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
Ranch Grill (formerly the Parkfield Cafe).
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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
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 fast food joints and gas stations that have grown up by
the freeway ramps.
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
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 town. 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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
Estel, May 2010