Thomas Porter & Copper River

The Bluegrass Brothers

Ron Spears solos

Bluegrass in the Foothills 2012


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Larry and Sondra Baker have been presenting Bluegrass in the Foothills at Plymouth CA for ten years. I've attended five of these, and on September 13 I left home for my sixth one. I had a meeting that morning, so drove the motor home to the meeting location, and left from there, about 11:15, heading up CA Highway 99.

At Stockton I went east on Highway 88, then via several short runs on three other highways, arrived at Plymouth on Highway 49 at 2:45. About ten miles from Plymouth I stopped and called the local Pizza Factory, planning to pick up a pizza to eat over the next couple of days. I could not tell if it was the phone, or they just didn't answer, but two tries were unsuccessful, so I continued my trip.

At the south end of town, I saw the Colina de Oro restaurant, so decided to stop for Mexican food instead. This place is kind of a dive, with most patrons at the bar at that time of day, but the food was very good. I got a taco and enchilada to go, then went to the fairgrounds, checked in, got set up, and ate dinner.

The location I was in has 20-amp power, which runs everything but the air conditioner. However, the cellular service here is very shaky. My phone appears to work OK (I didn't actually make any calls), but getting Email on the iPad was about a 50-50 proposition. When messages did come in, no graphics were displayed, and when I tried to go on the Internet, I was successful about half the time.

Then when I came inside to watch TV late Thursday night, even my TV said "no signal." The TV had been taken out and replaced when the motor home was in for repairs recently, so I assumed they did not reconnect the cables correctly. With the dim light at night I could not really look into the problem very well, so I turned off TV and VCR and read until  bedtime.

The next morning, with plenty of daylight coming in, I soon diagnosed the problem - cables plugged into the TV's OUT jacks instead of the IN jacks.

I had noticed that the man in the trailer next to me was running his A/C, so I asked him about it; he said it runs fine on 20 amp power as long as his battery is connected. This inspired me to try my A/C, and it ran OK for about an hour. I turned it off and went to the show, then turned it on again later, but it eventually tripped the breaker. There was no way to re-set it, but the junction box had other outlets, so I plugged in to one of those and all was well. I suspect maybe the breaker tripped when the hot water heater came on. Next time in a situation like this I will try the A/C with the electric water heater off, but I used the last available outlet here, so I didn't want to experiment anymore.

But we're here for the music, so all that other stuff is secondary. The show started unofficially Thursday night with a one-hour, mostly one-man show by Ron Spears. I have seen him a number of times, first with his own group, Within Tradition, then for a while with Special Consensus. He's working a "normal" job now, one that lets him go out and play when the chance comes up. He is playing here with a group from Arizona, but for his own show he did mostly country songs, plus a ventriloquist act. This was very professional, and the entire audience enjoyed his act. At the end he played a few songs with Copper River, the group he is appearing with as a guest fiddler. (In reviewing this page in October 2023, I was sad to learn that Ron passed away earlier this year. The link below takes you to a tribute page with many of his songs.)

Friday morning's show started at 10:30, and ran till after 10 p.m., with breaks for lunch and dinner. There are only a couple of big name touring groups on the schedule, but several lesser known groups from the east and of course locally. Nearly all of them were excellent. There were a couple of minor exceptions, about which more later.

One of the groups that was familiar was Red Dog Ash, who won last year's Emerging Artist Competition here, meaning they get paid for performing this year. I have seen them at other festivals, as well as the Bluegrass in the Park program in Clovis.

It seemed to be the year of the long names - among the unknown but excellent groups were Thomas Porter & Copper River, Mark Phillips & IIIrd Generation, and Travers Chandler & Avery County. Bucking the trend was Nu-Blu. And of course, you can't beat the elegant simplicity of a group called The James King Band. Nor can you easily beat their music - James is one of the big stars of bluegrass, and I've seen him four or five times. Mike Morrison, guitar player with IIIrd Generation, has a "real" job, playing in the Zac Brown Band.

Among the "unknown to me" bands, one of the best was Thomas Porter & Copper River. I was very familiar with their banjo player, Dick Brown, whom I've seen at seemingly half the festivals I've attended, starting with Mariposa in the late 90s when he was a member of Lost Highway. Copper River is based in Arizona, and had another familiar face as a guest, Ron Spears, who I mentioned earlier. As it turned out, I discovered after I got home that I had seen this band before, but most of the personnel have changed.

The closing act Friday was another group I've seen a few times, The Bluegrass Brothers. This band has absolutely the highest energy level of any in bluegrass, and with a few new members, they're even better than before. One of the new guys is an experienced musician who is the hottest dobro player I've heard in over ten years.

