Let’s take a walk through a bit of San Diego history and remember some of the great bluegrass bands from our home town. For sure, there are lots of great bands who have visited and performed in San Diego, and there are several noteworthy professional bluegrass musicians of high stature who grew up and started their careers in San Diego, but today we are going to limit our review to three native, homegrown, bluegrass bands that left an indelible mark. This review comes with the caveat that it addresses only four of the standouts. In future columns we will take a look at some of the others.
The Scottsville Squirrel Barkers. The Scottsville Squirrel Barkers were formed in 1962 and hold a special place in San Diego bluegrass history. Named after member Ed Douglas’ hometown of Scottsville, Kentucky, the line-up consisted of Ed Douglas (bass), Larry Murray (Dobro), Kenny Wertz (guitar), Gary Carr (banjo), and a 16-year-old Chris Hillman (mandolin).
Before long, the Squirrel Barkers became the official house band of the Blue Guitar, San Diego’s premier acoustic music store and hangout for bluegrass and acoustic musicians of the time (The Blue Guitar still operates today at its location on Mission Gorge Road). The Barkers were soon playing gigs across Southern California.
The group travelled to Los Angeles to record their first and only album, a 10-track, 18-minute gem called Bluegrass Favorites that sold well in local grocery stores and shops. After a too-brief lifespan of two years, the group split up. Though the group initially had little impact outside of San Diego, it served as a starting point for many careers, with members going on to found bands like the Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers, Country Gazette, and the Eagles.
Brush Arbor. Brush Arbor featured Wayne Rice (currently with Lighthouse and DJ for KSON’s Bluegrass Special radio show), his brothers Joe Rice and Jim Rice, and Pat Stevens. Brush Arbor was originally known as the Rice Kryspies, a 1960s folk-bluegrass group featuring the three Rice brothers, along with Wayne’s wife Marci on bass and Pat Stevens on drums. Influenced by the Dillards, they issued at least one single in the mid-sixties and were together for about four years, playing mostly camps, coffeehouses, and churches around Southern California. When bassist Marci left the band in 1971, they changed their name to Brush Arbor and became a Christian, country bluegrass band. After winning a local KSON radio contest, they signed to Capitol Records and issued two well-received albums on the label, scoring minor hits in 1973 and 1974 and winning the 1974 Academy of Country Music award for Vocal Group of the Year. The band also made an important appearance on the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. After the two albums on Capitol, Wayne Rice left the group and they recorded for an array of subsequent faith-based labels (Monument Records, Word, Myrrh, Light, R&L). Their final album, The Way the River Runs, was released in 1996.
Pacifically Bluegrass. Rick Kirby (currently with Lighthouse and the first president of the San Diego Bluegrass Club) along with Pete Varhola (who played with Lighthouse and now freelances), Lou Newall, and Don Ridgeway formed this influential and high demand group of the 1970’s. Performances on KSON radio, at the San Diego Wild Animal Park and at numerous other venues and events helped the band make its mark in San Diego.
Nickel Creek. San Diego’s North County was a hot bed of bluegrass music from the 1970s forward. Three youngsters from that area—Sean and Sara Watkins of Vista and Chris Thile—were playing together before they were ten years old, often booked as the “Seldom Clean.” The young talents were regularly heard at local pizza parlors and at other acoustic music hangouts. While still in their teens the trio formed Nickel Creek in 1989. As they say, the rest is history: Grammy awards, Grand Ole opry performances, million-selling records, and national prominence. The group released six albums between 1993 and 2006. The band broke out in 2000 with a platinum-selling self-titled album produced by Alison Krauss, earning a number of Grammy and CMA nominations. Their fourth album won a 2003 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album. Following a fifth studio album and a compilation album, the band announced an indefinite hiatus at the conclusion of their 2007 Farewell (For Now) Tour. Following numerous solo projects from the band members, Nickel Creek reformed in 2014 with the announcement of a new album and subsequent tour. Chris Thile now hosts Garrison Keillor’s radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, is a MacArthur Genius Award recipient ($500,000), and founding leader of top band the Punch Brothers. Sean and Sara each also have successful national and international careers.
Looking for upcoming Local Bluegrass Action? SDBS is hosting a concert and banjo workshop by banjo masters Alan Munde and Bill Evans on April 1 at the La Jolla Christian Fellowship Church. The workshops are in the day followed by a free (donations solicited) concert with an opening set by The Full Deck at 7 and the main act at 7:30. For more info email Dennis Nowack at: firstname.lastname@example.org. The annual spring bluegrass campout will take place over the weekend of April 29-May 1 at the KOA in Chula Vista. Visit the SDBS website for more info and to sign up: www.sandiegobluegrass.org