of the huge Lemoore Naval Air Station, the land base for many of the planes that take off from aircraft carriers. Next is Stratford, still a very small farm town, and finally there is Kettleman City, which was originally an isolated oil town. With the completion of Interstate 5 through the west side of the valley, a number of towns found themselves next to a freeway, so Kettleman City now consists of the old "downtown" section and, a half mile further on, the cluster of motels, fast food joints and gas stations that have grown up by the freeway ramps.

Leaving Kettleman City also means leaving the valley, as the road climbs up into the once oil-rich Kettleman Hills, a low range of hills that were already brown and dry on my trip here in April. After a short run, you drop down into the Pleasant Valley, which is three or four miles wide and about 40 miles long. At the northern end is Coalinga and in the middle Avenal, both formerly oil towns, but now relying mainly on agriculture. The hills west of this valley were green in April, but are mostly brown now, with just a few significant patches of green on the most shaded slopes.

A short trip over another small range of hills brings you to the Sunflower Valley, which is about two and a half miles across and looks to be no more than five miles long. Rod tells us it used to be filled with sunflowers, but apparently the cows have eaten them all. Here we start to see some green on the western hills, since we are getting closer to the ocean and its cooling effect. At the western edge of this valley the road briefly goes through a corner of Kern County, then into San Luis Obispo County halfway through the pass. This is a longer run through the mountains, probably about five miles, to the next valley and our destination, the Cholame Valley. Here there is still a lot of green grass, but the flowers of April are mostly gone. Cholame is a "town" on the map, but it's really not much more than an intersection.

The road to Parkfield is 15 miles long, flat, narrow, and somewhat rough most of the first four miles. Then you enter Monterey County, where the road has a center line and is a bit wider and smoother. The road goes up the middle of the valley at first, then makes a sharp turn to the west, and north again, skirting the hills on that side. Then it turns sharply east, and finally enters the hills on the east side about five miles from Parkfield. At this point the creek valley is out of sight, but appears to be quite narrow. For the last two miles, the road drops back down to the valley and goes past fields and farms to the turnoff into town. Cholame Road becomes Vineyard Canyon Road and goes about 25 miles to San Miguel on US Highway101, with more level fields the first mile or two. The road into town is Parkfield-Coalinga Road, and goes about five miles up the valley, then climbs over a pass and drops down to state Highway 198 a few miles west of Coalinga. Where it leaves the valley it turns to dirt, and is impassible in wet weather.

When I arrived in Parkfield there was almost a traffic jam, because an antique car club was visiting the town, and had parked so that it was hard to maneuver a large vehicle through the streets. Along with this, the volunteers had not been properly briefed, and were not sure where to put me. I had paid extra for an electric hook-up, and they started to send me toward the powerless boondock camping area. I got this straightened out, backed up a hundred feet in the middle of main street, and pulled into the camping area right next to the festival area. In fact, it turned out to be the best camp site I've ever had at this festival.

I got set up, wandered around a little, said hello to some people I see at nearly every festival, and had lunch. The show started at 2 p.m., before I finished eating, but I could hear the music fairly well from my camp. The opening group was Fine Line from southern California, who I'd never heard of, but they were very good. The next two groups were old familiar faces, including the pride of the Fresno area, the Dalton Mountain Gang, who have been at every festival I've attended since February 2009.

Now it's dinner break, but since I've already eaten, I took some pictures around town for my Parkfield Photo page, and came back to the motor home to get this report started. The weather has been warming up in Fresno, and it's supposed to be around 78 to 80 here. It was quite warm at first, but a strong breeze came up, and it was cool enough for a long sleeve shirt in the shady area where I'm sitting. Of course, like any vehicle, the motor home has been solar heated, but is still very comfortable. I expect to be putting on several layers tonight, with the music going from 6:30 to 9:30.

Later: Over the last ten years I've read and heard about a group from the Ohio-Virginia area called Rarely Herd. I've never seen them, and probably because of their name, never even heard their music. They were the main group tonight, and they get the award as the unknown (to me) group that stands out above all others at the festival.

The other two groups tonight are from northern California, and are familiar from a number of festivals. Since I can hear so well from the motor home, I came back here after Rarely Herd's show, and I'm in for the night.

May 7
: It's been a day of great weather and great music, with still more to come. I've just finished dinner, and the evening performances are about to start. It was a bit cooler in the early part of the day, and a bit warmer in the afternoon. Since I have a shady spot, it was just right for me. Last night it got down to 35 degrees. During the lunch break I did an unofficial count of motor homes, trailers, pickup campers, and tent trailers, coming up with a total of 175. In addition there are people camping in their tents and pickups, and people who just drive in for the day and don't spend the night. 

There were two outstanding groups today, both familiar to me. Snap Jackson and the Knock on Wood Players are a three-person group who do very little bluegrass, but what they do do is very good. It's a mixture of old-time music and gypsy jazz, with a bit of Andrews Sisters harmony influence. I first saw them at the Brown Barn Festival, and will hopefully see them there again in September, as well as my "home" festival at Hobbs Grove. Their web site lists about 50 artists as influences, and I think they left out a few.

I first saw The Brombies here last year, then again at Hobbs Grove. Husband and wife George and Jo Ellen Doering join with ubiquitous bass player Bill Bryson, and highly regarded banjo man Patrick Sauber. They do a mix of originals and traditional songs, and I always enjoy their show.


May 9: It's lunch break on the final day, a day that saw the outstanding weather come to an end. The long-range forecast for today has been a 30% chance of rain, but so far it's mostly sunny, with lots of clouds, a strong wind, and much cooler conditions. It looks like rain could come in, but hopefully it will hold off till the end of the festival, around 6 p.m. today.

