Hooked on Bluegrass

Darby Brandli



I love June! When I was growing up June meant the end of the school year and the beginning of summer vacation and, for my family when I was young, that meant Lake Tahoe. When Bruno and I finally had children of our own in the early 80’s, we had to plan summer vacation for our own family. The year our children were three and six we planned a family camping trip culminating in a bluegrass festival held in an area where we had spent a lot of time in the 60’s, the Nevada City/Grass Valley area. Bruno and I had both discovered bluegrass music in the early 60’s in Berkeley but were not familiar with the California Bluegrass Association or this festival.

We planned a few days camping on the American River at Coloma and visiting the spot where John Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill. We saw beaver and my son Kurt almost stepped on a rattlesnake, fortunately he was still young enough to walk holding tightly to my hand and was pulled up and over the snake.

We visited my Grandparent’s old house in Georgetown, a place where I had spent lots of time in the 50’s. We continued on Highway 49 through Auburn and toward Nevada City where Bruno and I had actually spent our first night as a married couple in 1969 in a wonderful old house fronting the shortest freeway in the world.

We arrived at the Nevada County Fairgrounds and were amazed to find so many people. We pitched our tent and explored the grounds and that did it! We knew, in that first hour, that we were home and have never looked back.

The children loved the festival and made friends immediately. They never became bluegrass fans but many of their friends now play in bluegrass bands and they are tolerant of the music. I believe that one day they will “rediscover” the music and become fans. They still attend festivals and are CBA members.

Bruno and I had our life transformed by our attendance at this first festival. We returned with our family for the next couple of years and then met a group of Alaskan bluegrassers who, in turn, introduced us to local people who remain close friends. We added more festivals to the summer months and met more people. More and more people began camping with us and we began to host events at our house throughout the year. Our camp was named Camp Spam about a decade ago (another story for another time) and we somehow started “adopting” teenagers not related to us by anything other than the love of the music. (Some of these teenagers lived with us at various times when they reached their twenties and were homeless musicians).

We were always card carrying members of the CBA but never participated in official CBA business. We were totally satisfied with Father’s Day and the lineup of musicians and the ambience of the CBA events. We received our reminder to renew our membership annually and sent in our check and our membership cards arrived in the mail. We purchased Early Bird tickets and the tickets arrived in the mail. We received the Bluegrass Breakdown each month and read that wonderful publication cover to cover. We purchased festival shirts and merchandise items. We ate at the concessions. All those functions were “invisible” to us.

We immediately became interested in CBA business and decision making when the move to abolish the tent camping area raised its controversial head several years ago. The tent camping area was the center of our festival universe and that CBA business became visible and personal and all of a sudden our participation was essential. The “silent” membership group we belonged to was all of a sudden engaged and a voice emerged. That the CBA had a group that might make decisions we were not in tune with became immediately apparent where it had been invisible before. Epiphany!

We knew none of the officers or Board members of the CBA. Frank Solivan always camped across the road from us and we knew all about the Kids on Bluegrass Program. Frank’s program enhanced our experience but did not introduce us to an inner circle. We knew no one who camped on the other side of the water ditch until Tom Tworek and I put together the Giant Banjo Booth about five years ago and I met some of the people who were responsible for the organization and were active decision makers. I began to meet some of the parents of the young people who hung out at our camp who had been there all along on the other side of the water ditch. I met Rick Cornish through his son, Phil, and looking back, hold him entirely responsible for what was to come.

Rick decided to run for the CBA Board. Mark Hogan, another friend and tent camper, again became active with the Board. The “anti tent camping area” wound was still raw enough to pique my interest in CBA policy. I was no longer watching small children and had time to participate at a different level in the CBA. Rick suggested I apply for the East Bay Activities Vice President position and the die was cast.

I began to attend some of the Board meetings. Once I had met people who camped in the Heavy Metal section on the other side of the water ditch I wanted to visit with them and started questioning why bicycles were not allowed at the festival. On hot days, crossing the water ditch to socialize was something I did not want to do on foot. I found others who felt the same way and, voila, bicycles were re-introduced to the festival. I found a voice and that voice belonged to me.

CBA business became visible and I found that all the invisible actions in the past (festival planning, membership, tickets, merchandise, etc) were all made possible by an incredibly dedicated volunteer pool and they were just like me and the CBA Board was looking for more participation and involvement. Rick was relentless (he can recruit, shame, cajole, beg) and more Spammers began volunteering and more and different CBA events became mandatory. The first CBA Music Camp marked a milestone in my involvement. We met young people who had somehow heard about the music camp and knew nothing of the CBA (some of them did not even know a festival followed the camp) and (another epiphany) I realized that we needed this group to ensure that the music remain alive and that the organization must reach out to a younger demographic.

So what is my message this month? First of all, JOIN or RENEW YOUR MEMBERSHIP. The second message is to VOLUNTEER. There is something for everyone to do and it is amazing what the organization accomplishes with volunteers. Volunteers run the festivals, the campouts, the concerts, the jams, write the articles in the Breakdown, create, program and contribute to the fabulous website, choose and design and sell the merchandise, sell the tickets, manage the membership, run the absolutely wonderful children’s programs and lending library and scholarship fund. Look at the electrical work that has to be done for events and the construction of the stages and the potluck planning and the entertainment selection and the IBMA event and every single small and large job that goes into making a festival occur….backstage, reservations, advertising, hospitality and security, gate work. All jobs are done by volunteers.

What we need are more ambassadors for bluegrass, old time and gospel music…we need you out in your own communities inviting people to hear about the music, to hear about the organization, to participate in this large community. We want you to bring someone “new” with you every time you attend an event. We want you to reach out to a younger demographic and be the ambassador for the music (you don’t have to invite them to live with you but you can buy them a membership). We want you to join and participate in any way you choose. We want you to be a more active part of this large family.

(posted 4/12/2009)


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