Hooked on Bluegrass
Music was always important in my family. So important that when my parents, a poor, young married couple, got a few dollars ahead, they spent it on a record player, to the disapproval of certain non-music appreciative in-laws.
My mother has music in her blood. She was born and grew up in Missouri and Arkansas, sang in the little country churches with her sisters when she was little, and learned to accompany herself on the guitar when she was a teenager. I remember her singing, it seemed, all the time—old church hymns, “hillbilly” songs, country songs, western tunes. My dad was her biggest fan. I barely remember that little record player, but I do remember the day we brought home… the STEREO.
It was probably in the mid-sixties when the biggest, beautifulest, most expensive piece of furniture we owned arrived into our living room. About the size of a coffin, it stood on four slender tapered legs about eight inches tall. It was very shiny, a rich golden mahogany wood-grained masterpiece. In the front, ornately carved sections of wood lay across the nubby yellow-gold fabric covering the speakers. You would lift the glossy lid to reveal the treasure inside—a turntable and a radio, with a empty square to store a stack of record albums.
The first record Mom played was one that I had not been impressed with before. It had a thin, tinny scratchy sound on the other record player.
“This is a stereo record,” she said as she placed Mac Wiseman on the record changer, “and now you’ll hear it like it is supposed to sound.”
“On a day like today, we pass the time away writing love letters in the sand.”
It was like a sweet knife made of crystal that went straight to my heart. I loved it.
Besides a few collections of Jazz and Dixieland, we had about a dozen or so Country and Bluegrass-style records that I helped wear out over the years. I adored Flatt and Scruggs, Bill Monroe was so-so, and the harmonies of the Chuck Wagon Gang fascinated me. I was young enough that I believed it when Jimmy Rogers paid a visit to the Carters, and when A.P. told Sarah to go out and get a chicken to fry up for dinner, I thought of the chicken Mom was always frying up in the big cast-iron skillet, the aroma spreading through the house on a summer evening. And I always knew that if I woke up to Jimmy Martin at high volume on a Saturday morning, that meant it was a heavy-duty cleaning day.
I spent a lot of time stretched out on the carpet down in front of the stereo, just lying there while the records I’d stacked on the spindle played and dropped and played.
As is usual with teenagers, I learned to appreciate popular rock music in high school. Bluegrass went on the back burner. But then, the next best thing to the stereo happened in our area. And that was the Bluegrass Festival. We were excited; I’d never heard of such a thing, never been to one. We attended Jack Ramsey’s Bluegrass Festival held at the Tulare County Fairgrounds one summer. It was hot, dusty, and I don’t remember our accommodations being very fancy, but it was such an eye-opening, amazing experience! It breathed new life into this music as it related to me. The way people stood around in groups playing, how strangers wandered by with their instruments and stepped in to play, and how the “stars” from the stage were so accessible as they made music on into the night.
I’m always so tickled when I get to talk to someone at the CBA Father’s Day Festival who is a first-timer. I love to hear them try to express how amazed they are by their experience. “I never knew there was anything,” as they mutely gesture around, “like this!” I like being reminded of how excited I was as a festival newbie, looking forward to the next one, wondering if the groups we liked, Dave Dickey and Lost Highway, Pacifically Bluegrass, Damascus Road, would be there.
My parents were early members of the California Bluegrass Association, and I joined around 1990. Bluegrass organizations are essential to our kind of music; they don’t play it on the radio, it’s not what your neighbors probably listen to, the kids at school probably don’t think it’s cool, and besides, Bluegrass is a participatory sport. A lot of the joy is in playing it yourself. So I’m really grateful to associations like the CBA, which provide a constant arena to learn, meet like-minded folks, watch and listen to musicians, buy recordings, and offer such a family-friendly atmosphere. I’m proud of the CBA, happy to be a volunteer to help its mission, and can say it has definitely helped me stay ... Hooked on Bluegrass!
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