This was the first time we saw round bales at Parkfield

Steep Ravine

Parkfield Bluegrass 2016


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The 2016 Parkfield Bluegrass Festival was one of the best. It was also one of the worst.

Let me dispose of the "glass half empty" aspects of the festival, so I can concentrate on the positive aspects, which outweighed the negative.

First, it rained. That's nothing new, it's happened before. When it rains, the show is moved inside the cafe. This is presented as an acceptable alternative, but it works only for the first 20 or 30 people who get into the cafe. All others are in the back where they can't hear or see, and we are essentially standing in a noisy bar.

The rain was a short thunderstorm, and happened right before the last act of Friday afternoon, which happened to be Snap Jackson, one of the main groups I go to see. Missing them was bad enough but since the rain stopped, the evening show could have gone on as planned.

Except that the power went out. They quickly brought in a generator for the cafe (which in turn is generating revenue for the owners). The entire Friday night show took place in that crowded, cramped space, so we didn't even try to go.

Of course, while we were paying for a show we couldn't see, I was also paying for electricity I did not have, since there was no big hurry to get generators set up for the paid electrical customers. We got power some time Saturday afternoon.

You may have noticed my use of "we," and that's where the festival was the best. My daughter Teri attended for the first time in about a dozen years, and brought along my great grandson Colton, age 3+. So having them there, with or without music, made for a good weekend. She was at the first few Parkfield festivals I attended, along with her youngest son, MIkie, who was about four the first time. It is always fun seeing things through the eyes of a new generation.

Bluegrass festivals in general, and Parkfield in particular, are very kid-friendly. In recent years a treehouse was built on top of a huge cottonwood stump near the audience area. It has  a solid set of stairs and a good safety railing around the porch. The stairs are closed off after the first day, but on Thursday Colton was able to go up and down and go inside the house, along with several other kids.

The bottom part of the stump has a little room cut into it, accessible from ground level, and open throughout the festival. To look at it you would think it only had room for one or two kids, but it was not unusual to see the door open and five kids come out. Colton and others took advantage of this place throughout their time at the festival.

Dating back long before the launch of the bluegrass festivals are two large fountains, built of various scrap metal items. These have always attracted kids, and it is a rite of passage that a kid sees the fountain, dips his fingers in the water, and soon is reaching in to his elbows, while getting his clothes wet from neck to knees. Colton was no exception, reaching into the water, splashing it with a stick, and spotting the carp that lurk in the bottom of the larger fountain.

During a break we took a walk out the road that goes back out to the main road from town. There's an elementary school in Parkfield, and in the yard there is a horse skeleton, which Colton observed with interest. Horses are one of his favorites, and I'm not sure he really understood what he was looking at.

Just outside of town is a large field covered with hay bales, so we went into it and took a photo of Colton sitting on a bale. During this time we made a wonderful discovery - I found a small piece of red cord, which is what they use these days to bind hay bales. Colton was delighted to have this "rope," but it got better from there - we found a piece of blue cord and a long yellow one. For the rest of the day he had all three of them in his pockets, ready to rope cows, hay bales, or whatever.

Another delight on this walk was the discovery of tadpoles in the water below the bridge that crosses Cholame Creek. At some point we also walked down Park Street, where there are a number of wooden objects similar to the tree house, including a pirate ship which Colton "steered."

Back at the festival, Colton spent some time sitting on the chair next to Teri or on her lap, but was more likely to be found running around and playing with other kids, including Snap Jackson's son Milo, who is about four.

Some time that first afternoon we saw an old friend, Rad Spurlock. We met Rad and his wife Tele at the first Parkfield festival we attended in 2001. Missing their own grandkids, they sort of adopted Teri's then 4-year old son as their "bluegrass grandson," and have kept in touch with Teri and Mikie ever since. I've seen and talked with them at Parkfield every year, and also at the now-defunct Kings River festival. They enjoyed seeing Teri again and meeting Colton, who I've been bragging about since the 2013 festival.

Oh, yes. There was also music, and the performers we  were able to hear were mostly great. The music starts on Thursday afternoon at Parkfield, and the artists scheduled at this time are usually the lesser known ones. This did not mean lesser in talent or entertainment value; in fact, this was one of the best first-day line-ups in a long time. A particular standout was the opening act, the Sweetwater String Band, whose unique sound was enhanced by a cello, not a common instrument in bluegrass.

Another great group was Steep Ravine, making their third appearance. Their lead singer has a very good, somewhat gentle voice, perhaps the best pure singer at the festival. Also outstanding the first day was Gold Heart, featuring the Gold Sisters and family from Virginia. Their sibling harmony was delicious.

Thursday evening's lead-off artist was a girl I've seen perform since she was 11, originally with OMGG at the Brown Barn festival. AJ Lee is now 18 and leading her own group, and sounds better than ever. Her mother, with whom she's been singing since she was about 5, joined her on stage for a song, adding more of that fantastic family harmony to the proceedings.

