I love Bluegrass music. I can hear a few notes from a banjo or a fiddle and deep within me I feel I am home. Does this feeling stem from my genetic roots, ancestors from the southern mountains singing around the campfires or on their front porches? Or maybe it is closer to home. I recently looked at my birth certificate and noticed the occupation listed for my parents: both are listed as “musician, entertainer.” They were still making their living as country western musicians when I was born. I can imagine me in a crib or bassinette (or guitar case) as my mother practiced her stand up bass and mandolin, and my father picked his guitar melodies. I was fed on their harmony and the twang of live acoustic country music. It is my roots.
In the 1980’s my Aunt Patsy (Patsy Montana) often visited San Diego to participate in various folk music and “old time music” workshops and festivals. My mother (Texas Lil) and I often accompanied her.Patsy sang and told stories of the early days of country music. Occasionally Patsy would ask my mother to join her on stage. All my life I loved being around country music, but I had never attended a Bluegrass festival.
My cousin Vicky, however, has. Not only is she familiar with the Bluegrass circuit, she is a musician and has played professionally with several Bluegrass groups. I’d been thinking about going to San Diego’s festival, Summer Grass for a couple of years. This year the timing worked out for both Vicky and me and we attended together.
Summer Grass celebrated its tenth anniversary Aug 17-19. It’s an outdoor festival held on the grounds of the Antique Gas and Steam Engine Museum in Vista, California.
We were able to attend only on Saturday, but the venue was packed. Vicky showed me the ropes. The first thing you do is find “your spot.” We put our own chairs on the grassy area in front of the outdoor stage. Vicky told me we could put our purses on our chairs and they would be safe; no one steals at a Bluegrass festival. I followed her lead, but kept my wallet in my pocket. She warned me that the campers come on Wednesday and have already placed their chairs, so we would not have front row seats, and she was correct. We found a great place in the back under the shade of an oak tree. The music started at 10 am and didn’t end until 10 pm; almost twelve hours of live music with a lunch and dinner break.
10:00 am Lighthouse
11:00 am The Tuttles with AJ Lee
Noon: Blue Highway
1:00 pm Lunch Break
2:00 pm Tuttle, Mailander, Witler & Karlson
3:00 pm Virtual Strangers
4:00 pm Lighthouse
5:00 pm The Tuttles with AJ Lee
6:00 pm Dinner Break
7:00 pm Flatt Lonesome
8:00 pm Blue Highway
9:00 pm Lonesome River Band.
I was treated to some of the leading Bluegrass bands in the country. It was 90 degrees that day, but I was not sorry to be out in the heat, though in the shade, listening to these ancient tones and the haunting lonesome ballads.
Three short video clips of Flatt Lonesome:
Food and craft vendors sold their wares in a makeshift village. Vicky and I bought the best ever onion-covered veggie burger, and I bought two colorful sundresses. Everywhere there was music. We stopped at the campsite of one of Vicky’s friends, Mark. Mark and Vicky often entertain together and call themselves “Outpost” in the Palm Springs area.
While Vicky and Mark jammed, I realized I didn’t have my I-phone. I wondered where it had slipped out of my pocket, but didn’t want to leave the jam session to go look for it. Later, when we walked back to our chairs, there it was sitting on my chair, in plain sight . . . no one had picked it up, Vicky was right. You can feel safe at a Bluegrass festival.
As the sun started to sink below the Pacific Ocean and the sea breezes reached us inland, we were still being bathed in the familiar comforting sounds of guitar, fiddle, mandolin, banjo and bass, with the dulcet sounds of Bluegrass harmony riding above the instrumentation. We left in the dark, smiling and singing, knowing that as cousins we are connected not only by the genetic strings of our past, but also by the new memories created that August day at Summer Grass.
The next day I phoned Dana, my older sister, and told her about my Bluegrass day with Vicky. She told me something I didn’t know. The last ten years of my mother’s life, she lived in Florida near my sister, and Dana and my mother attended several big Bluegrass festivals there. Dana said my mom would wander the campsites, banjo strapped around her, and walk up to strangers (actually, my mother never knew a stranger), and join their jam sessions. My mother was always welcome, with her fast banjo picking and strumming, her laughter, her own vocal abilities and harmony. Because I spent this warm summer day with my cousin and then shared that day with my sister, I have a new image of my eighty-year old mother: long gray silver hair flowing behind her, jamming at a Bluegrass festival, laughing and singing and picking and grinning and ever so much an entertainer.