Parkfield Bluegrass 2017


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For the 111th time, more or less, I attended the Parkfield Bluegrass Festival, held every Mother's Day weekend at the Earthquake Capital of California, located in the Cholame Valley halfway between the junction of state highways 41 and 46, and San Miguel on US 101. OK, it was actually only the 16th time, and this was the 19th year in a row that the event has been held. I missed the first two, and 2007. In the past I've written about the roads that take you there, so if you're interested in that, you can go back to my report from 2010. You can find links to my reports from all previous festivals here.

As usual the music ranged from OK through pretty good to outstanding. As usual, it rained. Not much, but way more than the predicted amount of not at all. Actually it was the least disruptive and annoying rain of the many that have put a damper on things for me at this festival. It was a brief drizzle, lasted less then 10 minutes, and was mostly during the Friday lunch break. It made for a very cold afternoon, until it wasn't, when the sun came out for a half hour making it very warm. Then when I took off several outer layers, the clouds came back, the wind came up, and it cooled off quite a bit. I didn't wear everything I brought, but I came close.

Saturday's weather was again cool and breezy until about 4, when the sun dropped low enough that the big valley oaks that provide shade most of the day were no longer effective. Then it was too warm, and after putting up with it a while, I moved to a shady spot, then went back to my motor home with about a half hour to go in the afternoon program.

That evening the temperature dropped, which is normal in this area at this time of year. I take two or three shirts to my chair in the evening, and put them on one by one. I finally realized I should have brought one more jacket, and returned to the motor home, where I was able to listen to the final act of the night via the festival's local FM broadcast.

At most festivals I see a group that I consider a "revelation"  - one I'm not familiar with, but which stands out above most of the others. The group that best fit this definition was the Lonely Heartstring Band from the Boston area. They do a lot of stuff that's not quite bluegrass, but when they perform a bluegrass song, they do it right. The vocalists are good and they are all highly skilled on their instruments. An interesting note is that the bass player also performs with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

There were three groups consisting of young players, some of whom I've seen at the Kids on Bluegrass segments that are a part of most festivals. Most of the people in these bands are 15 to 20 years old, so there are some vocalists that will improve with age, but for the most part they are all good or great players.

The Blue J's includes Jack Kinney from the Fresno area, whom I've seen in various groups at the summer Bluegrass in the Park series in Clovis. He was probably  14 and "good for his age" when  I first saw him; now he's just plain good. He plays all the usual bluegrass band instruments (fiddle, mandolin, banjo, bass, guitar), but stuck to fiddle for this group. The rest of the group consists of the three Gooding Brothers, whose father plays with the Central Valley Boys, and their best friend Jesse Personeni.

Pacific Drive is a group from various Bay Area cities. Now age 18 to 22, they have been jamming together since the youngest members were about ten years old. Vocalist Helen Foley has a mature sound, and all are good on their instruments.

Blue Summit was the best of the the three "young bands," and features A.J. Lee, once known as "the little girl  with the big voice." I saw her at age 11 and even at that young age her singing abilities were well beyond her years. Now she's just plain outstanding. She's joined by Sullivan Tuttle, a member of the Tuttle Family which A.J. has played with for years, along with three other highly skilled players who were not familiar to me. When I first saw Sullivan about age 15, I thought he was probably the best kid guitar player I'd ever seen. However, I'd never seen him open his mouth, so I was somewhat surprised to read that the Northern California Bluegrass Society had named him male vocalist of the year. When he sang at Parkfield, I realized the honor was well-deserved. He has a very pleasant, very deep voice. My final decision was that this group was a couple of levels above the others and more than that vocally.

There were another three bands that stood out, all of them familiar to me. Snap Jackson and the Knock on Wood Players were back at Parkfield for their eighth straight year, and happily, bass player Brian Clark is back with the group. They do a mix of traditional bluegrass, old time, and indefinable music. Snap usually plays banjo, but breaks things up with the ukulele from time to time.

The Cache Valley Drifters got started in the 1970s, and have retired and then gone back to "work" once or twice. This is another band that does not adhere strictly to traditional bluegrass, especially now that they are a three-man group. Their lead vocalist is in the running for best singer at the festival.

Sawmill Road are actually no longer performing together, but reformed for a brief reunion tour, consisting of Parkfield and the California Bluegrass Association's Father's Day festival in Grass Valley. Banjo man Dick Brown was a part of Lost Highway, who appeared at one of the first festivals I attended, in Mariposa about 20 years ago. I've seen him in several other combinations over the years, and usually have enjoyed a brief conversation each time. Also well known to me, also first seen at Mariposa, is guitarist Charlie Edsall, who does some nice vocals. Doing most of the singing and playing bass is Steve Spurgin, a self-described "old folkie" who wrote the popular favorite, "A Walk in the Irish Rain." The other two members are both top level musicians, known to me only through their work with Sawmill Road.