The outstanding groups of the festival have been the two nationally known groups, the Rarely Herd, and Don Rigsby, who I saw in Arizona in February; plus the ones previously mentioned, and two "not quite bluegrass" combos, Whiskey Chimp and Black Crown String Band. The Chimp was here last year, and is a seven-man group that includes ukulele, clarinet, and accordion among their instruments. They play some fairly straight bluegrass, some Cajun, some western swing, and some things that can only be described as good acoustic music. The Black Crown is more of an "old time" music group, with some songs that not only display their Irish origins, but conjure up an image of their wild Celtic ancestors of ancient times.

Last night we had a special treat. With the Rarely Herd's set nearing its expected end time, they brought on stage Don Rigsby and two of his band mates, plus dobro sensation LeRoy Mack. They played an extra 40 minutes, keeping the slightly chilled crowd in its seats and calling for more. These bands all know each other, and their paths cross frequently, but it takes just the right combination of scheduling and being the last group of the night for a "supergroup" like this to come together.

Right before the break today we had the annual kids performance, with the usual mix of beginners and those showing real talent and skill. This is a valuable part of the festivals where it's included, since new blood is always going to be needed to keep the music going.

With the first of four groups having finished their set, the rain arrived. It was not that hard, but for some reason musicians don't like their $5,000 instruments to get wet. Although some people left, the show was moved inside the cafe, with the audience filling most of the available space. This proved to be a blessing in some ways. After enduring what looked to be endless conversation by a couple of people at the table where I was sitting, I managed to move up to a place within four feet of the band. It was fascinating to watch the artists closely, and gave me a new appreciation of the skill involved in fast picking and the physical effort that it takes to play an upright bass. It turned out that my favorite act was one that I hadn't liked that much on the main stage the day before. Old Pals is a newly formed group of players who've known and often played with each other, some of them for nearly 50 years. They really seemed to come together as a strong band in this intimate setting.

As always, there are a few people I know here, although I know and see them only through bluegrass festivals. At one of the first Parkfield festivals, my daughter Teri, grandson Mikie and I met Rad and Teele from Tulare, who were missing their own grandchildren and "adopted" Mikie as their bluegrass grandson. They and Teri still exchange Christmas cards, and I see them at many festivals, but they don't get to see Mikie anymore, since if it's not Metallica, he's not interested. One year I did show them the latest batch of photos of him.

Through them I met Mona and Philip, who I've also seen at even more festivals. Philip passed away in March of this year, but their son brought Mona and her trailer here and got it set up, and two of her daughters were here most of the weekend. Both of these couples have been long-time volunteers at the festival, working the gate, spraying the road by the festival entrance to keep down the dust, and other duties as required.

I almost never buy CDs anymore; instead I buy downloads. I find that most CDs only have three or four songs that are really outstanding. However, I came home with three new CDs from this festival. I was really impressed with the lead vocalist for Fine Line, and the group includes a 14-year old mandolin player whose singing ability is well beyond his years. I was really taken with the music of Snap Jackson, so I got their CD. And of course, I have to support our home town group, Dalton Mountain Gang. Actually this one was a gift for a friend who wanted to attend the festival but couldn't.

Now I'm back home and finishing up this report, and looking forward to at least two more festivals this year, Brown Barn Festival at San Martin, and Hobbs Grove in nearby Sanger, both in September. 

--Dick Estel, May 2010

(Photos open in a new window)

Parkfield Lunch Trip          Parkfield Bluegrass
Parkfield Lunch Trip
Poppies and other wildflowers along Highway 41 A mix of orange and yellow Drying hills and yellow flowers
An American avocet in pond by Cholame Valley Road Flowers on green hills near town Branding irons hang from ceiling of cafe
Pat & Rod Rod & Clayton Dick, Pat & Rod
Parkfield Bluegrass Festival
Fine Line Fred LeMasters Virtual Strangers
Dalton Mountain Gang Ella & Tom Naiman Jennifer Kitchen & Kitchen Help
The Rarely Herd Jim Stack Bean Creek
Salt Martians Snap Jackson & the Knock on Wood Players Snap
The Brombies (George Doering,
Patrick Sauber, Jo Ellen Doering
Bill Bryson, Jo Ellen Black Crown Stringband
Tim Hicks, John McKelvy Don Rigsby & Midnight Call Don
Whiskey Chimp Old Pals with LeRoy Mack Craig Wilson & Matt Dudman
Belle Monroe & Her Brewglass Boys Belle Rarely Herd with Don Rigsby
LeRoy Mack & the Bluegrass Gospel Band LeRoy Bluegrass Kids
Twin singers More Kids Hot fiddlers
Picking in the boondocks camping area The fountain is always a kid magnet Not a statue, but a real kid with good climbing skills
The T-Shirt booth Rad, keeping the dust down The Varian Family
Check in booth Entry to the festival area The message board
The audience 2010 Program 2010 T-Shirt
Ready to roll 1921-23 Harley J model Antique, but a beauty

Related Links

More Parkfield Photos Rarely Herd Virtual Strangers
Bean Creek Salt Martians Snap Jackson & the Knock on Wood Players
Belle Monroe & Her Brewglass Boys Brombies LeRoy Mack
Don Rigsby Whiskey Chimp Cholame Valley Road
Dalton Mountain Gang Parkfield Map Buy music from Amazon
Parkfield Events Parkfield Bluegrass

The Brombies (George Doering, Patrick Sauber, Jo Ellen Doering

The fountain is always a kid magnet

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