The morning mist spills over the pass

Red Dog Ash

AJ & Jack

Dick's September 2010 Travels - Brown Barn Bluegrass, Watsonville, Hobbs Grove Bluegrass

Photos          Related Links          More Travel Reports
Brown Barn Bluegrass          Watsonville          Hobbs Grove

Brown Barn Bluegrass Festival

Last year I had never heard of the Brown Barn Bluegrass Festival, Jake Quesenberry, or the town of San Martin. Having won tickets to the 2009 festival, I decided to attend, and enjoyed it so much I returned this year as a paying customer. And it is my favorite of the five festivals I've attended this year.

Although the location was new to me, all but the last two miles of the route are very familiar - north from Fresno on CA 99, west over Pacheco Pass on State 152, then north a few miles on US Highway 101.

San Martin is a small town located about a mile west of Highway 101, halfway between Gilroy and Morgan Hill, a drive of a little over 125 miles from my home in Clovis. The setting is the Ludewig Ranch Park, a small privately owned park. Since you can't camp before Friday, I set out about 10 a.m. on September 10, and arrived about 12:30. Everything is very informal, and after checking in, you just pick a spot on the grass to set up your RV or tent.

Last year I mentioned that the barn is actually red, and one of this year's MCs explained the color discrepancy - it seems that Jake was color blind and really thought the barn was brown. By the time someone corrected him, flyers had been printed, and everyone decided to leave well enough alone.

The "official" start of the festival is not till 9 a.m. Saturday, but Friday night features an open mike event, at which any group of musicians can sign up to do a 20-minute set. Although the talent at last year's open mike was notably at the amateur level, there was a bit more planning this year, and any of the Friday night groups this year could have performed as part of the festival.

Most impressive was Luke Abbott, a young man who sang solo, accompanying himself on banjo, guitar, or fiddle. In fact, he performs professionally with a family band as well as solo, and teaches music throughout the west. For one song he was joined by the amazing AJ Lee who was here last year, and who will be mentioned later in this report. At the age of 12, she was named female vocalist of the year by the Northern California Bluegrass Association.

The entire Friday show, from 7 to 9, was good, and instead of heading back to the motor home early like I did last year, I stayed for the whole two hours.

Last year there were only about three groups here I'd ever heard of, but at the end of the festival I said I would attend again if it were the exact same lineup. This year there were 15 different groups, six of which I was familiar with, and again I make the same statement.

One of the big crowd pleasers was OMGG (Obviously Minor Guys and a Girl), which consists of the aforementioned AJ, 16 year old Nate Schwartz, his 11 year old brother Max, and 14 year old Marty Varner. I had seen the boys as part of the Kids on Stage presentation at the Plymouth Festival, but AJ was new to me at last year's Brown Barn, and I was blown away by their performances. They have all become even better this year, and should be entertaining bluegrass fans for decades to come.

Nate and Max also appeared with Oak Grove, which includes their parents and six year old sister, and again it was another of those pleasant surprises. The other outstanding group that was new to me, was Windy Hill, which includes three young men who attended high school together (not more than a half dozen years ago, I'd guess), plus Yoseff Tucker and Ella Naiman of the Dalton Mountain Gang, the number one bluegrass band in Fresno.

Also back for another year was Angelica Grim and Friends. Angelica was one of the "kids on bluegrass" from an early age, and now performs professionally. Her husband, TJ Doerfel, is part of a musical family, and they spend much of their time in the Midwest, but Angelica returns to her roots for the Brown Barn Festival, this time bringing TJ and their 8-month old son Jake. She performed with various local artists, including Luke Abbott, Molly Tuttle, and AJ.

There was also another Fresno band I like very much, the old-time music ensemble Red Rag Andy Band. Barry Schultz, the spokesman and main singer, usually gives a little history of each song, and more often than not it starts of with "this song dates from the 19th century..." Despite their age, some of these songs are familiar, having become part of the bluegrass repertory.

