Author: Poling, Chuck


In the past 15 years or so, Iíve become increasingly involved with the bluegrass scene here in San Francisco. When Dark Hollow, fronted by the estimable John Kornhauser, started playing at Radio Valencia in the late 90s, they quickly attracted a devoted audience who demonstrated that there was a market for bluegrass music in the city.

A few years later, the San Francisco Bluegrass and Old-Time Festival kicked off and was a smashing success. Around this time, the movie ďO Brother, Where Art Thou?Ē enchanted America with a soundtrack performed by Ralph Stanley, Norman Blake, Mike Compton, Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch, and other bluegrass/roots musicians. The popularity of the record was undeniable, but even I was stunned when the soundtrack album won the 2002 Grammy for Best Album.

Since then, San Francisco has continued to grow and thrive as a bluegrass-crazy town. There are currently four regular jams in SF, at the Atlas Cafe, the Plough and Stars (both monthly), Amnesia (twice a month), and the Lucky Horseshoe, (every week). The Atlas Jam celebrates its 15th anniversary this Thursday, thank to the tireless efforts of Jimbo Trout, who also books weekly bluegrass performances at the cafť.

Despite all the apparent enthusiasm for bluegrass in San Francisco, we just donít seem to get a lot of attention from the bigger bluegrass world. It is extremely rare for any of the top-notch bluegrass touring acts to stop in the city.

Thanks to the late Warren Hellman, who started the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in 2001, we were privileged to see legendary acts like Dr. Ralph, Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, and Curly Seckler, along with contemporary performers like Ricky Skaggs, Alison Krauss, Dale Ann Bradley and the Del McCoury Band. But outside of this annual event, the major bluegrass draws are few and far between in the City by the Bay.

What gives?

Iím sure that part of the problem is strictly economic. Out here in the West, things are a lot more spread out than in the southeast section of the country. The distance between San Francisco and Los Angeles would take you through three or four states in the Upper South. When you start toting up the costs of gas, lodging and food when traveling 400 miles between dates, the math just doesnít work out too well.

Part of it, Iím sure, is perception. San Francisco is just not seen as a hotbed of bluegrass enthusiasm, despite all the local evidence to the contrary. I have several friends who have emigrated to SF from places like Virginia and Tennessee, and they are pleasantly surprised to find out how extensive the bluegrass scene is here. They never expected to find so much of the music here, because, well, itís San Francisco.

Over the years, Iíve seen some great performances by Del McCoury, Danny Paisley, James King, Mike Compton and David Long, and Ricky Skaggs in San Francisco. But, with the exception of McCoury at the Great American Music Hall, these were underpublicized shows at hole-in-the-wall venues. Some of these gigs were booked when a band was out here on the festival circuit, others were just flukes.

Several years ago Dan Tyminski sold out the Independent, a mid-size (500 capacity) nightclub that generally features, indie-rock, reggae, and world music. It was a fantastic show with a raging, enthusiastic crowd who paid top dollar for their tickets. ďGreat,Ē I thought, ďmaybe now weíll start getting some big-name acts out here.Ē But Dan came and went and nobody back in Nashville seemed to notice.

As San Francisco Area VP for the CBA, Iím occasionally contacted by touring acts looking to fill in dates on their calendar for a West Coast tour. I can put them in touch with venues that hold up to 150-200 people, but larger rooms have very elaborate booking processes, need long lead times and have to be convinced that a show will be a money-maker.

I have no doubt that Dale Ann Bradley, the Gibson Brothers, the Steep Canyon Rangers, and many other contemporary touring acts would sell out a 400-500 seat venue here. So the show will be a winner for the venue, but does it make sense for the artists to travel 2000 miles to play SF, LA, and maybe a couple of smaller cities (Fresno, Bakersfield) in between? Maybe. Maybe not.

Iím not sure what the answer is. I think a lot of the problem is the perception by many in the bluegrass world that California in general, and San Francisco in particular, is a world unto itself, with a unique combination of cultural, political, and socio-conomic values that are unlike anywhere else in the country.

Yes, weíre different out here, but we are a) still Americans, and b) we like bluegrass music Ė really. So, fellow San Franciscans, all I can do is encourage you to continue to play and listen to bluegrass music, go to the many local jams we have, attend shows and buy CDs from the artists. Maybe the bluegrass powers-that-be think of us as city slickers who donít have an emotional and historical attachment to the music. Phooey! Whatever we lack in pedigree, we can make up in persistence.
Posted:  2/25/2013

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