Hooked on Bluegrass

Phil Cornish

If it was not the first CBA Father's Day Bluegrass Festival, it was the second or third, and I was either a baby or a toddler or a very small person. After that I missed few here and there because of school, or sports, or something else only slightly more important. It did not become because of the music until later, back then it was about fishing, or riding my bike, or playing with friends.

My dad played bass and sang lead for many years with many different lineups in his band, the Grass Menagerie. I am not exactly sure when, but he decided to start playing fiddle, and attacked the task with all of his ADD, or OCD, or whatever he has that makes him obsess about the most recent passion du jour. This took the form of playing fiddle tunes in the morning, and then again at night, incessantly, for hours on end. My brother and I laid in bed trying to fall asleep while the tunes rattled around the house looking for ears to enter. This was not the way to hook someone on bluegrass, especially kids trying to be cool everyday at school, but then again, that was not his goal.

So I went off to college at UC Berkeley, and Dad stayed behind and went about his business. One day I found an old recording of the Grass Menagerie; an album called Buffalo Bluegrass, and popped it in my tape deck. I listened to it many times and it started to grow on me. I started memorizing words without even thinking about it. I started hearing tenor harmonies without even realizing it. Since home was only a short BART ride away, I would visit on the weekends if nothing else was going on around campus.

One Friday night I visited Dad's house for dinner. Turned out others were visiting as well for a bluegrass jam. I stood around the periphery and listened, not really knowing if the music was any good or not, but it was entertaining. Someone called a song I recognized off the Buffalo Bluegrass tape and when the chorus came up, I chimed in with the tenor part. Dad looked at me bewildered. Apparently, this was the first time he had ever heard me sing a real song. Maybe a video game theme song, or sing along songs in the car, but not a real song in front of people. It was not hard to tell that he liked what he heard and wanted more of it. There were more visits, more jams, and more tenor singing, and then maybe some lead singing, but still no instrument in my hand.

Dad also started passing me CD's of his favorite tunes or bands, and I started listening to more bluegrass music in general. Then my grandpa C.O. died and we went to visit my grandma on the eastern side of the Sierras to help her settle things up and get the house ready for sale. In the attic I found a baritone ukulele along with an instruction book. I took the ukulele back to Forestry school to finish out the summer, and some of my guitar playing friends there helped me learn more about the instrument. By the time I got back to Berkeley, I could strum chords and sing at the same time, and could even figure out chords to a new song by ear.

The next time I went to a jam at Dad's house, I brought the ukulele along and sat on the edges seeing what I could do. I could sing, but the ukulele did not pack enough heat to be heard over any of the other instruments. I guess at this point I was already hooked because when Dad looked over at me and suggested we get me a true bluegrass instrument, I jumped at the chance. That Christmas he gave me my first mandolin. I chose the mandolin because it was small and easy to carry around campus, as I had been doing with the ukulele. Practice began instantly. I was amazed at how quickly I could learn the standard fiddle tunes. Then I realized they had been lying dormant in my head all these years because of listening to Dad practice them over and over and over…I could pick them out on my own, or someone could show me a new one and I could learn it by ear. I stuck with it and started meeting new people and forming bands.

Now when I went to the Father's Day Festival it was all about the music, there was no time to ride my bike or go fishing. I even got to join Dad's band, the Grass Menagerie for several years until he moved up to the mountains. I joined other bands and even started recording albums. But it's not about the music, it's about the people who play and love the music. Bluegrass music is what brings us together, but the friendships are what keep us coming back year after year. Clearly it was Dad who got me hooked on Bluegrass, and I can never thank him enough for all the joy it has brought me.

(posted 7/2/2006)

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