I must give another shout-out to Snap Jackson and the Knock on Wood Players, who were here last year and also played this year at Parkfield. They are a three-man group from Stockton whose musical style defies description, other than to say it is rousing and always gets an enthusiastic reception. Chatting with Snap, I told him I had a hard time explaining his music to people, and he said they have the same problem..."just come and see us and find out!"

On stage, Snap told how his best friend in 8th grade belonged to a family who were all Grateful Dead fans. Snap also enjoyed the Dead, and the father of the family suggested he might want to check out one of Jerry Garcia's side projects, the bluegrass group Old and in the Way. As Snap explained it, "When I heard that, I said 'That's what I want to do'...and that's how a Mexican boy from Stockton became a bluegrass musician."

Another excellent band, that I've seen several times over the last dozen years, is Sidesaddle and Company, based in the general area of Santa Cruz-Hollister. They've been around for 20 years or more, and did a great job this year.

One "only at a bluegrass festival" moment came during the performance of the Pleasant Valley Boys, who take a traditional approach. They've recently released a recording - not a CD, not a vinyl album, but a 78 RPM record. Even I don't have anything to play that on, but it's good to preserve history like that.

Fittingly enough, the best set of the festival was the Saturday night closer, the Dalton Mountain Gang. They were received with loud enthusiasm, and it seemed to inspire them to play the hottest set I've ever seen them do (and they have been at every festival I've been to in the last year except one). Happily, DMG, Red Rag Andy and Snap Jackson will all be at the Hobbs Grove festival, 20 miles from my house, at the end the month.

As I usually do, I stayed over Sunday night, but the place is nearly deserted. I think a large majority of the attendees live in the Bay Area, so it's not too far for them to drive to get home tonight. There is one other trailer, a van, and a few cars still here, but otherwise everyone is gone.

The weather was good to great throughout the festival. We've had a nice breeze with the ocean only about 25 miles away. On Sunday morning it was foggy, but it burned off by 11 a.m. Monday was also foggy, but not detrimental for driving, and it stayed that way through my trip to Watsonville and most of the day.


With the festival ended, I did not head home on Monday, but instead drove south a few miles, then west on State Highway 152 over Hecker Pass to Watsonville. This is a narrow, winding road, forbidden to vehicles over 45 feet in length, but I had no trouble with my 28-foot motor home. The road rises to 1300 feet at the pass, and goes through dense forest, marked by coast redwood trees. It drops down quickly on the west to the level country around Watsonville, where it ends at State Highway 1, more commonly called the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH).

My destination was Pinto Lake Park, a public park with a small natural lake and a full-service RV park. There's another route from 101 to State 1 just a little farther south that is accessible to long vehicles, and I had brought directions for that route instead of the route I took. However, with the help of my GPS I easily found my destination, and got set up a little before noon.

I had made arrangements to get together the next day with Gerry and Linda Barnes Davis (she was in my high school class), so I called them and we made arrangements for them to pick me up Tuesday to go out to lunch.

They arrived about 10:30 and we drove south a few miles on the PCH to Moss Landing, where our destination was Phil's Fish Market. Although I had never before stopped in Moss Landing, I had heard of Phil's, because they have bluegrass music there several nights a month, and one of the groups at Brown Barn had mentioned that they played there.

We had a nice lunch (fish and chips for me), walked out on the beach behind the restaurant for a short time, then headed back to the RV park. Along the way we drove past many acres of strawberries, as well as a big field of Brussels sprouts, and various other crops. Throughout the area there are also many acres of berry bushes, all under canvas or plastic "sheds."

After we got back to Pinto Lake we sat outside and visited for a while, talking about old times in Mariposa. Linda and I both played in the school band and a town band, but I sold my trumpet decades ago. Linda, however, still plays saxophone in a local band in Watsonville.

After Linda and Gerry said their goodbyes and left, I spent the rest of the day reading, napping, and for a while, watching a Little League baseball game. This park includes a very nice ball field, with outfield fences, bleachers, and covered dugouts.

