Believe it or not bluegrass music has been prominent in San Diego since at least the 1950s. Not bad, considering that Bill Monroe, the “father of bluegrass” didn’t put the genre on the map until the mid-1940s. Here is an excerpt of an article I wrote on the history of the San Diego Bluegrass Society. This section focuses on the early years:
The late 1960s and early ‘70s were a time of change in America. Students were active, an unpopular war was underway, and many young Americans were breaking with the traditions of their parents. It was the season of long hair and love. The new generation was experimenting with, among other things, music.
Amid the excitement and turmoil of the times many, both young and old, were searching for authenticity and solid values in music and lifestyles. The folk boom of the 1950s and early ‘60s had awakened many to the raw authenticity of acoustic, folk, and bluegrass music. It was during this time period that groups like the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers were making a bluegrass mark in San Diego. Two local members of that band went on to national rock ‘n’ roll stardom: Chris Hillman (mandolin), who became a founding member of the Byrds (bass), and Bernie Leadon (guitar) who joined the Eagles (guitar). Kenny Wertz of the Barkers (banjo) went on to bluegrass fame in Country Gazette (guitar) and with the Flying Burrito Brothers.
There were jam sessions at the Blue Guitar music store, at the time located in Old Town (now on Mission Gorge Road). Venues like the Heritage in Mission Beach and the Candy Company brought acts like Vern and Ray, the Dillards, and others to town. “Cactus Jim” Soldi of Valley Music in El Cajon was the first to bring Bill Monroe to town at the Bostonia Ballroom in El Cajon. San Diego State presented Flatt and Scruggs in 1968, and Lou Curtis was beginning his long march of acoustic and roots concerts at SDSU.
It was in this context that a handful of bluegrass music lovers came together in 1973 in La Mesa at the Straw Hat Pizza Hut on Fletcher Parkway. The goal was to provide a venue for both accomplished and beginning musicians to come together to play, trade licks, and to share and promote Bluegrass.
Other events that developed in the early days from the formation of the club included weekend bluegrass festivals and concerts at Big Oak Ranch and at the Viejas Reservation. (Who can forget the cows mingling with the audience and the wind turning over the stage?) The club also supported banjo and fiddle contests in the San Diego County area.
The increasing local interest in bluegrass music was noted by the San Diego Wild Animal Park [now Safari Park] during this time period, which led to weekend concerts and an annual bluegrass festival at the park, featuring nationally known bluegrass bands from the East Coast. Some believe that ticket sales to bluegrass events at the Wild Animal Park were a major contributor to the expansion of the park’s outdoor arena, now used for all sorts of concerts.
More in the next issue!
Bluegrass Day at the Fair
On Saturday June 6, 11am-8pm, this year’s Bluegrass Day at the Fair presents eight great bands in concert (The Full Deck, Prairie Sky, The Virtual Strangers, Front Porch Music Preservation Society, Mohavi Soul, High Mountain Road, Gone Tomorrow, and the Taildraggers) plus a band scramble open to all ages and abilities and a fiddling demonstration by the California State Old Time Fiddlers Association, District 7 (San Diego). The band scramble starts at 2:10pm. Be there an hour early to sign up. You can enter in the categories of: guitar, banjo, fiddle, bass, mandolin, and specialty instruments, such as Dobro and harmonica. Prizes will be given to the winning band and to the winner in each category, including best male and female vocalist and best youth performer. For more info visit the SDBS website at: www.sandiegobluergass.org.
See you there!