Studio Insider--February 2013

Studio Insider #178 February, 2013

The Great 48

For the past several years, I’ve been noticing a certain post-holiday-season buzz among CBA members concerning “The Great 48.” Typically busy with family and professional obligations early in January, I have let this one go by, figuring Wintergrass (later February, near Seattle) would sate my thirst for a festival in the midst of the seasonal drought. However, I’ve just attended my first “Great 48,” and am still enjoying the afterglow from this “festival lite” and a gathering of long-time friends.

The drive

Bakersfield is about 250 miles south of the Bay Area, located near the intersection of Interstate 5 and Highway 99. A 4-hour experience on Highway 5 wasn’t high on my list of favorite activities, so I chose to drive south on 101, through Gonzales, Soledad, King City, and Paso Robles. From Paso Robles I navigated southeast on rural roads to Highway 58, which took me east to Bakersfield, passing through old California. Farms, ranches, oil fields and native oaks glowed under a spectacular late afternoon sun, and I passed very few other vehicles on this beautiful country drive.

The back story

In February 2006 and 2007, the CBA produced a winter festival called “SuperGrass” in Bakersfield, CA. It was a large mid-winter indoor festival, with top name bands, workshops, vendors, day-and-night jamming, and extra-musical family events. But support from local sponsors and attendees didn’t reach the amount needed to generate a self-sustaining festival, and it didn’t continue. However, many in the CBA still wanted to enjoy a bluegrass-centered event during this normally slow time of the year, and out of this desire the “Great 48-Hour Jam” was born.

Passing the Buck

The festival is held at the DoubleTree by Hilton, just off Highways 99 and 58 in Bakersfield, and less than a mile from Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace. The Crystal Palace was an important mecca for west-coast country music lovers, as Owens would frequently perform there, continuing right up to just a few days before he died. It’s still an active country music performance venue, and is filled with Buck Owens memorabilia, including some of his outlandish Nudie suits and his instruments.

In 2006, while in Bakersfield for SuperGrass, I went to the Crystal Palace with several other CBA members, and watched Buck and his band perform. “I understand the California Bluegrass Association is in town,” Buck announced from the stage. “I’m thrilled that they’re here, because I love bluegrass. In fact, I wanted to be a bluegrass musician, but I wasn’t good enough.” The audience laughed, but Buck was sincere. Then he played a rough version of “Orange Blossom Special” on his fiddle.

Buck is gone now, but his memory echoes on in Bakersfield. The “Bakersfield sound” was a take-off on honky-tonk music from the 1940’s, and was pioneered by Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, and recreated in the 1980’s by Dwight Yoakam. It’s an important part of country music history, and Great 48 attendees can explore Bakersfield and its environs while in town for the gathering. Old downtown Bakersfield is just a couple of miles from the DoubleTree, and I enjoyed riding my bicycle there and exploring. With an interesting collection of classic early 20th century architecture, current businesses co-exist with shuttered buildings awaiting redevelopment or rebirth. After I had ridden a few miles along the Kern River, which separates the DoubleTree from downtown, I stopped at one of the many coffee shops for a great cup of java and a hot muffin. There is a large supply of antique dealers, and I found some great old sheet music, which was easy to pack on my bike. The old F.W. Woolworth’s store is still there, with its original signs intact. It’s now an antique dealers’ collective, and the original luncheon counter is up and running. The smells of coffee, burgers, and other traditional fare fill the air in the store, spread around by the hanging ceiling fans and accompanied by a pleasant buzz of people coming and going.

I found a thriving Mexican-American culture, with Spanish language signs on grocery stores, taquerias, pawn shops, check-cashing outfits, and churches. After I had ridden all morning and explored this colorful old downtown, I had a wonderful lunch at a taqueria. I was probably the only native English speaker there. A shrimp taco salad and drink cost me less than $5.

Rhonda Vincent

This year the Great 48 included a Friday night concert by bluegrass greats Rhonda Vincent and the Rage. Traveling through the area, they were happy to arrange a performance for this hand-picked audience of bluegrass lovers. Rhonda always puts on a top-notch professional show, and Friday’s was no disappointment. Afterwards, Rhonda and the band stayed for at least an hour, chatting with the audience, signing autographs, posing for pictures, and holding babies. Their colorful Martha White tour bus stayed late, and I saw some of the band members walking the halls, looking for good jams.


Saturday night’s entertainment was the “Band Scramble.” The scramble is a superb and sometimes hysterical concert in which recently-assembled “bands” each perform three tunes and tell a joke. A panel of judges evaluates the performances, based on many non-musical criteria, and a spirit of fun pervades this event while many performers earn their first-ever public performance stripes. Afterwards, stories echo through the halls and rooms of the DoubleTree while jams last into the wee hours.

Professional groups also offered short performances at vendor showcases. Bakersfield-based band The Roustabouts, featuring Craig Wilson and Kelvin Gregory, performed in the Music Caravan suite, as did The Central Valley Boys, decked out in their blue suits and white boots. The Drifter Sisters and other groups played as well, so audiences who enjoy jam sessions can also listen to more rehearsed music.

The Great 48 is really centered around jamming, and for a large number of attendees, the core focus is the jamming in the halls and rooms of the DoubleTree. I stayed up way past my normal curfew and heard a huge variety of music from many musicians, both professional and amateur. I’ll be back again next year.

Joe Weed records acoustic music at his Highland Studios near Los Gatos, California. He has released six albums of his own, produced many projects for independent artists and labels, and does sound tracks for film, TV and museums. Joe’s composition “Hymn to the Big Sky” was heard in “The Dust Bowl,” a film by Ken Burns, which premiered November 18 and 19, 2012 (8:00–10:00 p.m. ET on PBS). Joe recently produced “Pa’s Fiddle,” a collection of 19th-century American music played by “Pa” Charles Ingalls, father of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of the “Little House on the Prairie” book series. Reach Joe by calling (408) 353-3353, by email at, or by visiting

Posted By:  Rick Cornish

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