There was fog at Watsonville both mornings, but it cleared off each day. On Tuesday it broke up a bit earlier than before, about 10 a.m., but there is always a slight breeze and sometimes a strong one, with the ocean just a mile or so away.

The Wednesday morning I got up about 8:30 and got started for home by 9:30. For variety I took State highway 129 over to US 101. This is another scenic drive that follows the Pajaro River most of the way, and goes through berry farms, then enters a narrow canyon, which opens up to more agricultural land before it gets to 101. From here I zigged and zagged across short sections of several highways before getting back to state 152, which took me back over Pacheco Pass to the San Joaquin Valley and home.


Hobbs Grove

After eight days back at home, I set out Friday about 10:30 a.m., September 24 for the Hobbs Grove Bluegrass Festival. My friend and sometimes traveling companion, Janell Sidney, had taken the day off from work so she could attend the entire festival for the first time.

The route to this location is quick and easy, only 20 miles from home, south for ten miles on Clovis Avenue, then east toward the town of Sanger another ten miles on Central Avenue. About a half mile from the festival location it becomes Goodfellow Avenue, and there you are at Hobbs Grove.

We got there a little after 11. Since the music didn't start till 3:30, we had plenty of time to get set up, walk around a little, and fix dinner. Janell brought stuff to make some excellent chicken tacos.

Several of the groups here were ones I had seen two weeks earlier at the Brown Barn Festival, but there were also several I had not seen or heard anywhere. The thing both Janell and I commented on at the end of the festival was that every group was good to excellent, no "average" or below work. We were particularly impressed with the first group, Highway 65 from Bakersfield, who performed and dressed in traditional style.

Probably my favorite "partly new" group was The Tuttles with AJ Lee. I've mentioned Molly Tuttle and AJ Lee before, and saw them with Angelica Grim at Brown Barn both years. Molly has two brothers, 15 year old Sullivan and 12 year old Michael, who are among the best young players (guitar and mandolin respectively) I've ever seen. Their father plays fiddle and bass, and sings, along with AJ and Molly. They appear regularly around the Bay Area.

We also were impressed with 49 Special, another San Francisco group, and Belle Monroe and her Brewglass Boys, also from the Bay Area (I saw them at Parkfield). The most pleasant surprise was Smiley Mountain, a group I've seen a number of times. I had them ranked squarely in the "average" category, but they have had some personnel changes, and they are much better in my opinion (without saying the changes are necessarily the cause). They had a new fiddle player, a Fresno guy, who was the best fiddler at the festival. They also had a guest bass player, Tom Phillips from Mariposa, whom I've known a few years. He drove down with another Mariposa musician I know, Charlie Wildt, so we had a nice visit with them before the music started.

Of course, I greatly enjoyed three favorites from Brown Barn - Red Rag Andy, the Dalton Mountain Gang, and Snap Jackson. Janell had seen the first two, but became an instant Snap Jackson fan, declaring it her favorite group of the festival.

This is a nice, relaxing, low-key festival, with plenty of shade in the audience area, and pleasant rural surroundings. One of the hired security guards for Friday night was my friend Ike, who I'd seen there last year. We worked together for the county, and he has also worked with Janell and knows her well, so it was nice to have a short visit with him.

The festival ended a bit earlier than most, about 3:15. We had most of our stuff ready to go, so it took only about 15 minutes to get ready and get on the road for the 20 mile drive back to my place. After unloading the motor home, I fixed some dinner, and we took it easy until Janell's daughter came to pick her up at 5:30.

There are more festivals this year, mostly in Arizona, but I think it's time to give myself, the motor home, and my patient readers a rest, so this will probably be the last big trip of any kind this year. But be forewarned - a really BIG trip is in the works for 2011.

