Author: Varner, Mark

Mike McKinley

Dear friends,

Well, it’s a Post Super Bowl Monday. It was quite an entertaining game, eh?

I have bellied up to ye olde keyboard this morning to welcome one and all to the CBA’s website. In case you have not been here before, this space is filled daily with pearls of wisdom and pieces of news related to bluegrass and old time music and those who love them. We have a legion of talented writers to edify our visitors and members each day, I being the least of these creatures.

In fact I have a reputation for writing “birthday columns” involving much piracy of internet material. I am supremely lazy, I will not deny it. This is a tempting date, I must say! It’s not only the birthday of Him of the Big Bang of Bluegrass, Earl Scruggs, but it’s also the anniversary of the birth of the delightfully irascible and extremely talented Suzanne Thomas.

(Side note: I recall last year someone posted on the message board that they could be in touch with Hotmud Family, but I cannot remember whom that was. Contact me offline, if you would.)

But I will veer off my usual track and write today about an old buddy of mine who is worthy of note when discussing bluegrass music in California.

It was my pleasure to attend the Northern California Bluegrass Association’s Bluegrass On Broadway event recently. A partial day of fine performances by bands like Windy Hill and Bean Creek was followed by the Northern California Bluegrass Awards. Awards are given to the “best” guitarist, fiddler, singer, band, etc. Also presented is a set of awards for lifetime achievements of individuals who have done much to further bluegrass and old time music in Central California, especially the San Francisco Bay Area. Lifetime Achievement Awards were presented to four currently-active, longtime leaders of Bay Area music non-profit organizations: Steve Baker, Berkeley (Berkeley Society For The Preservation Of Traditional Music dba The Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse), Richard Brooks, Palo Alto (Santa Clara Valley Fiddlers Association), Bruce Edmundson, Mountain View (Redwood Bluegrass Associates), and Mike McKinley, Santa Cruz (Northern California Bluegrass Society/Santa Cruz Bluegrass Society).

When I found out Mike McKinley was to receive an award I asked if I could be the presenter. Mike and I go way back and I could think of quite a few reasons why this man should be so honored.

As many of you know, I am a Santa Cruzado, living up in the forests above this most glorious little city on the Monterey Bay. My wife and I moved up here in the early 90s, about the same time as we fell in love with bluegrass. At that time I started casting about for sources of information about the music. Mike was a bluegrass DJ on KAZU radio in Pacific Grove, Mike was a member of the very likable band, Harmony Grits, and he was a mandolin teacher at Sylvan Music in Santa Cruz. He was a one-stop-shopping bluegrass friend and as my first mando teacher and later partner on the radio show, the guy taught me much and got me started on the road I’m still following today… right now in fact, ha ha!

Anyhoo, why give Mike this big honor? Well, in the Santa Cruz area the man has been an industrious bluegrass promotion machine, which seems odd for a person I would describe as laid back and fun loving.

Mike started the Santa Cruz Bluegrass Faire in 1987 after being inspired by Pete Wernick and others at IBMA. The idea is to hold a bluegrass concert in a public space, like a park, so folks could drop in casually and be exposed to the music. It was a way of ambushing “civilians” and showing them what they were missing. Guerilla bluegrass, Mike calls it. The free event will happen again this May in San Lorenzo Park.

Mike has been a leader in the NCBS, having served as president, vice president, and board member.

Mike is responsible for turning his then-roommate, Gillian Welch, onto the Stanley Brothers. Mike got the call when comedian Steve Martin needed to learn how to jam (in the privacy of his home).

Gail Rich Award winning Harmony Grits has probably been responsible for easing many, many young people into bluegrass. They definitely have a different stage presence than most any band you could name. Mike Hall reminded me of a story about the Grits at one of the first Good Old Fashioned Festivals. The band came out for their set, Mike wearing no pants, just boxers. After a while Mike looked down and in mock horror said, “Oh no! I forgot my pants. Now the CBA will NEVER hire us!”

Mike was recently married to the very lovely Lisa and he will soon join her in Texas. We’ll miss him!

Anyhoo. I’m sure glad there are all kinds of folks in our music. It never gets dull, does it?! Go, Mike! And congrats on your award and your new life!

Your pal,
Mark Varner
Posted:  2/6/2012

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