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October 2023
Vol. 23, No. 1

Bluegrass Corner

The Golden Age of Bluegrass in San Diego

by Dwight WordenDecember 2011

While San Diego has a long and storied history of supporting and offering more bluegrass music than one might expect from a West Coast corner of the U.S., bordered on three sides by either desert, a foreign country, or the trackless Pacific Ocean, what we have in the early 21st century surpasses that history.

Bands. Historically, San Diego has produced some great local bluegrass bands, including some that went on to reach the “big time.” Wayne Rice and his Brush Arbor band played the Opry, Nickel Creek found its origins in Vista, and Bluegrass etc. boasts at least two original San Diego members (Dennis Caplinger and John Moore). The early days also featured Pacificly Bluegrass, San Diego Grass and Eclectic, and later Highway 52. Impressive for a laid-back beach town.

But, take a look at the lineup of quality bluegrass bands actively playing in San Diego now: Gone Tomorrow, Prairie Sky, Blue Creek, Lighthouse, the Virtual Strangers, the Taildraggers, Chris Clarke and Plow, Box Canyon, the Hilltop Ramblers, the Bluegrass Ramblers, the Full Deck, Chris Stuart and Janet Beazley and their Backcountry group, Old Town Road, Two Rivers, Needle in a Haystack, the Palomar Pickers, Blue Mountain Mule, Superstrings, the Shirthouse Band, Driftwood, and Faultline. This is not counting bands with strong San Diego connections like Next Generation, Silverado, the Brombies, and others, and not counting bands on the periphery of bluegrass like Berkley Hart, the bands of Walt Richards and Paula Strong, the 7th Day Buskers, and others doing a broader roots repertoire that includes some bluegrass. That’s more than 20 plus straight-up bluegrass bands actively out playing and performing in San Diego. That’s more than we have ever had in the past.

Jams. Jamming has always been an integral part of the bluegrass scene, and historically San Diego has had a vibrant jamming scene featuring such quality experiences as the “Amos and Emma” Sunday night jams that went for more than 30 years until a few years ago.

But, here’s what San Diego has now: Organized jam sessions every Tuesday evening of the month, with the first Tuesday sponsored by the North County Bluegrass and Folk Club in Escondido (visit: for details), and the next three Tuesdays sponsored by the San Diego Bluegrass Society, including an instructed slow jam on third Tuesdays (visit: for details). Every Wednesday evening the SDBS-sponsored Emma’s Gut Bucket Band holds an open jam session (visit: for details), and there are lots of open mics, folk song and old time get togethers that include bluegrass, camp-outs that feature jamming, and informal opportunities to jump in and jam. New Expression Music also offers a variety of instructional jamming and concert experiences at its North Park store. The hard core can attend a session at least two to three times a week, or more, if they care to.

Festivals. The Julian Banjo and Fiddle Contest has a long and proud history in San Diego and is still going. But, the modern San Diego era has brought us the three-day Summergrass Festival, co-sponsored by the North County Bluegrass and Folk Club and the SDBS. Presented every August in Vista, Summergrass has brought a consistent quality of national, regional, and local bands to its festival stage heretofore not seen in San Diego. Complemented by workshops, a kids academy, and an adult boot camp, Summergrass has become a premiere West Coast experience. Summergrass celebrates its 10th year in 2012 with a stellar lineup.

There is also a bluegrass festival in Ramona entering its third year, a one-day festival in Bonita, and the Santee Wine and Bluegrass Festival entering its third year. And, of course, the Adams Avenue Roots Festival and Street Fair present their share of quality bluegrass music every year.

Concerts. Historically, some great bands have come through San Diego, and we have been blessed with the occasional great venue, like the Old Time Cafe in Leucadia, which was active in the 1970’s-80’s, Java Joes in Ocean Beach, and going way back, the Heritage in Pacific Beach, the Bostonia Ballroom, and others.

But, consider what we have now. AMSD Concerts presents concerts every week, many of which present top quality bluegrass bands. Roland White, Byron Berline, Rob Ickes, Jim Hurst, and other bluegrass stalwarts have all appeared at AMSD. SDBS also presents three to four concerts a year. Coming in January, 2012 is Special Consensus, a top band out of Chicago. And, SDBS and the Del Mar Foundation have co-sponsored some great bluegrass concerts in the Del Mar Powerhouse, including the Claire Lynch Band, Laurie Lewis and the Right Hands, The Infamous Stringdusters, Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen, and others.

We also have the La Paloma theater in Encinitas, which occasionally presents bluegrass (Rhonda Vincent and Ralph Stanley, among others), the Belly Up in Solana Beach (David Grisman, Doc Watson, Ralph Stanley, among others), Winston’s in Ocean Beach (Infamous Stringdusters and others), and more. And, we have regular Sunday bluegrass brunches at Urban Solace restaurant in North Park and Dizzy’s which presents bluegrass on occasion (IIIrd Tyme Out, among others) and too many coffee houses and occasional venues to count.

Radio and Publications. Wayne Rice’s radio show “Bluegrass Special” on KSON has been broadcasting on Sunday nights from 10pm to midnight for more than 30 years, and over the years occasional coverage of bluegrass could be found in the Union Tribune, the Reader, City Beat, and other publications.

But, currently Wayne’s show has expanded to present its “San Diego Bluegrass Society Live” segment on the third Sunday of every month where Wayne interviews and presents a great local bluegrass bands live in the studio that play live on the air. And, the San Diego Troubadour now gives bluegrass a regular and permanent written voice, not only with this column, but also with cover and feature articles as well.

True, indeed, if bluegrass grows on your heart, this is a great time to be in San Diego. In my humble opinion, we are living in the “golden age of bluegrass” right here in San Diego. Get out and enjoy it!

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