Author: Cornish, Rick

Kings River

Call it missing my little human-animal family at Whiskey Creek after an unusually busy bluegrass season, or being hold up in my twenty-foot Argosy five days at the Amador County Fairgrounds, or call it just plain getting old as dirt…whatever the cause I’d determined by the time I pulled out of Plymouth the weekend before last that this year I wouldn’t be making the trip down to the Kings River Festival.

Since the CBA began partnering with the fine folks down in the Fresno-Sanger-Clovis area several years ago I’d missed only one of the KR fests, and that was only because of a serious health issue that essentially kept me home and in bed for an entire summer, (I call it my “lost summer”…Lynn calls it her “summer of Rick”—neither of us has anything even approaching fond memories of those three months). But dammit, this year I was determined to stay home and reacquaint myself with hot showers, home-cooked food, dogs and wife. And so it was resolved as I pulled onto Highway 49 headed south early Sunday afternoon that I would not be simply checking in at home and then taking off again.

By late afternoon on Monday, however, I’d done a slight revise; I would drive down to Sanger for the day, help at the membership and mercantile booths and let Stan Allen and his festival team know that the CBA continued to stand with the Kings River folks. (Plus I’d spent close to twenty hours dreaming up and then producing Kings River-themed buttons for our web site re-vamping fund-raiser; what a waste if they didn’t get down to Sanger in time to sell.) A day later the idea of driving the two and a half hours back home Saturday night seemed a little silly; I’d just throw a futon and sleeping bag in the old F-150 and leave early Sunday morning. But by Wednesday it suddenly hit me that typically the best jamming at Hobbs Grove, now called simply “The Grove”…the husband won the name “Hobbs” in the divorce settlement while the wife snagged the grove itself out of the deal…that, really, the best jamming always happened on Friday night. It was settled; I’d head down Friday morning, still keep it a short trip and not pull the old Argosy. Good compromise.

First thing Thursday morning my wife Lynn, who’s been watching from a safe distance my best laid plans play out for well over thirty years, reminded me, with just a hint of amusement in her voice, that I’d have to stop at the pharmacy to grab a refill before I left that morning.

“This morning,” I asked, “why do you think I’m leaving today? The plan was to leave tomorrow.”

“Well, aren’t you driving down today? You’ve been packing furiously for the past forty-five minutes.”

“Um, well, now that you mention it…”

I can say with complete honesty and without a trace of equivocation that every single thing that happened from the moment I rolled into the Grove until I left four days later validated my revised Kings River Bluegrass Festival plan. First off, before I even found a camping space to park the old Ford my rancher/luthier friend Dennis Anderson from Coalinga rushed over to me and thrust his I-Pad into my hands. “Have a look,” he said proudly. Starting with two roughly sliced pieces of walnut sitting astride one another, each with half a miniature guitar back outline penciled onto them, the little slide show traced, image by image, the creation of a baritone ukulele. It was MY uke, the one Dennis was making for me in return for a nice portion of the cured California Black Walnut left to me by my dear friend and wood-working mentor when he died last year. The best part of the slide show was not knowing how far Dennis had gotten with the project…each flick of the screen showed the instrument gradually taking shape. That twenty minutes standing there in the middle of the grove of willow trees was, by itself, worth the drive down to the central valley.

Half way finished setting up my camp, such as it was, Bill Jirsa wandered by and the two of us got properly caught up. Bill had just returned from an extended vacation in Portugal and the experienced world traveler painted a lovely and vivid picture of his trip. I in turn told him what he’d missed at the Plymouth festival. Life, we agreed, was very good. (Oh, and during our catch-up I was able to confirm that Bill would once again lead his increasingly popular Beginning Bluegrass Guitar Workshop at Bakersfield. So far, Jonathan Bluemel, banjo, David Reitz, mandolin, Jennifer Kitchen, bass and Gail Reese, fiddle, have been confirmed to do sessions again at the Great 48.)

About this time Brian Whitt, a picker whom I’d met at Grass Valley and had, in a record twenty hours, seventeen minutes, recruited into the CBA’s Mercantile Manager job, pulled in with his nifty little Chalet trailer in tow. Out plan was to camp together and set up the Association’s mercantile booth in the audience area, Brian selling the general merc goods, me hawking my pin-on and refrigerator magnet buttons. (Current count: 317 different buttons to choose from. (Click here for a look.)

My new pal and I had the mercantile/buttons concession up and running with just about ten minutes to spare by the 3:30 start of the Friday show. Catching at least some of each of the acts, I was struck repeatedly by the caliber of bands. All were respectably competent practitioners of their particular bluegrass or old-time niche, but beyond that, all were clearly aware that they’d been hired to ENTERTAIN, and that’s exactly what they did.

Uncle Ephus, regulars at the Grove event, was the old-timeyest of the collection of groups…they sang and played music from the first quarter of the last century and their delivery and patter and smiles dared the audience to enjoy. And we did. The Grasskickers were up next. I’d seen them take the Emerging Artist Award at Plymouth the weekend before and expected a great set but what we got was a good set. It was almost as though the boys in the band were weighted down by all the congratulatory buzz from the previous weekend and by the time they took the stage they seemed stiff and mechanical. (By the time they stepped on stage after the dinner break on Saturday evening, the headstuff had melted away and the Kickers left no soul wondering how they’d pulled off the win at Bluegrassin’ in the Foothills. Their instrumentals were crisp and inventive and their vocals shinned.)

Following the Friday night dinner break came the Dim Lights… a band with a distinctively traditional bent formed by the Frankel Family (Dana on fiddle, Vicki on bass, and Avram on guitar) and rounded out by CBA lifetime member Larry Cohea on banjo and veteran mandolinist Matt Kendall. I’d not seen Dim Lights perform before and was especially excited to hear their young fiddler. Seven years earlier my wife, then just beginning her new retirement career as a water colorist, had painted the very young Kids-on-Bluegrass Frankel girl. The portrait of Dana was the very first Gold Ribbon winner for Lynn and it’s hung in our home ever since. Hearing the now young-lady play with confidence and a mature sense of what bluegrass music is about was a sheer delight.

Next up was Sagebrush…a valley band with twin fiddlers, John Cooper and Doc Wilcoxson, Doug Reynolds on guitar and mandolin and Melissa Blas filling in for regular bassist Scott Colins. As its name implies, the act was more about the way-out-west sound than about traditional bluegrass. It’s rare to hear an entire set featuring the rich and textured blending of two well-played fiddles, but that's just what we got. (Oh, and Melissa, who’d made no secret of the fact that she was just a trifle nervous about playing with such a polished group of veterans, pulled it off without a hitch.)

The Friday night show was closed out by two bands about which I’ll say little. Most who are reading this morning’s Welcome have heard and seen the Central Valley Boys and Bean Creek enough times to form their own opinions about the acts. For my part I’ll simply say that these two bands are at the top of their respective games, which, in my opinion, contributes in no small way to the fact that most would agree Northern California-grown traditional bluegrass music has never been better.

By two a.m. or so Brian and I met back at camp after some seriously fun, seriously exhausting jamming.

“So,” I asked haltingly, “how…ah…how did we do button-wise?”

Brian Whitt, the new CBA Mercantile Manager, the man tasked with taking stock of and then modernizing the inventory and breathing some new life into the operation, held up his right index finger.

“One,” I asked, “we sold ONE button?”

Even in the moonless black I could see his head nod yes.

Okay, I’ve got to get dressed, get outside and get to work. The conclusion of my Kings River report will be forthcoming. Have a terrific week

Posted:  9/30/2013

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