Author: Varner, Mark

Here be monsters

Dear friends,

Writing this missive on a blissful afternoon, the immortal words of Annie Hall come to mind: “La-de-da, la-de-da.” The days at the heart of festival season, baseball season, camping season – whatever season to which my soul cleaves – are floating like a zephyr on the soft summer air. Someone with a depth of experience in the matter once told me, “Life is good.” It is times like these that lend credence to the claim.

The security guards that work in the lobby of the Breakdown Towers complex have been given strict orders to allow me egress on an extremely limited basis; sort of a “need to go” situation. Normally the expectation is that I will be immured in a tiny room wherein I wiggle my fingers and output something akin to a periodical. And so it goes.

Since the amazing, wonderful, exciting, enjoyable – need I go on? – Father’s Day Festival, I have been allowed to lope free in the world a couple of times, each of them edifying in its own way. Allow me to begin at the most recent outing. This is most appropriate, since my eldest progeny composed a Welcome Column for the Saturday issue of this website touching on the same topic: that being a show at Don Quixote’s that featured a young bluegrass-ish band. I am taking this opportunity to differ with my scion’s viewpoint. Of course, I can only offer my own opinion, so please don’t think that I think that I have more to offer in the little word salad I serve up on this lovely Monday morning than musical naval gazing.

The background is that after three years on the CBA’s Talent Advisory Group and after what seems like centuries as the parent of two precocious little bluegrass monsters, I have taken an interest in the upcoming generation’s contribution to the long and noble arc of the grass we call blue. I was proud we, the CBA, have brought bands like the Deadly Gentlemen and Front Country to share the Grass Valley stage with traditional performers. This is the future of our music. These are not trends; the hallmark of these artists is a satisfying mix of artistic integrity, youthful exuberance and stunningly fine picking that have an honorable place in the house of Monroe and Carter. TAG would not put a band on the stage that could not be considered “bluegrass” in those terms.

Cadillac Sky: another example. We tried to book them, though they are on the edge of bluegrass. (They broke up right after we started working with their booking agent. Grr.) And I’d say we would book the Punch Brothers if we could afford them – that band being the VERY edge of something that could be called “bluegrass.” Beyond that, one sails off the edge of the world. “Here be monsters” as mapmakers of old would designate such antipodal regions.

The point I make by discussing these bands is that they represent a branch of bluegrass that I personally feel differently about than I have felt about other variants we have witnessed over the decades. It took a lot of time before music that breaks boundaries became appealing to me, frankly, being a devotee of the Verns and Rays of this world. I liked Newgrass never, and I liked Dawg Grass only until the blush wore off. I thought Rhonda Vincent was “edgy” in 1999.

My recent experience, attending a concert by the band that Marty was lauding in his column, was unapologetically jazz-infused bluegrass. And while there are probably endless examples of jazz music I can enjoy, I am generally not a fan. And I do not think bluegrass and jazz mix in a form that appeals to the dyed-in-the-wool bluegrass fans that make up the backbone of our association. The idioms to not align. When all is said, bluegrass is a “pop music” genre, not an esoteric exploration of how long one can stretch out a tune polluted with chord progressions that ain’t no part o’ nuthin’. While I find the band that was discussed to be talented, I just don’t think it’s the kind of “edge” that I find satisfying or immediately akin to the music we promote. Once again, I do not mean to pick on any particular band, including the fine musicians Marty lionized in his recent column.

So that happened. Another thing that happened is that I was drug kicking and screaming to the High Sierra Music Festival on the 4th of July weekend. It was quite an event! Very huge and very different than the festivals I have been happily making part of my life for many, many years. Lots of different musical styles (and lots of hippies). I really enjoyed Robert Plant, Primus, Steel Pulse – the big headliners. I cannot express how much I enjoyed Robert Plant, the entertainer. (I swear: hanging out with Alison could not have hurt him.) The smaller stages featured excellent acts, perhaps the best being the Stringdusters and the David Mayfield Parade. What a fun time and what a lovely atmosphere. The young crowd was friendly and fun. But allow me to further dig myself into a hole by expressing my obnoxious opinion: Leftover Salmon was dreadful. I just do not understand the attraction. It’s another band we have considered booking over the years at Grass Valley and fortunately they were priced out of our market. Oh well, as they say: your mileage may vary.

The great news is that I still have the ever-wonderful Good Old Fashioned Festival to catch this very week and the must-attend Plymouth festival coming up next month. I will see you there and you may feel free to poke me in the nose for my denigration of the bands I have so mistreated in this welcome column.

Posted:  8/5/2013

Copyright © 2002 California Bluegrass Association. All rights reserved.
Comments? Questions? Please email