Hooked on Bluegrass
My first instrument was a ukulele and the first song I learned was “Tom Dooley.” It was not long before my mom bought me a 50’s vintage all mahogany Martin tenor guitar. That was in about 1961. Three of my older brothers played guitar, mostly at church sings and with friends. We were influenced during those years by the cowboy songs my dad loved and by the folk songs of the Kingston Trio, The Bothers Four and Peter, Paul & Mary. My only exposure to bluegrass was from the Grand Old Opry that my grandparents used to listen to.
I did not play a 6 stringed guitar until the late 60’s and continued with gospel and folk music. My brothers were my mentors and played a boom-chuck style of rhythm with a little carter style thrown in. I learned to play “Wildwood Flower” as a carter style instrumental. I was also familiar with Flatt and Scruggs and Earl’s “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.”
As was common in the early 70’s in Chico California, there were coffee shops and bars that hosted open mics and I used to play there some. I’d sing the old folk songs and some of the new John Denver tunes. Well, one night I was playing at a place called Martha’s Kitchen and I must have played something with a little carter style picking in it. A guy with a banjo came up to me after my set and said, “Do you play any bluegrass?” I was not really sure what that meant, but said “I guess so” and played a few bars of “Wildwood Flower.”
With that, we went outside and sat on the curb and worked up three songs; Foggy Mountain Breakdown, Earl’s Breakdown and Cripple Creek. I played rhythm on the guitar and my new friend carried the lead on the banjo. This was the first time I had ever been close to a banjo, let alone played with one. Well, the crowd went nuts. They heehawed and stomped their feet and clapped. Nobody ever did that when I played before and now I was “hooked on bluegrass.” I even bought a brand new Vega banjo made by C. F. Martin. My new friend was Ted Smith who went on to win Best Backup Guitarist in Weiser Idaho and played with the Oak River Boys, The South Loomis Quickstep Band and is still at it today writing music, performing, and judging fiddle contests.
As for me, I continued to play some bluegrass but really didn’t know many others who did. After my career took off and I had a family, my music took a backseat to nearly everything else and I hardly played or sang for 20 years. Then a friend invited me to play guitar behind some old time fiddle music and I was not sure I even could since my hands, voice and ears had really gone downhill. We had so much fun playing together that we started jamming regularly and still do to this day. At over the age of 50 or 51 I decided to take my first guitar lesson. I was introduced to Sid Lewis, of the Chico Acoustic College, and started learning to flat-pick fiddle tunes, even bought an HD-28. I learned more in six months from Sid than I did in the 40 years before. So I am still playing and have put on a number of bluegrass concerts for some of the country’s best, most recently the Kenny and Amanda Smith Band.
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