Hooked on Bluegrass
I grew up on a cotton and alfalfa farm about 15 miles west of Bakersfield, CA from the mid 1940s until our family bought a home in the city. It was our family's “home place” after my grandfather pulled up stakes in Southwest Missouri in around 1918 and relocated his family, which then included four kids, to California the “land of plenty.” Grandpa initially took work in the oilfields of Taft to make ends meet but farming was in his blood and when the opportunity soon arose he began developing a 160 acre piece of rented sagebrush land that would later become my early home. Being a farm boy in that era was an idyllic experience and from very early on I seemed to be drawn to music and especially to the guitar. My folks didn't regularly listen to country music (my mom was not southern or a “country” person) but my dad had latent musical talent and could paly some really sweet harmonica. I believe the musical genes came from Grandma who was originally from the Roanoke, VA area. Her mother was a Hylton, of whom several prominent Bluegrass artists from that family performed in that region.
On my own, I would spend hour upon hour in the late forties and early 50s on our console radio tuning in the myriad of country stations that were broadcasting in the area. And if that weren't enough, Benson and Lizelle Davis and their kids (tenants on the farm) sure listened to county music. While playing near their little shack the strains of many an early country artist could be heard loud and clear from their radio and on one occasion I recall hearing some guy named Bill Monroe singing “Footprints in the Snow.”
I wanted a guitar very badly and I'm sure I bugged my folks to death for one. Then when I was about six my dad came home with a cheap Stella guitar that he bought off of some guy in a bar for $6. It maybe was worth every dollar? Well I had this guitar but no one to show me how to play so it sat around collecting dust over the years except for the occasions I would try to pick some on it.
As I entered high school country was no longer cool and along with a friend I took about three months of guitar lessons. It wasn't long until we had a full fledged rock band with me playing rhythm on a Gibson Les Paul Jr and later a Fender Jazzmaster and bass on a Danelectro. We actually developed into a pretty good band to the point that we had bookings every weekend playing mostly for high school dances and special events. We were also successful in an audition to play in a state wide talent competition at the Hollywood Bowl. In another band I played in, we opened for the Beach Boys on two different occasions.
In my junior year, playing high school football became far more important to me and I dropped out of the band. I dabbled with music occasionally from then until I was about 18. Then I vividly remember one day driving my dad's shiny El Camino to pick up a tractor part and was casually listening to one of the local country stations. Then “boom”, all of a sudden there was this song playing that touched a chord and changed my life forever. It was “Eight more miles to Louisville” being sung by Reno and Smiley. That did it! I went out and started buying up every Bluegrass LP I could find, bought a new flat top guitar and traded away my Jazzmaster for a vintage F-4 Gibson mandolin and an old dobro. The hook was really set when I met this 16 year old kid named Larry Cohea who was playing the 5-string banjo. Larry and I soon became inseparable and started our first Bluegrass band, the Cumberland County Boys a short time later. The rest is largely history but includes getting to know and hang out with the Dillards, and meeting Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs when they were still in there hay day...
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