2016 Parkfield Bluegrass Festival was one of the best. It was also
one of the worst.
dispose of the "glass half empty" aspects of the festival,
so I can concentrate on the positive aspects, which outweighed the
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 noisy bar.
The rain was
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
whose unique sound was enhanced by a cello, not a common instrument
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.
outstanding the first day was Gold
Heart, featuring the Gold Sisters
and family from Virginia. Their sibling harmony was delicious.
evening's lead-off artist was a girl I've seen perform since she was
11, originally with OMGG at the
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
performer of most interest to me in the morning was Amber
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).
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
and great views of the
hills on both sides of the valley. Near the bridge there is a
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.
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