Amber Rose & the Gold Rush

Wagon wheel gate north of town

Parkfield Bluegrass Festival 2015


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May 7, 2015: It's time for the 17th annual Parkfield Bluegrass Festival in the coastal foothills of Monterey County. This will be my 14th time here; I missed the first two, and the 2007 event.

The festival has had some ups and downs over the years. After five or six years the original promoters needed a break, so they turned it over to another couple. For whatever reason, they decided to move it to Paso Robles and call it the Mid-State Festival. However, someone else decided that Parkfield was too good a place to abandon, and quickly organized a festival there a week after the Paso Robles event. Whether it was confusion, competition or other factors, the Mid-State Festival lost money and was never held again.

Meanwhile Joe Quealy, long time bluegrass fan and festival sound man, took over as promoter and kept the event going for several years. Eventually health and other issues caused him to step aside. By this time the event had a loyal following on the central coast, where a group of fans banded together as the Bluegrass Music Society of the Central Coast (BMSCC). They put on concerts and other events, but their main focus is the Parkfield Festival, and they've had enough success that it set a new attendance record in 2014.

So far, at 5:40 p.m., this year's event is not what anyone wanted. Thunderstorms were forecast for the area, and it rained on and off during my drive from Fresno. It was dry and sunny in the middle of my trip, but sprinkles started as I drove the 15 miles from Highway 41 to the town. This continued for a while, then about 4 p.m. a hard steady rain set in.

The musicians are performing in the cafe, and I walked over there early in the afternoon, but it was standing room only, and not much of that, so I've been reading, eating and watching TV. Since all of today's groups will appear again, I'm staying right here for the rest of the day, though I'll try to tune in the local FM broadcast of the music when it starts up again at 7.

Aside from the puddles and rivulets caused by the storm, it's one of the driest years I've seen here, no surprise with California in the fourth year of a severe drought. There is no green left on the hills, and no flowers, although it looks like there was a fair hay harvest, with most of the crop cut and some of it baled.

It also looks right now like there are not as many trailers and motor homes as usual, at least in the area where I'm located, just back of the cafe and stage. During a break in the rain earlier I walked around, and saw only two or three tents, but tent campers might well take a look at the forecast, and wait till tomorrow or Saturday, when the chance of rain is a minimal 10%.

May 8: The big rain stopped about 6 p.m., but there were showers off and on into the night. In the morning it was cloudy and damp but no rain was forecast. Even so the morning show was held in the cafe, which was good for the people who got there in time to get a seat, but less so for the two or three dozen who had to stand, and the ones who couldn't even find standing room. I went early enough to be one of the lucky ones and saw all three of the groups on the morning program.

The best of these was Steep Ravine, which was at Parkfield last year. They have an excellent lead singer, and were joined this year by a sensational mandolin player, Tristan Scroggins, who was here last year with a different group. Steep Ravine does a variety of styles, from straight bluegrass to Django Reinhardt.

Also performing were the Brothers Barton, whom I've seen several times in the past. They did too many "progressive" instrumentals, but played bluegrass very well when they played it.

Finishing the morning program was Amaya Rose & Gold Rush, with ages ranging from 13 to 17. These are kids who got their start in the "Kids on Stage" programs, mainly at the Father's Day Festival in Grass Valley. Amaya is a good fiddler and decent singer at 16, and shows a lot of promise for the future.

May 9: With no rain in sight, the rest of the festival took place outdoors as scheduled, with the musical performances ranging as usual from fair to excellent. Two groups stood out. Snap Jackson and the Knock on Wood Players were making their seventh consecutive appearance at Parkfield. Snap had an emergency appendectomy just over a week before the festival, and was under doctor's orders to take it easy He could perform but had to do it sitting down, a bit of a challenge for most bluegrass musicians, and could not play his large banjo, which weighs around twelve pounds. Despite the limitations, they sounded as good as ever, and brought for sale their latest CD, recorded live at last year's Parkfield event.

The other excellent group was Bluegrass Etc., another group I've seen several times. In the past their bass player was Bill Bryson, who performs with many groups, but he's been replaced by Steve Spurgeon, a singer-songwriter who's created hits for a number of country artists. His best known work is "A Walk in the Irish Rain," which has been done by a number of groups, and is now considered somewhat of a traditional Irish song. The other two members are Dennis Caplinger, an outstanding banjoist whose playing can be heard on The Simpsons and other TV shows, and John Moore, an amazing guitar player and singer. I name him the best vocalist at the festival.

Links below will give you information on all the artists, so I'll just briefly mention a few more. Bean Creek and Sidesaddle and Co., both from the central coast area, have both been performing for decades and always put on a great show. Touted as a special event, the appearance of Joe Craven gets mixed reviews from me. From what I can understand, Joe is from the Bay Area and performs in all genres. He put together a group with two other musicians just for this festival. My take was that they were very skilled, but played stuff that I did not enjoy very much. They are on the edge of being an acoustic jam band.

