Author: Karsemeyer, John

Friday The 13th

The 39th CBA Fathers’ Day Festival is over. It is gone. It is no more. It has been written in the bluegrass history book. Like Abraham Lincoln, the 39th FDF belongs to the ages. However, the memories live on.

Returning to this festival in the time machine that I purchased on the Antiques Roadshow, it is now the second day of the aforementioned festival, Friday. But not just any Friday. It is Friday the 13th. After slowly moving my body upward from the camper bed and out of old van in the morning, I am greeted by a family of Canada geese. They make a noise that I swear sounds like, “Good morning.” Then mom, dad, and the six siblings disappear under the water. This is the first time that I have camped at Grass Valley’s version of Walden Pond, and I’m glad I did. As many of you know, Henry David Thoreau spent some time at Walden Pond, and he once wrote, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” All I can say about that is it doesn’t apply to this 39th FDF, and I’ve renamed this Grass Valley pond, “Monroe Pond.” Anyway, l blame my later than usual morning resurrection on last evening’s Thursday late night jam with the Welcome Columnists, which began after a virginal audience in-the-dark performance by The Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band on the main stage.

Last night Rowan’s encore performance, “Midnight Moonlight,” was accompanied by Grass Valley’s grinning full moon that slowly got higher and higher as it peeked through the extended family of dancing Ponderosa Pines, playing its own paranormal part behind the reason for the band’s levitation above the well lite stage, as a thousand and thirty-nine audience members gradually accepted what they were witnessing when the band was transformed, and then The Free Mexican Air Force silently took flight.

But that was then. And this is the morning of Friday the 13th. Groggy and half-awake I slowly make the 300 yard, one-way journey on foot and reach my first goal of the day. Along the way I have a nagging feeling that something unusual is going to happen today. Finally my eyes focus on the sign, “How Ya Bean Coffee,” and I gladly exchange my cash for a cup of eye-opening early morning delight. My second goal of the day is an about-face, and seven steps away, “Peppe’s Award Winning Tacos & Burritos.” Walking away from Peppe’s I am thankful for having two hands; one to hold the hot coffee, and one to hold the breakfast burrito.

Making my way across the large, grassy lawn area, that today has a tint of blue and escapes from the hundreds of empty lawn chairs in front of the main stage, I reach a wooden bench that is shaded from the morning sun. The bench resides directly in front of the building that houses the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Historical Model Railroad. On the bench I focus on a two by five inch brass plaque that reads, “In Loving Memory of WAYNE RUTHERFORD 1928-2006, who valued these fairgrounds, and in them saw the beauty of God’s handiwork, By Your Devoted Family and Apple Tree Gang.” An etching of a six stringed acoustic guitar accompanies the words on the plaque. And as a large truck roars past on the nearby highway, the bench vibrates and makes a surreal guitar music of its own.

As I plop my posterior on the bench that serves as a combination breakfast table and chair that is on the same level, I suddenly noticed a young man, around twelve years old, standing ten feet away, looking at the Historical Rail Road exhibit sign. No parents are in sight. In between bites of breakfast burrito and slurps of coffee I initiate a conversation.

“Are you waiting for the train exhibit to open?” I ask.
“Yes,” he answers.
“Have you been to it before?” I ask on.
“Oh sure. I’ve been coming here since I was two.”
“Do you go to see the trains every year?”
“Yes I do.”
After thirty seconds of silence I ask, “Do you play a bluegrass instrument?”
“No. I want to play the fiddle, but my family can’t afford it. My sister has a fiddle, but it has a broken string, and she doesn’t have another one.”

Now the coffee has done the job that it was created to do, and my brain is clear enough to think about the thing that I am supposed to think about at this precise moment and place in time, at this 39th bluegrass festival on Friday the 13th at 9:30am.

“Do you know about the Kids Lending Library?” I ask.
“No,” he says. “What is it?”
“It’s a place where young people can borrow a bluegrass musical instrument so they can learn how to play it.”
“You mean for the day?”
“No, you can keep it for days, months, even a year or longer I think.”
“How much does it cost?”
“It doesn’t cost anything. It’s free.”
“Where is it?”
Pointing my finger I say, “Do you see those white tents over there just before you get to the main stage?”
“Yes I do,” he answers.
“Okay, just go over there and ask somebody in those white tents about the Kids Lending Library.”
“Okay mister, I will.”

