Author: Cornish, Rick

Driving Up

In a few weeks I’ll be packing up the old Argosy, hitching it up to the not quite as old F-15 and heading north to Grass Valley. I’ve been doing this since 1976 and you’d think I would have eventually gotten over the thrill of it. But I haven’t. By the time I start up the grade just past Roseville, my heart starts to pound, my mouth goes dry and a wave of endorphins begins to well up. It’s become a Pavlovian response. A few of the drives to the Fathers Day Festival stand out in my mind.

Of course I remember that first year, driving up on an early afternoon Friday with my friend John Bunch, convinced we were on our way to a blues festival. Imagine our surprise on arriving to find no blues at all but an abundance of strange looking five and eight stringed instruments. I was ready to leave soon after arriving, but John convinced me we should stay for the first act just to hear what it was all about. Jake Quizz-something and the Something-Something Ramblers. This was DEFINITELY not going to be the blues. Jake’s first song was Little Maggie, a lightening fast, pulsing rendition. It was like someone had taken a brick to the back of my head… was like I’d been waiting to hear this kind of music my entire life. That one song, sung by Jake Quisenberry over forty years ago on a tiny stage in the middle of a pine forest with maybe 75 people in the audience, was to change my life forever. It would gobble up every bit of free time I had, it would take me to places I’d never dreamed of going and, most importantly, it would introduce me to the best friends I would ever have.

And there was the first drive up to Grass Valley with my two boys, Phillip and Peter, a few years later. They were four and two respectively and they were not happy with the long drive. I’d told them we were going on a camping trip, but with “a little music thrown in” and I can remember Phil, even at the age of four, rolling his eyes. Some things never change. June under the pines in Nevada County would become a family tradition that would endure until both sons were well into high school. And of course for Phil, the one who was bitten badly by the bluegrass bug, the annual treks to Grass Valley would become a tradition of his own little family.

I remember my drive up in 1982 because it was the first year I was able to get the entire week off from work. As I drove up the Monday morning before the festival my excitement was mixed with anxiety. Would they let me into the fairgrounds that early or would I have to turn around and go home? I stressed for the entire three and a half hour drive, but once there I learned the answer before I could even unhitch the old Siesta 19-footer. “Just what do you think yur doin’?”, rasped the diminutive but nonetheless imposing Midge Hobbs. Midge was one of the CBA leaders way back then and she let me know it in no uncertain terms. She also let me know that I could stay, provided I join her festival set up crew which, of course, I did. And so began my career as a CBA volunteer.

1987 was the year I drove a huge motor home up to Grass Valley. I remember driving out of the rental place in Milpitas thinking that there should be some sort of training requirement before being allowed to pilot such a behemoth. No, I hadn’t ‘moved up’ from my ’56 Siesta; rather, I’d rented the RV for my sister Melanie and her husband Theo to stay in. It was the only way I could convince them to come up from L.A. to see my band, the Grass Menagerie, play the main stage at the Fathers Day Festival. Theo, a city boy who thought a mandolin was something you used for cutting vegetables, got stung by the bug the first afternoon under the pines and within a few years he had his own weekly radio show at Cal State Northridge—Theo Goldenberg’s Sunday Morning Gospel Show. Oh, and I’d also managed to coax childhood friend Brooks Judd to drive up to see the show. He too was never quite the same after a weekend with the Osborne Brothers, Del McCoury Band, Weary Hearts, Sawtooth Mountain Boys, High Country, Sidesaddle & Co., A Touch of Grass, Bluegrass Philharmonic, Brushy Peak, Fog City Ramblers, Fiddlestix, , Heartland, Possum Trot String Band, New Five Cents, Bill White……and of course, the Grass Menagerie.

One of my most memorable, and creepy, drives to the California Bluegrass Association’s Fathers Day Festival came in 1994. It was actually our SECOND drive to grass valley that festival year. Lynn and I had driven up early in the week but had returned to the south bay for Peter’s junior high graduation on Friday morning. (Ah, if I only had ten bucks for every single-day round-trip drive back home for graduation I’d be a wealthy man…..well, a little less poor.) We were in commute traffic, just coming into Sacramento on U.S. 80 when Lynn switched from a Stanley Brothers tape to the news. It was Friday June 13th. The newsman was so caught up in the moment he could barely catch his breath……“Thousands of spectators and on-lookers have packed overpasses along the procession's journey waiting for the white Bronco. Some have signs urging Simpson to flee and others are caught up in a festival-like atmosphere. Over twenty helicopters are in the air following the low-speed chase. The story is being televised throughout the country as I speak and Peter Jennings has just reported that ABC estimates no less than 95 million people are tuned in.” Ninety five million. I asked Lynn if she wanted to stop somewhere along the way so we could be the 9,000,001st and 9,000,002nd Americans to tune in. She said no. Good call.

My most harrowing drive to Grass Valley came in 1999 when I learned, quite suddenly, that I was gephyrophobic. But allow me to back up. In the fall of 1998 I’d been elected to my first term as a CBA board member and with this honor, I’d been told at my first board meeting, came the responsibility for heading up the Sunday afternoon transport operation. This was when, on the Sunday before the festival, a big truck and a crew of eight or so men headed to a storage facility in Penn Valley to haul the Association’s stage and a thousand and one other festival-related items to the fairgrounds. It was a big job, and I remember wondering at the time how it was that such an important assignment would be given to the ‘newbie’ on the board. (Turned out, of course that there was no such tradition. J.D. Rhynes had been stuck with the job up till then, and J.D. can spot a sucker a mile away. Kind of set the tone for our relationship for the next decade-plus.) So, back to the harrowing drive……I’m half way across the Carquinez Bridge on a very, very hot early Sunday afternoon when the old white Ford pickup overheats and dies. And I mean dies as in DEAD, with great white plumes of steam billowing out from under the hood. I surveyed the situation: Two very narrow lanes each way, extremely heavy traffic, and way, way up in the air over water. It’s called gephyrophobic and it means the fear of bridges. That is, the fear of driving over bridges. So, what am I more afraid of, being stuck two hundred feet above the deep and churning Carquinez Straights or holding up the transport of every piece of equipment the CBA needs to start setting up for the festival? (Yes, I was the only person with a key to the storage lockers; J.D. made certain of that.) Suffice it to say that I made it to Grass Valley that day, but we were unloading under a, thank you God, full moon.

My most expensive drive to Grass Valley occurred in 2006, my personal 30th anniversary. I found I was nostalgic on the long drive up that year, glimpsing in my mind’s eye the people and places and experiences of three decades at the Fathers Day Festival. It seemed everything I saw on the drive reminded me of one or another past year. On the road out of Auburn, the stretch along 49 where heavy development has occurred in the past ten years, I looked to the right and to the left at the new shopping centers that had sprung up since my very fir
Posted:  5/25/2010

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