Author: Karsemeyer, John

You Be The Judge

It's a beautiful day in the middle of June. You're sitting in your lawn chair on the large grassy area, surrounded by towering pine trees, in front of the vacant main stage at the Fathers Day Festival (bluegrass) in Grass Valley, California. Your eyes focus on a tall pine tree, and your gaze follows it up, up, and up, finally reaching the top, as it reaches out to touch the clear, blue sky. You slowly breath in the clean, refreshing air. You're glad to be alive.

As your gaze returns to earth your attention is drawn to the main stage, as a five member band comes into view, armed with guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, and double bass. After a brief set-up, the master of ceremonies excitedly requests, “Put your hands together and make welcome one of California's finest bands!” The band launches into a blazing version of Rawhide, and your senses are held captive for the next forty-five minutes, song after song, until the band finishes its set.

Maybe you've never thought about it, or maybe you have. Just how did that band make its way from a practice session in a living room, garage, or front porch to the main stage at one of the most prestigious bluegrass festivals in the world, put on by the California Bluegrass Association? We're not talking about “big gun” bluegrass bands like Rhonda Vincent and the Rage, The Del McCoury Band, Doyle Lawson and Quick Silver, or Peter Rowan and his latest incarnation of musicians, but we are talking about the home grown stuff. You know, the bands from California that don't tour nationally and internationally on a regular basis. These bands don't just magically appear on the main stage at Grass Valley. So how do they get there?

Sometime in the late summer or early Fall, on the CBA website, in their monthly “breakdown” newspaper, or by word of mouth, information gets around that there is going to be a band selection committee formed. This committee is responsible for making a recommendation as to which five bands from California will be selected to play at the forthcoming CBA festival the following June. So who gets to be on the committee?

Initiated by Larry Kuhn (representing the CBA), the invitation goes out to the bluegrass community at large to have the potential opportunity to be on the committee. The general requirement is to have an interest in and be acquainted with bluegrass music in general, and commit to spending part of your day listening to and evaluating bands. Somewhat like American Idol, or Star Search, but in a bluegrass dimension. You don't have to be an expert, play an instrument as well as Ricky Skaggs, be born into a bluegrass family, or have any special credentials. No rites of passage or fraternity/sorority like initiations. All you have to do is come to the conclusion, “I don't know much about bluegrass, but I know what I like!” Then you just call or e-mail Larry Kuhn to discuss the whole deal.

On November 19, 2011, the CBA Band Selection Committee met to recommend the five California bands to be selected for the 2012 Fathers Day Festival in June. The gathering was held at Larry Kuhn's place in Folsom (the town, not the prison). When I arrived and met the other committee members that were there, the process began.

Each committee member was handed a rating sheet, numbered from one to ten. A rating of “one” might indicate that you just met some musicians on a street corner holding signs, “Will play for food,” formed a band, made a quick CD, and sent it to the CBA for consideration. A rating of “ten” might indicate that your band can sing and play just as good as The Bluegrass Album band, that consisted of Tony Rice (guitar), J.D. Crowe (banjo), Doyle Lawson (mandolin), Bobby Hicks (fiddle), and Todd Phillips (bass).

Then we all took a seat and started listening to the bands who submitted a CD for consideration. This year twenty (20) bands submitted their offerings. The committee listened to three cuts from each of the band's recordings, at the end of which each committee member rated the band with a numerical score from the aforementioned possibilities of one to ten. This was a “blind” process, in that the committee members/judges were not given the name of the band when their CD was played, either before or after their music was heard.

Even though you could tell there were bands in the bluegrass, new-grass, old time, and “whatever” categories, each band was not labeled as such. The bands were rated in a general way, as to how the committee members/judges evaluated they would come across to a potential live audience, no matter what “sound box category” the band might be put in. Again, no band names on the rating sheets, or names of the judges, just numbers.

This year there were ten judges, and two facilitators. After all twenty bands were listened to, and rating sheets completed, the paperwork was handed over to the facilitators, who tallied the scores that were applied to the names of the bands. The band that scored the highest was listed as number one, the next highest number two, and so on. Only the facilitators knew which bands had what score, not the judges. So what happens to the bands/scores sheets next?

The facilitators see that the sheets are given to a “high power.” That's the CBA Board of Directors and Talent Advisory Group leaders who make the ultimate decision as to which of the twenty bands in the competition this year will make the final cut and be the five California bands to will play at the 2012 CBA Fathers Day Festival in June at Grass Valley, California.

Oh yeah, just who were the judges this year, who are these “guys?”

Bruce Long, CBA Lending Library Manager, from Orangevale.
Joyce Everett, long time CBA volunteer and fan, from Auburn.
John Hettinger, CBA V.P., from Folsom.
Robert Crowder, a very knowledgeable bluegrass musician, from Yuba City.
Pat Phillips, a long time CBA volunteer, from Paso Robles.
Jack Brose, outstanding bluegrass and country music singer, from Chico.
Mark Hogan, CBA Board Member, from Sebastopol.
John Gwinner, bluegrass music D.J., and musician, from Modesto.
J.D. Rhynes, long time CBA Board Member, CBA icon, and musician, from Valley Springs.
John Karsemeyer, CBA member, non-award winning, itinerant wannabe musician.

Larry Kuhn, former CBA Board member, musician, long time CBA volunteer, from Folsom.
John Duncan, CBA Board member, and long time CBA activist, from Sacramento.

So what lies ahead? Actually, you do. Next year the potential awaits you to be on the committee and be a judge for the California band selection committee. Yes, it's possible that you can be a judge. This was my first year, fun, interesting, and time well spent. Even if you don't make it to the judges bench, you can claim insight as to how those California bands you're watching make it to the main stage at Grass Valley. It's not just the flip of a coin!

THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: Pick banjos, not fights....

Posted:  12/10/2011

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