Parkfield Bluegrass 2019

   

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Yep, another Parkfield Bluegrass Festival. This is the 21st annual, and the 18th one I have attended. It will probably be my last one, but more about that later.

The event is always on Mother's Day weekend, and for the last ten years or so, the stage performances have started on Thursday. This seems always to be the second Thursday of the month, and that is also the day that my retirement association board meets at 9 a.m. So just like the last few years, I got up at a horrible hour, had breakfast, put refrigerated items in the motor home, and drove it to the meeting location.

The meeting ended around 10:30, and I had to drive through heavy traffic and wait for a VERY SLOW train before I got on the Highway 99 freeway. This was only a slight improvement over the city streets, but after a few miles I took the Highway 41 south exit and was soon rolling through farm land.

I've described this route in detail in the past, so I'll just say it goes through Kettleman City on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, over the Kettleman Hills and across Pleasant Valley, over some more hills and across Sunflower Valley, over STILL more hills and into the Cholame Valley. Where Highway 41 meets Highway 46, I turned north on Cholame Road for the final 15-mile stretch into Parkfield, population 18.

I've been there when there were no events going on, and it is not unusual to see no one except the workers in the cafe. On Mother's Day weekend however, the population expands to around 1,000, with several hundred RVs, dozens of tents and smaller camping vehicles, and a respectable number of day visitors. This year, for the first time, all camping space sold out, and additional parking overflowed into a newly mowed hay field.

        
Boondocks camping area next to the rodeo grounds
    

Camping overflow in the hay fields

    

I had reserved an electrical site only 50 feet from the stage, the same spot I had last year, so I was able to quickly find my place and get set up. When I took my chair to the stage area, there were already so many chairs that I was not able to get a decent spot on the grass. I put my chair in the dirt to one side, where my view was partially blocked by a lamp post. Fortunately a spot on the grass opened up by the time of the evening show, and I had a good view the rest of the time.

It was partly cloudy, and there was a 50% chance of rain for Friday. When I heard raindrops on the motor home roof during breakfast, I thought, "here we go again." A big storm a few years ago knocked out electrical power and caused the show to move into the cafe. This is not an acceptable solution at all, since only about 20 people can be in position to see and hear well, and the total capacity is probably well under 100, most of whom are basically standing in a noisy bar.

Luckily, this year's "storm" lasted only 30 seconds, although the first act performed in the cafe, unnecessarily in my opinion. The weather forecast turned positive, and the rest of the show was on the outdoor stage where it belongs. As a bonus, the clouds hung around all day and kept the temperature very comfortable.

Friday I had a chance to talk with Rad and Tele, a couple we met at the very first Parkfield festival we attended (we being my daughter Teri, grandson Mikie and myself). Last year Tele had just started treatment for cancer, so it was wonderful news to learn that she is now in complete remission.

As far as the music goes, as usual the groups ranged from average to great. There is nothing negative in being called average - members of any group that gets hired to perform are very good on their instruments, and at least competent vocally. There were groups that played very traditional bluegrass, those who took the genre way beyond the borders laid down by Bill Monroe, and one that played old time (pre-bluegrass) music.

The best of the best was a group I first saw on the Nashville Network show Fire on the Mountain in the mid 1980s. Banjo player Greg Cahill started Special Consensus 44 years ago, and has kept it going continuously ever since. The other band members have changed over the years, and the band has been kind of a finishing school for artists who often go on to lead their own groups. They appeared at Parkfield in 2006, 2009 and 2012 and I've seen them at four other festivals and in a concert in Fresno. They play mostly traditional bluegrass and were a big hit with the crowd.

In 2009 I wrote about an 11-year old girl I saw at the Brown Barn Festival in San Martin, performing with three teenage boys as OMGG. She was very good then, and I speculated on what she would be like at 18. I saw her a few times back then with that group and with the Tuttles, and have checked out her You Tube videos from time to time. She made her first appearance at Parkfield in 2016, and was back in 2017 and 2018 as leader of AJ Lee & Blue Summit. As expected, her voice had matured, but this last year seems to have put her into another level, and she is amazing (as I expected ten years ago). Her band lineup is unusual, AJ on mandolin, plus bass and two guitars (a fiddler joined them for one set). One of the guitar players is Sullivan Tuttle, who was spectacular at age 15, and whose abilities now are beyond my capability to describe. I bought their latest CD, and it is great from start to finish. There is  very little bluegrass on it, but they showed at Parkfield that they can still ramp up a hot bluegrass song.

    
Special Consensus (Greg Cahill on the right) AJ Lee and Blue Summit (Aissa Joelle with hat)
    

Bluegrass has spread around the world, and there are musicians, festivals, and pockets of fans in many countries. Amber Cross just returned from Ireland, and AJ is touring the British Isles soon. However, I have seen only one group, the The Krüger Brothers, that was 100% from another country until this year, when the Slocan Ramblers from Canada appeared (the Jaybirds, whom I've seen a couple of times, are about 60% Canadian). The Ramblers played hard-driving traditional music with a four-piece band.

Last year brought a "blast from the past" when Phil Salazar & the Kinfolk returned, after having appeared at the first two or three Parkfield festivals. This group from southern California is another traditional band, and they got the crowd roused up again this year.

   
Slocan Ramblers Phil Salazar & the Kinfolk (Phil in green shirt)
       

There were two bands comprised mostly of young people who I've seen at festivals since they were little kids. Mission Blue grew out of a family band that included Dana Frankel and her father Avram. She has developed into a good vocalist and fiddler. They were joined by other veteran Bay Area bluegrass musicians, including Dave Gooding on bass. Dave has also produced three sons who play in various groups and are outstanding pickers.

