Author: Cornish, Rick

So Many Ghosts

I’m not sure why, but my ten days at the Nevada County Fairgrounds last week were filled by an army of apparitions that seemed to float like a heavy mist over every square foot of campground. It could have been that the 2012 festival would be my last as an Association leader; or that Lynn wasn’t with me this year; maybe it was that so many of the regulars didn’t make it up; more likely it was because after three and a half decades worth of Fathers Days in Grass Valley there were just too many memories of fests gone by to compete with my ever-decreasing attention span. Whatever the reason, there were ghosts a plenty and, for the most part, I enjoyed them as much as the flesh and blood campers.

There was John Bunch, who called me at work one Friday morning back in 1976 and suggested that, rather than get together for our weekly blues session that night we should grab our tents and sleeping bags after work and go to a bluegrass festival. “What’s a bluegrass festival,” I asked? “Figure it out,” he answers, “blues, grass, get the picture?” That was all I needed to hear. That afternoon we headed off to Grass Valley. By the time we left the campgrounds on Sunday afternoon, John and I had had the meaning of ‘bluegrass’ burned into our brains and he and I would troll through the forest for many, many years to come searching for the perfect jam.

Gail Delaney and Randy ‘Bones’ Jensen visited me late one night last week. Gail on her wash tub bass and Randy with his gleaming white ass’ jaw and tibia keeping the beat that, in my early days of bluegrass, seemed like the natural state of affairs. Gone now for thirty years, the two were as much a part of the festival this year as any real life person there.

John Erwin, not the John with whom I’ve camped in our regular spot now for three decades, but a younger John, in his early thirties, no wife, no kids, just a banjo that refused to be put down…refused to be put into its case. We were the Duck Soup Band and we surely sounded like a bluegrass band named after a Marx Brothers movie, but oh how good we sounded to one another—I Wish You Knew, Ashes of Love, Just a Used to Be. All tunes that would in some bizarre bluegrass way shape who I would become.

And those two little boys, two and four, so wide-eyed as they peered out the back-seat window their first drive through Gate Four, paid a visit last week. What was this place with its skyscraper trees and brightly colored tents and twangy music that they’d only heard their daddy make before? Yes, my boys Phillip and Peter played in the dirt and pine needles last week and their presence broke and filled my heart at the same time.

I ran into Stuart Duncan late one night last week. The forest at the base of Quaker Hill was much, much denser and I heard the young fiddler, fourteen at most, before I saw him. He was alone and playing a waltz and he allowed me to contribute a boom-chuck-chuck. That momentary encounter has as much clarity and substance as any memory I have collected in sixty-four years.

Jim Hilden was camped with me for a time last week, though he hasn’t been to Grass Valley in a decade. He and I and Bill Schniederman and Rick Jamison played the Seldom Scene’s Muddy Water from dawn to dusk, determined that we’d get it right that evening when the Grass Menagerie played the Main Stage. It would be our last time on stage together…ever. After three years of struggling we’d accomplished what we’d set out to accomplish, and that was enough. Where do you go from there?

Eric Uglam and his Weary Hearts band mates Butch Baldassari, Ron Block and Mike Bub sang Lonely Moon especially for me while I sat in my camp alone one night. I had barely to close my eyes to hear and see them.

And Jake Quesenberry, whose version of Little Maggie that first night sitting next to John Bunch had hit me like a brick in the back of the neck, popped in to remind me, as he did back in 2000 when I was elected to the board, to not get too full of myself and to for God’s sake listen to Carl…’Listen to Carl, boy, that’s all you gotta do.’

And Dave Putnam showed up last week to sell me my two left-handed fiddles again; and Ralph Nelson was there at a two a.m. jam up in tent camping explaining to father and son the atomic medicine he’d advanced that had just recently cured Phillip of his cancer; and a brand new guy fresh out of the military named Montie Elston and the larger-than-life, tuxedoed J.D. Rhynes and the ancient Oklahoman Orville Smuthers who taught me about holding my bow just above the frog and Bill and Kenny and Mike under Hank Gibson’s parachute and...

Well, you get the picture. So many people and memories, layered one upon the next upon the next. They’ve fought so hard to break out in recent years, and break out they did at the festival last week. It’s hard to say which I enjoyed more, the 2012 Fathers Day Festival or the ghostly inhabitants of the thirty-five that preceded it.

Posted:  6/21/2012

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