The other groups all belong in that OK to fairly good category which is essential to fill out a four-day program of bluegrass music.

Regular readers of these reports will not be surprised to learn that I did some walking each day, and Parkfield is a great place for that. It's all flat, and all walking is on roads, but the surroundings are unique...rounded hills that rise up abruptly from the level valley on one side, oak-covered hills not far away to the west. This is ranching country, although you don't see many cows close to town. Instead you see fields of hay, and it looked as if the heavy rains this year produced an excellent crop. Some of it was already cut and lying in rows drying out for baling, but for the first time I saw a mowing machine in action, and got some photos.

On Friday morning I walked north on Parkfield-Coalinga Road, the main route through town, which turns to dirt after about five miles, and goes over the hills to Coalinga. Never drive on this dirt road when it's raining - you may be there till the dry season (seriously). I didn't go that far of course, my goal is to walk to the green bridge over Cholame Creek, which is about 1.9 miles round trip.

On Saturday I just walked around town, going down every street, and through the various camping areas. Every street is not as challenging as it may sound. It means Parkfield-Coalinga Road, Oak Street, Park Street, 2nd street, and then into the rodeo grounds area where most people camp. Still, this walk added up to 1.14 miles. By the way, Parkfield-Coalinga is the only paved road.

The Sunday program included things that didn't interest me, plus groups I had seen the first three days, so I had already decided to leave once I had finished breakfast and a walk. I ate some cereal, then went south on Parkfield-Coalinga Road out to the bridge that crosses Cholame Creek and joins the road that runs from Highway 41/46 to US 101. Crossing this bridge takes you from the North American Plate to the Pacific Plate, meaning you are crossing the San Andreas Fault. I had walked this way in the past, but had always turned north on to Vineyard Canyon Road. This time I took Cholame Road to the south for a few hundred yards, then returned to camp, a total hike of 1.43 miles.

I finished getting the motor home ready to go, and left for home around 10:30. The return trip was uneventful, although I arrived in Clovis to find that the weather there was unexpectedly cool and breezy, always a good thing when you have to deal with unloading the vehicle, and taking it back to storage.

--Dick Estel, May 2017


(Click on the thumbnail to open full size photo; pictures open in a new window)
The Have More Fun Stringband Dim Lights The Hossettes
Blue Summit (AJ Lee with mandolin) Lonely Heartstring Band Snap Jackson & the Knock on Wood Players, with guest Jack Kinney, left
Cache Valley Drifters The Blue J's Amber Cross Band 
Pacific Drive Sawmill Road Ynana Rose Band
This lamp pole sign was new this year Camping area south of the stage An overflow "tent city" out north of Park Street
The Far Boondocks camping area has spread out into the field south of the rodeo grounds
Good advice on a bumper sticker Parkfield-Coalinga Road north of town Another view along the road
Hay drying in a field north of town This hay was cut minutes before the photo was taken Mower at work along Parkfield-Coalinga Road

Gate and windmill near the green bridge north of town

Wagon wheel gates are a must in the country This two-inch flower is on a three-foot tall plant
Hills and vineyard west of town On Cholame Road looking north Cholame Creek
Some say it's a one-horse town The streets may not be paved, but they all have modern signs A business on Oak Street
The seasonal CalFire station was open for business Looking across Cholame Creek bridge toward the Far Boondocks camping area Parkfield's big wheel
Honeysuckle Possums
Honeysuckle Possums (from 2016) Used as a water tank at the rodeo grounds, this may be an old fire pumper The green bridge (from 2016)
Related Links
2017 Stage Schedule Have More Fun String Band Dim Lights
The Hossettes Pacific Drive The Blue J's
Lonely Heartstring Band Honeysuckle Possums Blue Summit
Snap Jackson & the Knock on Wood Players Cache Valley Drifters Sawmill Road
Amber Cross Ynana Rose Band History of Parkfield
Bluegrass Music Society of the Central Coast Dick's Bluegrass Links Bluegrass T-Shirts
Bluegrass in the Park (Clovis) Northern California Bluegrass Society San Andreas Fault
Parkfield Quake of 2004 Dick's Parkfield Photos Other Bluegrass Festivals
You Tube Videos
Lonely Heartstring Band Blue J's Hossettes
Pacific Drive Honeysuckle Possums Blue Summit
Snap Jackson Cache Valley Drifters Sawmill Road
Amber Cross Ynana Rose Band Parkfield 2011

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Updated May 21, 2018