Next Generation is a young group, four of the five members 21 or younger, most of them sons of established bluegrass musicians. I witnessed the "birth" of this band when they performed as an informal group, playing songs between sets at Summergrass in 2010 to demonstrate instruments that were being given as raffle prizes. As would be expected, they have improved and come together as a real band in the five years since.

May 10: I managed to get in my daily walk every day, thus touring Parkfield and the nearby roads. The first day I just walked around the area close to the stage, a good thing since it started to rain again shortly after I returned. On Friday I walked out to the bridge that crosses Cholame Creek where the road to Parkfield comes in from Cholame Road. By crossing the bridge, I moved from the North American Plate to the Pacific Plate and back, with no shaking in evidence. Saturday I went north from town on the Parkfield-Coalinga Road, one of the more scenic walks, with rounded hills that rise suddenly and steeply from the level valley. Sunday was my full festival grounds tour - down the road that leads to the "boondocks" camping area (next to the rodeo grounds), then around the block that contains the tent camping area, showers, some motor home sites, and the old wooden water tower, with its fading Shell Oil sign. On this walk I met two young boys on bikes, one of whom went out of his way to ride through a puddle that I went out of my way to avoid.

Despite my initial impression, I believe attendance was as good as ever. The audience area seemed to be filled to capacity for the more popular bands. At what used to be the farthest camping area by the rodeo grounds, access had been provided to an adjacent field, where there were a dozen or so RVs.

The rain washed out the first day for me, but I've always contended that bluegrass festivals should not start on Thursday anyway, so I just enjoyed TV and reading. The bonus from the storm was cool weather until the middle of the day on Sunday, at which time I was ready to leave anyway. The clouds and rain also made for a very cool first night, with the temperature at 50 degrees inside my motor home. I used my propane heater at night and in the morning the first two and a half days, but didn't need it Saturday night or Sunday morning.

In an unusual wildlife sighting, I saw what I am pretty sure was an antelope on my way in, about half way between Highway 41 and Parkfield. I've seen deer before, but I'm still waiting to spot one of the wild pigs that frequent the hills.

Although I enjoyed the festival for the most part, I found myself pondering whether the whole experience might have reached a natural end for me. When I first started going, I watched every group with  undivided attention. More recently I find myself reading while listening, skipping some groups entirely, and in general, not being as invested in the proceedings as I was in the past. At this and other festivals, I've been rained on, rained out more than once, baked by the heat, and froze my a** off some cold evenings. In the words of the old song, I'm starting to ask if I've enjoyed as much of this as I can stand. The last two years, the drive to and/or from Parkfield was fairly stressful due to heavy winds along that route, to the point where I wish I had a smaller RV. And of course, the festival and Parkfield itself have gone through a lot of changes since the early days, some good and some not.

I can't help thinking that I could read, watch TV, and listen to bluegrass in the comfort of my living room, and it would not cost upwards of $250 for tickets, electrical power and gas. I guess a decision will come when I see what my gut reaction is when the tickets go on sale early next year.

--Dick Estel, May 2015


Photos (Click to enlarge; pictures open in new window) 


In the cafe, out of the rain

Steep Ravine The Brothers Barton
In the cafe, out of the rain Steep Ravine The Brothers Barton
The Honeysuckle Possums The Hay Dudes The Sonoran Dogs
The Honeysuckle Possums The Hay Dudes The Sonoran Dogs
Bean Creek Amber Cross Sidesaddle & Co.
Bean Creek Amber Cross Sidesaddle & Co.
Next Generation Amber Rose & the Gold Rush Amber up close
Next Generation Amaya Rose & the Gold Rush Amaya up close
Bluegrass Etc. Snap Jackson & the Knock on Wood Players Snap joined by Alex Sharps
Bluegrass Etc.

Snap Jackson & the Knock on Wood Players

Snap joined by Alex Sharps
Kids on Stage    More kids: The Johnson Siblings
Kids on Stage    More kids: The Johnson Siblings
All the kids on Stage
All the kids on Stage
A minimalist approach T-shirt design The result of a sale at Walmart Program Cover for 2015

A minimalist approach T-shirt design

The result of a sale at Walmart Program Cover for 2015
Wagon wheel gate north of town Roadside flowers on Cholame Road
Hay in the field next to Parkfield Wagon wheel gate north of town

Roadside flowers on Cholame Road

Related Links
Bluegrass Etc. Joe Craven The Sonoran Dogs
Next Generation Snap Jackson & the Knock on Wood Players The Hay Dudes
The Brothers Barton Sidesaddle & Company Honeysuckle Possums
Steep Ravine Bean Creek Amaya Rose & the Gold Rush
Amber Cross Parkfield Festival Dick's Parkfield Photos
Dick's Bluegrass Links Bluegrass T-Shirts V6 Ranch
  Jack Varian's Blog Bluegrass Music Society of the Central Coast   
Next Generation

Bluegrass Etc.

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