As the young man walks away from me toward the CBA Information and Mercantile white tents, I think about going over there with him to make sure he goes to the right place and asks the right questions. But then I think to myself that this young man that is being held captive by pre-adolescence seems to be independent for his age, so we go our separate ways. I wonder about his chances of getting a fiddle. Fifty-fifty? Looking down for a second I have to shake my head a couple times to make my old boy scout shirt disappear and turn back into the one I put on earlier this morning.

This day, Friday the 13th, begins to unfold at the same pace of any other Friday, but then the speed picks up as I become fully aware of being in a special place, Grass Valley, Nevada County Fairgrounds, where thoughts of the day ahead hold the promise of live music from some of the best bands in bluegrass. And now, suddenly, the day starts to go too quickly.

It’s now 12:55pm, and as the third and last impressive bluegrass band of the morning leaves the main stage I head for the Roland White mandolin workshop. Yes, that Roland White, who has played with Bill Monroe, The Nashville Bluegrass Band, Lester Flatt’s Nashville Grass, The Country Gazette, The Kentucky Colonels, and now has his own band, The Roland White Band. Roland should be wearing a name tag that displays not only his name, but also, “A Bluegrass Pioneer.” In this workshop Roland covers the topics of chords, how to play past the 5th fret on the mandolin, and how different kinds of picks affect the sound of the mandolin. Then he tells us a little about his brother, Clarence White, who broke new bluegrass ground on the acoustic guitar, played with the Byrds, and influenced the guitar playing of Tony Rice. As Roland tells us some Clarence White stories that relate to bluegrass music, he mentions the guitar which Clarence White once owned, and is now considered by bluegrass fans to be the most famous guitar in the world.

Yes that guitar. The 1935 Martin D-28 that is now owned by the living legend Tony Rice. There are many stories about that guitar, but there is one that invades my consciousness right now. And at the point in this workshop when Roland asks for questions, I seize the opportunity. “Roland, what’s the real story behind the BB gun hole in the front of that Martin guitar?”

“It was a pellet gun,” Roland clarifies. “The top of that guitar was bulging, and it was hard to play. Clarence really didn’t like that guitar, and one time he just shot it.” Roland goes on to tell how Clarence sold that 1935 Martin D-28 to a liquor store owner in Southern California (if you don’t know the story of how this guitar ended up being owned by Tony Rice, it’s worth pursuing). And now at this point in the workshop Roland is joined by his wife, guitarist Diane Bouska, who is in the Roland White Band. Before she begins to sing a song, Roland says, “That guitar Diane is holding was one of Clarence’s guitars.” Seeing and hearing that guitar puts the icing on the cake for me at this workshop. Walking away from Roland’s workshop I am thinking, “This is a good day to be alive,” and then I head to the Luthiers Pavilion to play and look at some of the high quality instruments that I cannot afford. The day goes by even faster.

It is now 6:15pm. I am at the best watering hole (drinking fountain) at the fairgrounds, the one near Vern’s Stage. “American Nomad” is performing their own brand of bluegrass, and as I gulp down enough Grass Valley water to stay hydrated, I turn back around, heading for the main stage area to seek some shade from the sun that is slowly making its way behind the tall pines. I start walking, and then I see him.

It’s the young man who was standing in front of the Historical Model Railroad building that I encountered some nine hours earlier in coolness of the morning. No parents in sight this time either. We walk toward each other on the black top path, both on our separate bluegrass journeys of the day, and I see that he is carrying something in his right hand. When he sees me his face presents a smile as wide as Jonah’s when he got out of the belly of the whale. As we go by each other without stopping he says, “Hey mister, thanks for telling me about the Kids Lending Library. I got a banjo!”

And just now somewhere beyond the clogged, carbon filled earth’s atmosphere, and hidden from the prying eyes of the Hubble and Kepler space telescopes that search for life in 170 billion galaxies, and infinitely beyond the minds and imaginations of all believers who ever were, who are, and who will be, in a dimension where time stands still, especially on this Friday the 13th, Earl Scruggs is smiling….
Posted:  7/12/2014

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