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September 2023
Vol. 22, No. 12

Featured Stories

Early Memories of Vince Gill and a Magical Moment in Time

by Ramona AultAugust 2023

There was a time in the mid-1970s when musical magic happened at a club called the Sweetwater Café in Redondo Beach. I was a part owner. I waited tables, decorated, and sang at the club. We hosted a bunch of incredible talents, such as Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris, Byron Berline, Alan Wald, and so many more. This is my story and how it unfolded.

Sweethearts of the Rodeo, Janis & Kristine Oliver, ca. 1977.

In 1975, my friend John Campbell said, “You’ve got to see this group.” He took me to the Straw Hat Pizza in Manhattan Beach to hear a country band called the Sweethearts of the Rodeo. The sisters, Janis and Kristine, were young, talented, and beautiful! They played the music we loved like Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons. At the Straw Hat they competed with a loudspeaker blaring “pizza number 9.” John imagined a place where their music could be appreciated and enjoyed.

I was one of the people John gathered to create the Sweetwater Cafe. I upholstered the benches along the back wall with denim and covered the top of the big naugahyde booth with the pockets of donated blue jeans. I macraméd lampshades to light up the dark corners and cut every tablecloth to fit. Everywhere you looked was an artistic expression. It was a labor of love.

Dave Hanson made an incredible wood  mosaic depiction of the South Bay that graced the back of our stage. We served cappuccinos from our beautiful brass and copper cappuccino machine. We also served beer, wine, tea, and soda. The kitchen served food that was always good, but no one was really there for the food. It was all about the music. The waitresses made good money. We could pick up $300 a night in tips serving pitchers of beer and carafes of wine. I learned to read lips when it got too loud to hear their drink orders. Eventually, I noticed that it was the performers who were having the most fun. Soon, I started putting down my waitress tray and stepping up to sing every chance I got.

Ramona Ault & Vince Gill, ca. 1979.

Vince Gill came to LA at the invitation of fiddle great Byron Berline. Byron was playing on movie soundtracks and making a name for himself as a top bluegrass fiddler and studio musician (as well as a national fiddle champion). Vince came out west to join Byron’s new band Sundance. One night, Byron’s guitar player, Alan Wald, brought Vince to check out our club. Vince knew he’d found his musical home. He moved into an old beach house nearby and showed up most nights looking for the chance to play. He was a standout at mandolin, dobro and guitar, and oh, that voice!

Soon Vince joined a group of local pickers that included Gene and Steve Libbea, CW Mundy, Pat Cloud, Dennis Fechett, and Ross Landry, to name a few. They had regular bluegrass jams and jumped at the chance to play at Sweetwater. When Vince first arrived, he was wet behind the ears at age 19. With little fanfare he slipped into the scene as just “one of the guys.” Soon he would be bringing Byron Berline, John Hickman (banjo), and Dan Crary (guitar) to set our stage on fire with their hot pickin’.

One night the Sweethearts of the Rodeo were booked to open for Sundance. Vince and Janis met on the stairway going up to the green room and their lives were forever changed. As Vince’s star was growing ever brighter, they fell in love and married. I attended their wedding at a local church, and they celebrated their wedding reception at our club. Those were golden years!

When Vince joined Pure Prairie League he was well on his way to being a star. After that, when Vince played our club, you never knew who would show up as his guest artists. At the first show, when Vince headlined under his own name, Albert Lee, Rodney Crowell, Roseanne Cash, and Bonnie Raitt showed up and sat in with him. Vince went on to national fame, winning numerous country music, bluegrass, songwriting, and rock ‘n’ roll awards as well as membership in the Country Music Hall of Fame and a star on Hollywood Blvd.

Steve Libbea, Gene Libbea, & John Hickman on the Sweetwater stage, ca. 1977.

In 2012 we organized a Sweetwater reunion. Both Vince and the Sweethearts of the Rodeo came to play for our 35th Sweetwater Anniversary gathering. The Sweethearts played an energetic set, reminding us why we fell in love with them and their music all those years ago.

For Vince’s first appearance on stage that night, he walked out while Jim Conroy, Laura Sinclair, and I were singing “A Song for Life,” by Rodney Crowell. He entered mid-song and played a beautiful mandolin solo causing a ripple of excitement throughout the audience. Next was a bluegrass set with Vince, Gene Libbea, Dennis Fechett, and Alan Wald. They blew everyone’s mind with their tight harmonies and lightning-fast licks. Rest assured, Vince still has his bluegrass chops. In his final appearance that night, Vince did a set of his greatest hits with the rockin’ house band. I was thrilled to sing harmony with Vince and his daughter Jenny on “Liza Jane,” “One More Last Chance,” “Whenever You Come Around,” and other classic Vince hits.

What a memorable night! After some hugs, food, and photos, Vince took off for the airport and his next gig. We’re proud of Vince’s success and glad to have known him back “when.”

Ramona Ault is a singer-songwriter living in Vista, California and is a lead singer with her bluegrass band Prairie Sky. Ramona Ault @ Facebook, Ramona Ault on YouTube.

The Sweetwater Cafe has a Facebook page:


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