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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
other groups all belong in that OK to fairly good category which is
essential to fill out a four-day program of bluegrass music.
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.
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.
Saturday I just walked around town, going down every
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.
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
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.
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