Hooked on Bluegrass

Steve Tilden

In 1989 I retired after 26 years as a detective from a large So Cal metropolitan police department and the reason I brought that up is because I sang and played numerous reed instruments for eight years in a very popular all cop band called “Copper Creek”. I also strummed a banjo and a charango, an Argentine guitar, on some of the songs we did.

I lived out in the San Fernando Valley and one day heard a bluegrass radio show transmitted from a college radio station. The DJ sounded like an old cop friend I used to play folk music with when we vacationed at our trailers on the Colorado River outside of Parker, Arizona. It was Ken Tennison and in addition to his weekly bluegrass radio show, he had a music store labeled the Bluegrass Pickin’ Parlor out in the valley.

In the early 90’s I was introduced to a monthly SWABA camp out in Yucaipa, Ca. I wanted a chance to play music again. I had an old tent trailer that seemed to fit right in. After hearing the “real” talent at the camp out, I was self-relegated as a “grinner”; the Baldwin arch top stayed in its case.

Post-retirement job opportunities took me away from any SWABA activities and I drifted away from blue grassing for a few years.

Work took me to Pioneer, Ca. in the mid-90’s and I heard there was a bluegrass festival at Plymouth. There I met the Piney Creek Weasels, loved the band members, their music, antics and on and off-stage charisma. I introduced Rick Abrams to my charango, aka “Roadkill”, a ten-stringed Argentine guitar made from an armadillo shell. Within a few minutes he had it figured out. I was impressed. I was hooked on the Weasels! The Plymouth festival went away for reasons then unknown to me.

In 2003 my wife of a few years, Mary, and I attended an LAPD reunion in Coeur D’ Alene, Idaho, and ran into an old associate, Bill Wilson and his wife, Percy. We got to talking about music - he remembered Copper Creek - and he mentioned a bluegrass festival in Plymouth. I told him that Plymouth had been canceled. He advised me that someone else restarted the festival and it was on again.

My recently retired wife and I had previously purchased a 24’ travel trailer intent upon a Nationwide tour of everything we ever wanted to see and decided to check out the bluegrassing scene.

There was a CBA camp out in Woodland, so we hauled the trailer there and began setting up in a field near an electrical outlet on a light pole. The pole wasn’t hot, so we moved to another pole - no electricity there either. A man in a wheelchair came bouncing across the rutty field and invited us to camp next to him as he had electricity at his site. We came to know Grant and Darla. Grant just had to introduce me to Bill Wilhelm, a former professional associate. Bill and I had a mutual friend in Ken Tennison (Pickin’ Parlor Ken) and we literally spent hours at that first camp out reminiscing about cop work.

Later some guy in shorts and a tank top came by our camp and gave me a “Bluegrass Songbook”, an extra one he had. I offered to buy it, but he refused take anything for it.

Very fortunate for me was the fact that my wife fell in love with bluegrass music and the people she met. She had taught school for 32 years in Lodi and her circle of friends during that period differed considerably from the bluegrass element. Mary came to discover bluegrassers were the “real people”!

Mary wanted to contribute to this lengthy epistle, ergo: “Upon meeting Steve, I was exposed to and came to love a banjo playing retired cop with a good sense of humor (who knew his way around the kitchen) and whose musical tastes were opposite of mine. I preferred folk and classic rock to his country. I didn't even know what bluegrass was - other than an area of Kentucky where my mom had gone to school. He often spoke of the old Plymouth bluegrass festival, and when we found out it was starting up again courtesy of the Bakers, we made immediate plans to attend. Thursday night wandering around the grounds was my first exposure to bluegrass music. At that festival I began to fall in love with both the music and the people we met. Very soon our world revolved around Plymouth, Parker, Grass Valley, Etna, and the fall and spring camp outs. I loved being exposed to new bands (to me) on the festival stage and I also loved listening to the various jams that continued throughout the night. I still love to fall asleep to music outside our RV. And my ipod is over 90% bluegrass music. The friends we've met, the music we've heard - it's become the soundtrack of our lives - and there's no better life!”

[Editor's Note: Mary later provided her own separate "Hooked" story, which is also accessible in this gallery.]

That 24’ trailer just wasn’t big enough and now that we had a real purpose to go camp, we purchased a 27’ Komfort that gave us a lot more room. We had a generator installed and that generator introduced us to the Elliots.

We attended a festival in Paso Robles where they packed us in very tightly. It was over 100 degrees and I had to run the new genny at times to cool down the trailer and keep our dog alive. Well, the exhaust pumped into the camp site of the people next to us who were in a tent trailer. They were trying to nap on their chaise lounges and we got to meet Steve and Sharon Elliot up close. Through them we met Frank Solivan, then the Kids on Bluegrass, Hank and Nancy Zuniga and the Stanleys who promoted the festival as well as others. That Baldwin pretty much stayed in its case as I continued to “grin” and observe all the “real” talent at such gatherings.

We went to Parker and met Bill and Percy Wilson there. Bill and Percy became the closest of friends over the next few years and all due to bluegrassing. We met the festival promoters, Larry and Sondra Baker, who had the metabolisms of shrews; it had been a long time since I’d seen so much consistent energy. The Bakers never once forgot our names after our initial meeting; impressive. And, they put on a great, fun festival!

The people we met through bluegrassing became friends, the extensive list of which just continues to grow. We’re in the actual geographic Northern California near I-5 outside of Weed and often become the stopping off place for I-5 travelers en route to/from Oregon. Some bluegrass friends, as well as others, have stopped by for over nights and vittles. Wow, all this fun; it seems we have found a wonderful retirement niche!

And, of course, I just had to have that Deering banjo the CBA offered at auction; I picked it up at the last Father’s Day festival. Now thanks to Dan Martin and Pat Calhoun, I have been forced to learn a little bluegrass music and even joined in on the slow jam at Grass Valley last year.

At Christmas I received Bill Martin’s “Banjo for Dummies” from my bride. Suppose I should open that book some day and actually pull that Deering out of its case ‘n’ do a little more than just grin? Perhaps.

(posted 2/18/2008)

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