North Country Blue features four girls who've developed their skills in the Kids on Bluegrass program and with family bands. I last saw Tessa Schwartz when she was seven and playing with Oak Grove, which included her brothers Max and Nate, who were also members of OMGG. Ida Winfree is the daughter of Jason Winfree, long-time member of Red Dog Ash from Turlock. I'm not familiar with Megan January, who I thought was the strongest vocalist of the group. Tessa is the main spokesperson for the band, and handles these duties with professional aplomb. Joining them on guitar was John, one of the magnificent Gooding Brothers.

   
Mission Blue North Country Blue
        

Of course, I would be remiss if I did not give recognition to Snap Jackson & the Knock on Wood Players. This is another band I first encountered at that fateful 2009 Brown Barn Festival, and they've become one of my favorites. This was their 10th year at Parkfield, and in honor of that milestone, they performed about ten songs that they had never before played in public.

There were numerous other bands that I enjoyed to greater or lesser degree, and all are pictured below, but to keep this at a reasonable length, I'll finish up the music report with Amber Cross. She is more of a folk singer than bluegrass, and performs with her guitar, accompanied only by her husband on guitar and mandolin. She writes songs that reflect her personal life, and we've had several discussions of the San Joaquin River Gorge Recreation Area, formerly known as Squaw Leap. She lived for a time in Prather, a short distance from the Gorge, which is threatened by a proposed dam. We agree on the need to preserve this unique foothill recreation area, and one of her songs tells the story.

   
Snap Jackson (left) & the Knock on Wood Players Amber Cross and James Moore
    

As usual, I took a morning walk every day. On Saturday I usually walk down Oak Street and into the the "boondocks" camping area next to the rodeo grounds. In the last two or three years this territory has been expanded out into the hay fields to the south, to accommodate the increasing attendance. The total hike is now just under a mile. On Sunday I follow one of the paved roads out of town. There are three choices, and this year for the first time I walked south on the Parkfield-Coalinga Road to the bridge that crosses the San Andreas Fault (Cholame Creek), then turned left on Cholame Road, toward highway 41 fifteen miles away. I did a 1.4 mile round trip, photographing the huge valley oaks, the hay fields, and a flock of yellow-throated birds sitting on a fence.

    
Looking south on Cholame Road Yellow-throated birds
    
Standing on the North American Plate,
looking across the San Andreas Fault at the Pacific Plate
At the junction of Cholame, Vineyard Canyon, and Parkfield-Coalinga Roads
   

I did one other thing that I almost never do - attended one of the workshops. At virtually every festival, members of various bands give workshops on their instrument, or singing, harmony, song writing, and other related subjects. I will never play the banjo, but it is interesting to hear the information provided sometimes, so I went to the workshop conducted by Greg Cahill, along with two long-time California banjo pickers - Julio Boysenberry and Banjer Dan Mazer. The most interesting thing was information they presented on how a slight change in how you hold your hand makes a difference in how good you sound. I could relate this to the instruction I watched my younger grandson's dad give him on the mechanics of hitting, throwing and pitching when he played baseball.

Since this was probably my last Parkfield festival, I bought not only a t-shirt, but also a nice hoodie.

   
Julio Boysenberry, Greg Cahill and Banjer Dan Mazer conduct a workshop The 2019 Parkfield hoodie
   

I also thought about staying Sunday night, which I always did in the early days of the festival. But around noon on Sunday I started thinking how I could be home before dark, and then start cleaning out the motor home Monday early. I am tired of driving it, and don't foresee any long trips. I hate driving over the winding hills between Kettleman City and Cholame, and have no desire to drive it over rough dirt roads in the Sierra again. I plan to sell it, and pickup camping at Parkfield is not really a good option. My bluegrass trips will have to be to areas that are close to motels. So if you are interested in getting into motor home travel, check it out on Craig's List.

I want to finish this report with a salute to all those who made this festival possible over the years. Pat and Rosie Conway got it started and ran it for several years. I wish I had thought to ask them how and why they chose this incredible but remote location. Joe and Darlene Quealy stepped in and took over when the Conways were ready to move on. Then a group of central coast bluegrass fans formed the Bluegrass Music Society of the Central Coast, and have been the promoters for around ten years. I don't know everyone involved, but the festival director is Dave Schwartrz, and Connie Moxness always makes sure I get a camping space with electrical power.

Finally, the Varian Family, owners of the ranch land in the north end of Cholame Valley, have been big supporters of the event. John and Barb have made regular improvements to the venue, including a permanent stage that doesn't wobble like the truck bed used at the earliest festivals. From a distance, I will support and cheer them on as long as they continue to present the Parkfield Bluegrass Festival.

--Dick Estel, May 2019

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

    
Photos (Click to enlarge; pictures open in new window) 
   
Cache Valley Drifters (2017 photo) Have More Fun Stringband Rebekah Long Band
   
One Button Suit Littlest Birds SLO County Stumblers
   
Kids on Bluegrass
   
A meeting of the campground brain trust Looking west down Oak Street The T-Shirt logo
   
     
   The 2019 Program Book   
      
Hay drying in the field south of town
 
Related Links
Parkfield Fire on the Mountain Parkfield Bluegrass Festival
Bluegrass Music Society of the Central Coast Dick's Bluegrass T-Shirt Photos Dick's Bluegrass Odyssey
Dick's Bluegrass Links Dick's Parkfield Photos Phil Salazar & the Kin Folk
Amber Cross Snap Jackson & the Knock on Wood Players AJ Lee & Blue Summit
Special Consensus Cache Valley Drifters Slocan Ramblers
Rebekah Long Band Littlest Birds One Button Suit
Mission Blue Have More Fun Stringband North Country Blue
SLO County Stumblers Bluegrass in Europe Julio Boysenberry
Banjer Dan Mazer V6 Ranch Cholame Valley Road
     
 
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Updated May 22, 2019