--Dick Estel, September 2010


(Photos open in a new window)

Brown Barn         Watsonville         Hobbs Grove
Brown Barn
Windy Hill The Boys from Windy Hill Sidesaddle & Co.
Windy Hill The Boys from Windy Hill Sidesaddle & Co.
Glenn Dauphin Oak Grove (Schwartz Family) South Valley Special
Glenn Dauphin Oak Grove (Schwartz Family) South Valley Special
Angelica Grim & Friends Angelica Molly Tuttle
Angelica Grim & Friends Angelica Molly Tuttle
Angelica & husband TJ Doerfel 3 singing angels Matt & George & their Pleasant Valley Boys
Angelica & husband TJ Doerfel 3 singing angels Matt & George & their Pleasant Valley Boys
OMGG Marty Varner Alex Sharp was a guest with several bands
OMGG At age 14, Marty has been performing on stage for over 5 years Alex Sharps was a guest with several bands
27 Strings Snap Jackson & the Knock on Wood Players Snap
27 Strings Snap Jackson & the Knock on Wood Players Snap
10-year old Chloe sang with Snap at Brown Barn Mountain Drive Earthquake Country
10-year old Chloe sang with Snap at Brown Barn and Hobbs Grove Mountain Drive Earthquake Country
Red Rag Andy Band Barry Schultz Dalton Mountain Gang
Red Rag Andy Band Barry Schultz Dalton Mountain Gang
John, Paul & Yoseff Dark Hollow MC Mike Hall
John, Paul & Yoseff Dark Hollow MC Mike Hall
Camping at the Barn      First ever Brown Barn T-Shirt
Camping at the Barn      First ever Brown Barn T-Shirt
Dark woods and redwoods along Hecker Pass The morning mist spills over the pass View from Pinto Lake RV Park
Dark woods and redwoods along Hecker Pass The morning mist spills over the pass View from Pinto Lake RV Park
Pinto Lake close up Berry bushes under cover Strawberries along Highway 129
Pinto Lake close up Berry bushes under cover Strawberries along Highway 129
    Visitors to Phil's Fish Market place a pin to show where they're from    

Visitors to Phil's Fish Market place a pin to show where they're from

Hobbs Grove
Highway 65 Smiley Mountain Red Rag Andy Band
Highway 65 Smiley Mountain Red Rag Andy Band
Snap Jackson Dalton Mountain Gang 49 Special
Snap Jackson Dalton Mountain Gang 49 Special
Uncle Ephus Groundspeed Frank Criswell & Groundspeed have played at every Hobbs Grove festival
Uncle Ephus Groundspeed

Frank Crissswell & Groundspeed have played at every Hobbs Grove festival

Red Dog Ash The Tuttles with AJ Lee AJ & Jack
Red Dog Ash The Tuttles with AJ Lee AJ & Jack
Molly, 16 Michael, 12 Sullivan, 15
Molly, 16 Michael, 12 Sullivan, 15
Belle Monroe & Her Brewglass Boys Kings River Gospelaires Kids on Bluegrass

Belle Monroe & Her Brewglass Boys

Kings River Gospelaires Kids on Bluegrass
All the kids Frank Solivan, kid wrangler The camping area
All the kids Frank Solivan, kid wrangler The camping area
    2010 Hobbs Grove T-Shirt    
    2010 Hobbs Grove T-Shirt    

Related Links

Windy Hill Sidesaddle & Company Oak Grove
Angelica Grim Pleasant Valley Boys OMGG
27 Strings Snap Jackson & the Knock on Wood Players Jennifer Kitchen & Kitchen Help
Red Rag Andy Band Dalton Mountain Gang Dark Hollow
Brown Barn Bluegrass Festival Northern California Bluegrass Association Redwood Bluegrass Associates
California Bluegrass Association Moss Landing Phil's Fish Market
Highway 65 San Martin
Uncle Ephus Red Dog Ash Tuttles & AJ Lee
Belle Monroe & Her Brewglass Boys Kids on Bluegrass Hobbs Grove
Dick's Bluegrass Links Luke Abbott Dick's Bluegrass T-Shirt Photos
     Dick's Bluegrass Odyssey    
Dalton Mountain Gang


Alex Sharp was a guest with several bands

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