Hooked on Bluegrass

Chuck Poling

As a small child I remember my parents playing folk music records and hearing Pete Seeger play banjo and sing “Sail Away Ladies” and Ed McCurdy singing cowboy songs. Growing up in San Francisco the ‘60s, I soon switched to a steady diet of rock ‘n roll, faithfully listening to KFRC and KYA, and I started nagging my parents for a guitar.

I finally got the guitar, but by the mid ‘70s something terribly wrong had happened to rock music. Disco, metal, punk, ugh! About the time I mastered an F chord, rock music was so effed up that I started searching the record stores and airwaves for something new. Instead I found something old, tuning in to the left end of the radio dial to listen to blues, country, Cajun and Celtic music. I also spent several years playing bass for the almost all African-American Wilson High School gospel choir.

My formal introduction to bluegrass was provided by the staff of San Francisco’s Southeast Sewage Treatment Plant. The plant was absolutely infested with folk and bluegrass musicians, thanks to the late John Barger, who arranged to hire an endless succession of pickers to fill in various jobs. (One of these “temporary” workers, Ray Bierl, is featured in my column in the February 2008 Breakdown.) My dad was employed there as a chemist and would tell me about the lunchtime jam sessions and started bringing home records the musicians recommended. I got to hand it to ‘em, those sewage plant workers really knew their…stuff.

One record that made an impression on me was Kenny Hall and the Sweets Mill String Band. The music was hokey, silly, corny – it was anything but cool and hip. But it was fun! Fun to listen to, fun to dance to and, as I soon found out, fun to play. My appetite had been whetted and I was hungry for more. Like a lot of young bluegrass acolytes of that day, I wore the grooves off of Will the Circle be Unbroken and Old and in the Way. But it was hearing the high lonesome stuff that really cut through. The Stanley Brothers singing “Memory of Your Smile” flipped me out. And I was amazed at how Bill Monroe could put such machismo into singing in a woman’s range and playing a frilly little instrument that resembled a baroque ukulele.

I started hanging out at the San Francisco Folk Music Club gatherings on Clayton Street (where I met my future wife, Jeanie) and was sneaking into Paul’s Saloon well shy of my 21st birthday. I went to the Western Heritage Folklife Festival in Marin County and was thrilled by Vern Williams delivering the real deal right there in front of me.

Jeanie and I had to put music on the backburner while our children were young, but anytime we got a chance, we’d play – for the preschools, Girl Scouts, whatever. As our kids got older we found ourselves with time on our hands and, at the suggestion of a friend who lived in Grass Valley, we checked out the Father’s Day Festival in 1992. By then I had long been a fan of various types of country music, but I quickly learned that bluegrass was about more than the records or the performers on the stage. The workshops, the jamming and the sense of community that prevails really impressed me.

Since then Jeanie and I have been enjoying the music and the friends and are absolutely, indisputably, irrevocably hooked on bluegrass.

(posted 2/3/2008)

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