Author: Martin, George

Grass Valley Memories

It’s always a tossup for my favorite week of the year between Thanksgiving and the week preceding Fathers Day. I have no way of knowing what Thanksgiving will bring this year, but June 8 to 16 was a stellar week indeed.

The plan was to get out of Dodge (or Point Richmond, actually) on Saturday so as to get our own camp all set up in time for me to start early on Sunday helping set up the music camp operation. But on Thursday I got a call from a musician friend who needed a band to take over a booking at the Orinda Farmers Market Saturday morning. All the members of Prairie Rose were up for it, so I decided to leave for Grass Valley later in the day, after the gig. Like that was going to happen.

Sure enough, after getting up early and getting my band duds on and driving to Orinda and playing three hours, I was not so eager to pack the van and drive to Nevada County, so it was Sunday when we finally made it to the fairgrounds. Our usual spot by the water ditch was already taken. We moved over to where the Kids on Bluegrass used to be and set up there. At the camp registration desk I had the guilty pleasure of discovering that the canopy-building crew of which I am usually a part, had already made about half the canopies.

I joined Doug Schwartz, Ian Gilmore, John Fitt, Russ Greenspan, Jim Burke and Carlo Calabi in assembling and distributing the remainder of the canopies. This is a job I am not particularly fond of, but many hands do lighten the work, and there is a refreshing breeze when the crew rides around in the back of a pickup truck carrying the boxes of canopies to the assembly points.

There are a lot of familiar faces at camp every year, and the same enthusiasm and camaraderie that brings me back annually. I particularly enjoyed Ivan Rosenberg’s Flatt & Scruggs workshop, when John Kornhauser and Jennifer Kitchen, both great singers, showed up to help out. John is steeped in the music of that era, and with Jennifer doing tenor parts and me the baritone, we made some nice harmonies, if I do say so myself.

Every year there is a particularly moving “jam moment” when a student makes a personal breakthrough that seems almost life-changing.

This year it was in a slow jam hosted by Lisa Burns that I was helping with. A woman said that if we could play a certain song (I forget which) slowly, she would play a guitar break. We did and she did, and afterwards she said that she had set a goal this year of playing a break in public and she was delighted she had done the deed.

Next day I saw Lisa at lunch and she mentioned that the woman had told her later she was 78 years old! Now that is cool, playing your first public guitar break at 78!

Last year, for whatever reason, I didn’t make it to the small stage at Vern’s. But this year I much enjoyed the place. I saw part of the performance of Paul Trenwith’s Hamilton County Bluegrass Band from New Zealand, and the Alhambra Valley Band, Angelica Grim, Jeanie & Chuck’s Country Roundup, Rosebud Blue and the Del Williams Band. The music was really enjoyable, and was enhanced by the intimate setting. It was like a family party, almost.

Thanks to the generosity of the Northern California Bluegrass Society in lending the CBA its new shade cloth, the audience wasn’t in the sun; the sound was great and the Sierra Nevada beers were excellent and reasonably priced. I did hear somebody driving the porcelain bus in the men’s room Saturday afternoon, which I presume was not the result of too much kettle corn, but I guess stuff happens...

I saw a lot of the main stage bands. Doyle Lawson I think was my favorite, but Dan Tyminski, Grasstowne and Blue Highway were also tops. I hate to be an old fogy but I didn’t much take to Crooked Still, although I did perk up a bit when Laurie Lewis joined them for part of their set. One problem I found with that band is that the cello is pitched right about where the human voice is, and a lot of the vocals got swallowed up in the mix.

Sidesaddle & Co. were at the top of their game the day they played the main stage; I really enjoyed their set. The young Doerfel Family was pretty amazing; they are rather like the Cherryholmes except you don’t get the weird vibe the older group gives off, like they should be called the Stepford Bluegrass Band. The Doerfels have amazing chops, a jocular and entertaining stage manner and great vocals.

I was pretty whipped after the music camp and the first festival day so Thursday night I just crawled into my sleeping bag and tried to recharge my batteries. Friday night I started looking for someone to pick with, and right next door was Janet Dove, treasurer of the Sonoma County Folk Society, and her mother, Fuey (I think that is how she spells it) who had brought her autoharp down from Oregon.

Fuey’s harp is a pretty amazing instrument: it has an F#minor bar on it for one thing, and even at least one (which is to say, four, cuz every note is a “root,” you music students) diminished 7th chord. The thing has 21 bars in all, and Fuey never said, “I can’t play in that key.” Janet is deeply into Kate Wolf songs, a little odd for a bluegrass festival I’ll admit, but I have always enjoyed those tunes but hardly ever played them.

So I decided to forget bluegrass for a while and be a temporary folkie, and had a wonderful time.

Saturday night I hooked up with Zeke Griffin, an old pal who is a mandolin virtuoso (as well as a superb mandolin builder), and Jerry Barrish, who had his banjo, and we had a nice jam on obscure bluegrass tunes for a couple of hours. Then Dave Berry, from San Francisco, showed up with two friends and I jammed with them for a while.

I thought about going to bed but decided to haul my guitar on a lap around the fairgrounds and see what was up. I hit the jackpot when I came upon Lisa Burns and a bunch of Sidesaddle folk and their friends. About the time I arrived their singer was getting tired, so I ended up doing some songs with them, and about then Mary Gibbons (I am such a fan of her singing) showed up and I got to sing some trio harmonies with her and a fellow who’s name I didn’t get, but the music was pure gold.

Lee Ann Welch pulled out her fiddle, Kim Elking was there part of the time, Rob Horgan’s superb banjo kept the jam perking, and Yvonne Wahlbroel showed up with her driving rhythm guitar and vocals. It was really a peak moment for me, one of the most fun jams I’ve ever been in.

Later I got to thinking about the karma of it all. A few days earlier I had been helping Lisa lead a jam at the music school, and one of the students wanted to play “Will the Circle be Unbroken?” but he wanted someone else (me) to sing it. Now I am really tired of that song; I admit it is a great song, but I hear it three times a night at festivals and on TV whenever there’s some sort of country music special. As far as I am concerned it has been beat to death.

But everybody knows it and everybody except me loves it, so I reared back and sang it like it was my very first time. Later Lisa apologized for me having to sing the tune, and I remarked that maybe I had stored up some positive karma, maybe even some positive Jam Karma.

Sure enough, 72 short hours later I’m having a Major Musical Moment.

And my name isn’t even Earl.

(For you non-TV watchers, “My Name is Earl” is an NBC comedy about a small-time thief who decides to make up for all the bad stuff he’s done in his life after learning about karma on a TV show.)

Posted:  7/11/2008

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