We stayed for the second group, One Button Suit, then it was Colton's bedtime. After saying goodnight to my daughter and great grandson, I also returned to my motor home for the night.

On Friday we did our walk to the hay field, then watched the last half of the morning program.

In the afternoon we saw the Honeysuckle Possums and A.J. Lee again. The Possums are a very talented all-female group. One member does Appalachian step dancing on a soundboard to add to the fun.

The last group of the afternoon was Snap Jackson and the Knock on Wood Players. Ever since I first saw them at Brown Barn in 2009, I've been talking them up to anyone I know that might have the slightest interest. They have been at Parkfield every year since 2010, and I was looking forward to enjoying my daughter's first time seeing them.

Mother Nature had other ideas. A.J. Lee was just finishing up when the threatening skies I'd been keeping an eye on all afternoon opened up with a thunderstorm and hard rain. We went to my motor home, and sat outside under the awning. Teri had left windows open in her motor home, so she borrowed my rain coat and made the nearly half mile walk to her camp, while Colton stayed with me.

When she got back, she had heard that the show was continuing in the cafe, but as I mentioned above, we could not see or hear. We did stay there for most of the show, since Colton was having a good time watching the pool players, then inventing his own version of the game, in which the pool cue was used much like a hockey stick.

Just before the performance ended, the power went out, and the show was over for the day as far as we were concerned. Snap Jackson was scheduled to play again Saturday evening, but Teri had to leave at the end of the afternoon show, and did not get to see him.

When the rain ended Teri fixed supper for us at her motor home, and she and Colton stayed there for the night. On my way back I looked in at the cafe, but there was no hope of seeing or hearing, so I went to my motor home and ran my generator for about an hour while I watched TV.

Saturday morning was sunny, wet and powerless. I had not expected power to be restored very quickly, being in a rural area, to which repair crews would naturally give lower priority. In addition, the problem could be spread over a wide area (and was). However, generators had been set up in several areas, most importantly the main stage, and the show went on as scheduled.

The performer of most interest to me in the morning was Amber Cross. She sings in a style somewhat reminiscent of Gillian Welch, and writes some amazing songs. On a more personal note, she lived briefly in Prather in the Fresno County foothills, and is an enthusiastic fan of one of my favorite hiking and camping places, the San Joaquin Gorge Recreation Area (formerly Squaw Leap).

The first group of the afternoon, the Evie Ladin Band, featured a performer I've seen in two different settings. As a member of the Stairwell Sisters, a very good, all (or mostly) female group from San Francisco I like her fine. On her own, her act features dancing, rhythmic vocalizing, and hambone (slapping various parts of the body in rhythm). I'm not bothered by the fact that it's not bluegrass - I just don't particularly enjoy it.

The next two groups were outstanding. First was a "supergroup" of well-known individual musicians who are currently touring as a group. Dan Crary has long been recognized as one of the top flat pick guitar players in the country. Bill Evans has been a mainstay of California bluegrass for decades, and is equally recognized on the banjo. Steve Spurgin is a highly admired songwriter and singer, usually more in the folk realm than bluegrass, but adept vocally and on the bass in any setting. His most famous song is "A Walk in the Irish Rain." He also fattened his bank account with "Speak Softly (You're Talking to My Heart)," a major hit for country star Gene Watson. More about this group later.

Jeff Scroggins & Colorado were at Parkfield in 2014 and made a huge impression, and they were even better this year. They play a very hard-driving brand of traditional sounding bluegrass with modern touches, powered by Jeff's unique approach on the banjo, and his son Tristan's incredible mandolin playing. Teri agreed that this was the best group she saw. More about this band later, too.

Teri had Mother's Day plans the next day, so she left after this performance. After all his adventures, Colton had finally run down, and had fallen asleep in her lap. He had a hard time waking up and fussed  as we walked over to her motor home, but made a good recovery on the way home. I helped them get things ready to go, and we said our goodbyes.

I didn't sit in the audience for Cuesta Ridge, the final group of the afternoon, but was able to hear them from my nearby motor home as I enjoyed a sausage sandwich from one of the vendors. The dinner break went by quickly, and it was soon time for the Saturday night show. I finally got to see Snap Jackson, who put on his usual crowd-pleasing performance, despite a change in personnel. Bryan Clark, an amazing bass player was missing. His replacement did a competent but fairly routine job.

Next up was another appearance by Crary, Evans and Spurgin, who turned in another high-skill performance. They were followed by Jeff Scroggins & Colorado, and here is where I made an interesting observation. With the Crary group, the audience was quiet and respectful, and applauded enthusiastically. When the Scroggins crew started up, the audience came alive, cheering and whooping (not constantly of course). My impression was that the former group was like chamber music, playing with skill but little passion, while Colorado connected more directly with the audience. The energy flowed both ways, as Colorado put on the best performance I've seen from them in their two Parkfield appearances.