The next day brought more performances by many of the same bands, with a closing event that was new for this festival, and something not seen at many festivals. The final set was Cash'd Out, a Johnny Cash tribute band that is endorsed by the official Johnny Cash web site (whatever that means; Johnny hasn't expressed his views). They were very good, with the singer sounding enough like Johnny to fill the bill, but with enough difference that no one dozed off and woke up thinking they were listening to the real thing. My only complaint with this group is that they did a lot of songs that Johnny did, but that were originally done by others, and not enough of his original songs. Why do a cover of a cover?

Sunday was a shorter program than usual, with things being done a little differently from past years. The opening act was Kids on Bluegrass, with the usual mix of beginners all the way to a very good 15-year old mandolin player, who has been invited to the kids showcase at the IBMA World of Bluegrass later this month (this was probably Josh Gooding).

The rest of the day was given over to the emerging artists program. In the past, most of these groups have been average or better, but one of this year's groups should be sent back to wherever it emerged from. The others weren't bad, just not as good as I remember most of the groups in this program being - certainly not as good as Red Dog Ash was a year ago when they won the competition. These bands play for free, and the winner gets a paid appearance next year.

The entire weekend was probably the hottest it's ever been at any festival anywhere. I had a spot that was great for watching and listening, but hot as H. I sat in the sun for the better groups, and cooled off in the shade during lesser ones. The motor home does not cool off till late; it was just getting bearable when I came back from the show a little before ten the first two nights.

I had decided to experiment with running the A/C again, with the water heater off. However, when I came back just before the last group Sunday afternoon, the electrical boxes had been gathered up, and there was no power of any kind. I debated whether I wanted to run my generator for five hours or so, for cooling and watching TV, and instead decided to move to the RV park next door. I got set up, took a much needed shower, and did most of this report, all in cool comfort at last.

There were several changes at this festival this year, all probably designed to reduce costs. There were fewer groups, fewer vendors, and I think fewer fans. In the early years of this event, we used to get quite a few people from southern California. With gas at $4 per gallon, people are thinking twice and probably three times before driving 400 miles in a vehicle that gets 10 miles per gallon or less. There was only one really big name band, James King, although the quality was as good as ever, the groups that were booked probably get less money than their better known counterparts. Hopefully these measures will keep the festival going a few more years.

--Dick Estel, September 2012


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


Hill near fairgrounds in Plymouth

Larry Baker greets the crowd The festival area
Hill near fairgrounds in Plymouth  Larry Baker greets the crowd The festival area
The Get Down Boys Red Dog Ash Gary Vessel, Eli Arrigotti and Jason Winfree harmonize
The Get Down Boys Red Dog Ash Gary Vessel, Eli Arrigotti and
Jason Winfree harmonize
Mark Phillips & IIIrd Generation Kids from Plymouth Elementary dance on stage Guest fiddler Annie Staninec joins Mark & the boys
Mark Phillips & IIIrd Generation Kids from Plymouth Elementary dance on stage Guest fiddler Annie Staninec
joins Mark & the boys
Travers Chandler & Avery County Ron Spears guests with Avery County Nu-Blu
Travers Chandler & Avery County

Ron Spears guests with Avery County

Thomas Porter & Copper River James King Band James with Dick Brown and Ron Spears
Thomas Porter & Copper River James King Band

James with Dick Brown and Ron Spears

The Bluegrass Brothers Cash'd Out Kids on Stage
The Bluegrass Brothers Cash'd Out Kids on Stage
More kids Wicklow Atwater & the Fallen Flame The Creak
More kids

Wicklow Atwater & the Fallen Flame

The Creak
The Sons of Jefferson Pineridge Ron Spears solos
The Sons of Jefferson Pineridge Ron Spears solos
Ron & his little buddy 2013 Bluegrass in the Foothills T-Shirt Festival program cover
Ron & his little buddy

2012 Bluegrass in the Foothills T-Shirt

Festival program cover
Related Links
Thomas Porter & Copper River Ron Spears
Nu-Blu James King The Bluegrass Brothers
Cash'd Out Red Dog Ash The Get Down Boys
Wicklow Atwater & the Fallen Flame The Creak Sons of Jefferson
Pineridge IBMA World of Bluegrass Dick's Bluegrass Links
Kids on Bluegrass Dick's Bluegrass T-Shirt Photos City of Plymouth
Annie Staninec Larry Baker Bluegrass Scott Gates
James with Dick Brown and Ron Spears

Gary Vessel, Eli Arrigotti and Jason Winfree harmonize

Larry Baker greets the crowd

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Updated October 23, 2023