Author: Cornish, Rick

Dark Journey into the Eye of the Beast

Good morning from Whiskey Creek, where my five closest friends and allies each seemed to have their own special and unique reason for being tickled that I arrived home safe and generally on time from my four days away from home and hearth. Eddy, the oldest of the dogs was far and away the most demonstrative of my crew. For the first three hours I was back home he positioned himself right next to me, making sure that some part of his body was touching some part of mine. His reason for being tickled I made it back—he’s my favorite of the four dogs…when I’m not there he’s nobody’s favorite. Willie, the youngest and easiest to tickle was thrilled that there was once again a human in the house that allowed full-on licking of the face…no licking of lips allowed, however. Rudy issued a rapturous sigh upon my return because--and he’ll be the first to admit his reason is sexist--Lynn throws tennis balls like a girl. Pen, the new guy at Whiskey Creek, was clearly ecstatic when I drove up the driveway but being the enigmatic border collie that he is, I wouldn’t hazard a guess as to exactly why. And finally there was Lynn, whose reasons for being tickled that I actually did come home as planned after four days were many and varied—she knows she’s my favorite human…by far…she has complete licking rights, no restrictions, I can throw the ball further than her, which takes a lot of pressure off her each afternoon at four o’clock tennis time, and starting that very evening, she would start receiving hot, home cooked meals again. This last might not seem like a big deal unless you’ve spent four days microwaving Marie Calendar meat loaf dinners.

I want to tell you about the Kings River Festival. My Welcome’s title is, I must admit, a little misleading. There’s nothing dark about the story, no soul expanding, epiphinal journeys into any eyes and no beasts to speak of, unless you use the term loosely for some of the monster pickers who were there…and there were plenty of those.

First, my accommodations. I didn’t pull my old whale of a trailer this year because I’d planned on only spending a few days there. (It was only after I asked my wife if I should drive down Friday or Saturday and she advised Wednesday that I decided on a Thursday departure. So rather than the trailer I camped out of my old Ford pick up truck, with shell, folding table, super-deluxe camp cupboard designed and built just for the event, super-super-deluxe camp coffee table, also completed just a day before leaving for Sanger and an ancient folding utility table, perfect for holding my fiddle, which I ran over and turned to kindling the first day I was there. Folding table, not fiddle. I arrived early enough to be able to grab a spot under two mature willows, their broad, densely foliaged limbs offering shade all but about one hour each afternoon. What didn’t occur to me until it was too late was that the perfectly protected camp space was adjacent to the only road into the festival. Pretty dusty until Friday afternoon when the maintenance guys started wetting the road down.

The venue for the event, called ‘The Grove’, formerly ‘Hobbs Grove’, is, in my experience, unique. It’s plunked smack dab in the middle of the richly verdant fields of grapes and pears and tomatoes that help make the San Joaquin Valley the world’s most productive purveyor of food on the planet. The ‘Grove’ is much like an oasis, surrounded by green leaves and branches instead of beige sand. The entire site is blanketed with a dense and well cared for lawn. Trees dot the camping area but once you start toward the stage area you’re instantly made aware of why the Grove is called the Grove. The entire stage and audience area is covered by a natural canopy of mature, lovingly manicured trees. Stepping into the ‘grove’ is a little like stepping into a Lewis Carroll landscape, soothing, exciting and dreamy all at once.

I wasn’t at the Grove more than an hour when one of the festival old timers wandered up to my encampment and struck up a conversation. “Well,” he said with just a trace of concern, “it’ll be interesting to see how it goes this year. Got a new headman, you know. Never really know what to expect with a new festival director. We’ll hope for the best.” The new ‘headman’, Stan Allen, who took over director duties from Kelly Broyles and Marcos Alvira, obviously did a lot more than hope for the best. Stan made excellent use of the festival veterans who were committed to making the transition work, he planned and planned and then planned some more and throughout the three-day event, Stan, a big guy with an even bigger cowboy hat, was, well, the only word for what he was is omnipresent, as in every time you looked around there he was, smoozing, assisting, problem-solving, consoling, and laughing…lots of laughing. Stan did the CBA proud and we’re indebted to him.

I’ve been to several bluegrass events this season and I think it would be accurate to say that King’s River was my most personally musical of the lot. My fiddle was cradled in my arm and on my shoulder more often than it was not. I was in big jams, little jams, one-on-one’s and everything in between. If I had to pick a single highlight it would be the time I spent with a brand new friend named Fred. Fred and his wife are a semi-retired couple who grow wine grapes down in Atascadero. They spent most of their adult lives touring throughout the United States playing swing and swing-related stuff at small clubs, he on guitar, she on bass. I have never, ever sat and played this kind of music with anyone more gifted than Fred, as a picker, a singer and a vault of titles that was just unending. The hours I spent in his campsite…and there were a bunch…were among the most joyful in my festival-attending career.

Of course my bluegrass needs were amply satisfied. I was lucky enough to be adopted into the entourage of one of the weekend’s stage acts, Pineridge, which meant I had a sort of musical home base to which I could always return. That the group didn’t have a fiddler meant I had a slot ready made most anytime except during rehearsals. Randy Morton, Grant Garland, Dick Warren and stand-in bassist Mikki Larrick were graciously welcoming to me, and when we weren’t jamming the four northern valleyites made certain that I would leave the festival with at least a rudimentary understanding of rice…growing it, selling it, cooking it, protecting it from pests, appreciating the subtle differences in its variations, using its by-products to feed livestock, etc. etc. Oh, and besides knowing a lot about California’s rice industry, these four played some very, very good music on stage and off.

Which brings me to the other stage acts. Alhambra Valley Band, clearly the line-up’s veteran group, was just remarkable…they would have had the same enthusiastic reception at any bluegrass festival in the country. Windy Hill, the most traditional of the acts, offered newcomers to the genre a nuanced understanding of what all of the fuss is about. Snap Jackson and the Knock on Wood Players did their brilliant as usual job of bridging bluegrass music with…well…just about any other kind of music you can think of. The Grasskickers captured the audience each time they played with their creative and off-beat adaptations…their new lead singer is someone to watch. Red Rag Andy delivered the requisite serving of solid, down-to-earth and back-in-time old-timey music; the Oakgrove Bluegrass Band, mom and dad and kids, showed what happens when you take family jams to the next level; and of course there were the local Hobbs-turned-King’s River regulars--Valley Oak, Uncle Ephus,
Grassfire, Baloney Creek and the Kings River Gospelaires—each act reminding the audience why this festival has had staying power for over ten years now.

There’s of course a lot more I could tell you about my four days down in Sanger but my wife reminds me I’ve promised to take her on a hay-buying binge this morning so I’ll sign off. One last time—Thanks so very, very much to Stan Allen for stepping up, filling the void and making the Kings River Festival one of the CBA’s proudest endeavors.

Posted:  10/1/2012

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