Hooked on Bluegrass

Marcos Alvira

Frankly, I can’t really remember not ever listening to bluegrass, though I suppose that technically, mere listening does not necessarily equate to be “hooked.” I’ll never forget the time when in 1962, by dad brought home a brand new portable stereo. It was black with silver and gray speaker cloth. It had a pull down Gerrard turntable. The speakers opened up like a book and resembled the ears of a large elephant. It was one of those new stereophonic record players. The elephant ear speakers detached and could be spread across the room. My dad had two albums: one was of sound effects—race cars traveling across our living room; fighter jets screaming across our ceiling; etc. My dad would have guests sit at the center of the room in a stiff backed kitchen chair, the speakers placed in opposite corners, and they would marvel at the stereophonic journey in our San Francisco flat.

The other stereo LP he bought was “Bluegrass Banjo Hootenanny” by Ed Cassady and the Georgia Corn Stompers. At the tender age of four, I knew that I wanted to be a sheriff or cowboy, and that music just got me riled up. Whenever my parents put it on, I’d run off to my room, slip on my cowboy boots, six shooter, and Gene Autry hat and commence to dancing to the “cowboy music” in front of that stereo. Boy, my heels would be clicking when that banjo got geared up to 200+ beats per minute. My grandparents would clap and laugh, and offer me a dollar if I danced especially well. (It was always a dime because, as my grandfather said, all the taxes had been taken out). By 1964, our record collection had expanded. Our country records, as we called them included Hank Williams, Eddie Arnold, Marty Robbins, as well as Ed Cassady. I would act out the Marty Robbins ballads, but bluegrass was for foot stompin’.

Throughout my teens and through my thirties, I remained fond of bluegrass and listened to it often, along with other American roots music. There were many radio stations to nurture that musical relationship: KPFA, KPIG, KKUP, and a number of small college. Interestingly enough, I had a couple of close calls with bluegrass in the Eighties, that had they come to fruition, might have altered the musical and social trajectory of my life immensely. In 1984, there was a bluegrass band playing in Hayward. There was a pretty young gal singing lead at the time and, little did she know, I was one infatuated fan. During a break between sets at the newly opened Buffalo Bills, she and I got to talking. After a bit, she invited me to come up to a new bluegrass festival at Grass Valley with her and the band. As fun as that festival sounded, I was unclear about her signals and decided to sit that one out. I often wonder how my life would have changed had I gone. Undoubtedly, I would have met a young JD, Mark Hogan, and Rick Cornish…folks whom I count among my friends today. What might have happened had I gone and my young, unfettered exuberance had come into contact and become infected with the bluegrass fervor of the early CBA? I’m sure that in another parallel dimension, that reality might just be playing itself out now as I type.

As it winds up, it was about six years ago, when I retired from coaching baseball, that I found myself with time on my hands. I decided that I had come to a point in my life where if I wanted to become a decent musician, I needed to focus on one type of music. For whatever reason, that year listening to bluegrass had become an obsession. I can only say that it spoke to my heart. The tight vocal harmonies were always moving, and the deftness of pickers like Tony Rice, Doc Watson, Norman Blake, and Clarence White not only amazed me, but also had me baffled, as well. They were reminiscent of flamenco guitar players- one man, one guitar, and two hands concurrently produced barrages of notes that seemed to number in the thousands every second, rhythm and lead intertwining seamlessly. One weekend, I was invited to a private jam at a ranch hosted by my new friend Vince Janssens. It was there that I met Wayne and Betty Nolan, Corey and Robin Welch and a whole bunch of other folks that I count as friends today. What I discovered was that playing bluegrass is only half the joy. The greater half is the fine folks, pickers and listeners alike, that form community that at its best, feels a lot like family. By the season’s end, I had attended three festivals and was firmly hooked on bluegrass.

(posted 5/25/2012)

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