When they played the "last song," they were of course called out for an encore, and they delivered the wildest, hottest single song of the festival. This just got the audience on their feet calling for another encore, so the fiddle player said, "We're going to have to play a quiet love song to settle you guys down."

They did this indeed, with the John Denver song "Darcy Farrow," a sad slow song with a Romeo and Juliet ending. Despite the somber tone, it was a fine finish to an hour of incredible music. Although I usually rank Snap Jackson as the top group, this year I had to make them 1B, with Scroggins as 1A.

I wanted to get an early start home the final day, so I did not plan to attend the show. However, I DID want to get in a nice walk, one that Teri and I had hoped to make but ran out of time. After eating an orange, I set out north on the Parkfield-Coalinga Road.

After about seven miles this road arrives at the V6 Ranch, home of Parkfield Patriarch Jack Varian, whose son John manages the facilities in town and is heavily involved in producing the festival. Beyond this point the road turns to dirt and goes up over a pass and down to the western Fresno County town of Coalinga.

Of course, I did not go this far. My destination was the green iron bridge a little less than a mile from town. On this route the road goes through hay fields, ranches, and great views of the hills on both sides of the valley. Near the bridge there is a picturesque windmill which I always have to photograph. While I stood on the bridge I noticed a rabbit down in the dry creek bed, and tried without success to get a photo. However, when I crossed back over the bridge on my return trip, he hopped across the road in front of me, then stopped to munch on a green, juicy weed by the road, allowing me to get several good pictures.

I got back to town and had a quick breakfast, then got ready to go and made the 110 mile drive home without incident, already thinking ahead to the next festival I plan to attend, the Good Old Fashioned Festival in Hollister in August.

--Dick Estel, May 2016


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



Burning Heart Steep Ravine
Sweetwater Burning Heart Steep Ravine
Gold Heart AJ Lee & the Valley Ramblers AJ and guitarist
Gold Heart AJ Lee & the Valley Ramblers AJ and guitarist
Betsy, AJ's mom (red top) Honeysuckle Possums Snap Jackson & the Knock on Wood Players
Betsy, AJ's mom (red top) Honeysuckle Possums Snap Jackson & the Knock on Wood Players
Snap with Bill Evans Evans, Crary & Spurgin Cuesta Ridge
Snap with Bill Evans Evans, Crary & Spurgin Cuesta Ridge
Amber Cross Evie Laden Band Jeff Scroggins & Colorado
Amber Cross Evie Laden Band Jeff Scroggins & Colorado
Jug Tucker The audience Colton and Rad
Jug Tucker The audience Colton and Rad
Dancers and a little roper Beware all who sit near the fountain Treehouse provides endless fun
Dancers and a little roper Beware all who sit near the fountain  Treehouse provides endless fun
Paul Knight, sound man extraordinaire Teri & Colton checking out a late horse This opening in the fence is a clear invitation to explore
Paul Knight, sound man extraordinaire

Teri & Colton checking out a late horse

This opening in the fence is a clear invitation to explore
Kickin' back on a bale Colton with his three ropes Dick and great grandson Colton
Kickin' back on a bale Colton with his three ropes Dick and great grandson Colton
The delights of animal crackers For 3-year olds, there IS such a thing as too much bluegrass Hopping across the Parkfield-Coalinga Road
The delights of animal crackers For 3-year olds, there IS such a
thing as too much bluegrass
Hopping across the Parkfield-Coalinga Road
This was the first time we saw round bales at Parkfield The gathering storm And its aftermath, right in front of the audience entrance
This was the first time we saw
round bales at Parkfield
The gathering storm And its aftermath, right in front
of the audience entrance
Bridge north of town on Coalinga-Parkfield Road Windmill near the bridge
Beautiful valley oaks in the
hay fields outside of town
Bridge north of town on Coalinga-Parkfield Road Windmill near the bridge
Related Links
Crary, Evans & Spurgin A Walk in the Irish Rain Jeff Scroggins & Colorado
Gold Heart Snap Jackson & the Knock on Wood Players AJ Lee
Evie Ladin Band Cuesta Ridge One Button Suit
Jug Tucker Steep Ravine Sweetwater String Band
Burning Heart

Honeysuckle Possums

Amber Cross

V6 Ranch Bluegrass Music Society of the Central Coast Bluegrass T-Shirts
Dick's Bluegrass Links Dick's Parkfield Photos Parkfield Festival
Jack Varian's Blog San Andreas Fault Cholame Valley Road
Cholame Valley Earthquakes Parkfield Map Dick's Travel Links
Jeff Scroggins & Colorado

Dancers and a little roper

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