Recordially, Lou Curtiss

Why I Love the Adams Avenue Roots Festival

Every year at the Roots Festival, it’s a meeting of old and new, with the kinds of music presented, but for me it’s also a coming together of old friends I don’t get to see very often. Some of them go back to the very beginning and have come back many times. Some of the artists were young newcomers when they first played for me and are solid veterans of the festival scene today. Here are some thoughts on folks who have entertained San Diego festival goers through the years.

Utah Phillips in 2006. Photo by N. Wilson.

Glen Ohrlin in 1985.

Mary McCaslin

Guy Carawan

Larry Hanks in 2001.

Del Rey

UTAH PHILLIPS  Rosalie Sorrels first told me about Bruce Phillips, who first played at the fifth Folk Festival back in 1971. I’ve lost count of the many appearances he’s made since that first one, but it’s been quite a few. I like a performer who can entertain and, at the same time, leave you with something to think about, and Utah certainly does that.

GLENN OHRLIN  Cowboy songster from Mountain View, Arkansas, I first saw Glenn at the UCLA Folk Festival in 1965 and a few years later invited him to San Diego to be a part of our gathering. Glenn has been to several festivals, including a couple of Roots Festivals in recent years. I was even privileged to help record a Glenn Ohrlin long-play record a few years back for the Rounder people (Glenn also has a new CD on Rounder). This is real cowboy stuff, with both songs and stories by someone who has lived it.

MARY McCASLIN  I first met Mary when she opened for Lightnin’ Hopkins at the old Bifrost Bridge coffee house in La Mesa. I invited her to play at the third Folk Festival (in spring of 1969), and she’s played at most of the festivals I’ve done since. Mary is one of those much undersung singer/songwriter/guitarists who has made her mark in all three areas. Her vocal styles and use of falsetto have influenced folk, pop, and even R&B divas. The Western themes expressed in her original songs put her right up there with the greatest of the Western songwriters (Bob Nolan, Stan Jones, Roy Whitley), and her use of guitar tunings and arrangements give her songs a highly original lilt. Mary is an innovator whose body of work measures up to most anyone.

GUY CARAWAN  I first saw Guy at the Newport Folk Festival in either 1959 or 1960 (those years kind of run together), then a few years later at the Sign of the Sun bookstore with Bessie Jones, and at UCLA with the Moving Star Hall Singers. Some time along in there I saw him with the Freedom Singers and some other people, I think, in Jackson, Mississippi, and I’m sure other places too. He first played at the second San Diego Festival in 1968 and has been here to play a few other concerts and festivals since, although not as many as I’d like. Guy plays 12-string guitar, banjo, hammered dulcimer, and knows a pile of good songs. He lives in New Market, Tennessee these days, and this is his first trip out West in awhile.

RAY BIERL  I first saw Ray at the old Heritage coffee house in Mission Beach, and I couldn’t tell you when that was, but it was in the early to mid-1960s. I saw him around San Diego State and just about everywhere else. When we started the festivals in 1967, it was a foregone conclusion that he’d be a part of them. I don’t know how many festivals Ray’s been in. He drifted up to the Bay Area sometime in the late ‘70s and didn’t appear as often as he used to. He played in a band called the Hillbillies from Mars for awhile and right now he works with a partner, Tom Rozum. Along the way, Ray picked up the fiddle, but his music is still country, old-timey, cowboy, and folk, with a contemporary song thrown in now and then.

LARRY HANKS  There was a concert series at the Sign of the Sun bookstore during the early ‘60s called “Old Wine in New Bottles,” and it was at one of those concerts I first heard Larry Hanks sing Woody Guthrie’s “Vigilante Man.” His rich bass voice stuck with me, and I was fortunate to hear Larry again at the Berkeley Folk Festival, at a coffee house in Fresno, and at the Sweets Mill Festivals in the Sierras, so I was sure to invite him to San Diego. He first played the second San Diego Folk Festival in 1968 and with too few appearances along the way, he came last year (some 33 years later) to the twenty-eighth festival (now called The Adams Ave. Roots Festival, but the same nonetheless) and he’ll be returning this year.

DEL REY  I first saw this lady pick a guitar and sing the blues sometime in the early ‘70s, and I booked her at the very next festival I could. She was only 13 years old and working in San Diego under an alias. She only started using her real name after she left town and got gator bit in Santa Cruz. Del now lives in Seattle and works festivals all over the country. I’m proud of the fact that I played her her first Memphis Minnie record and introduced her to Sam Chatmon, who became one of her early mentors. Del’s been down this way many times, but it’s been six years or so since she’s played at the Roots Fest.

There are so many others who have participated in many of the festivals. Curt Bouterse has appeared at all of them, and he’ll be back this year. Others who have repeated include Jody Stecher and Kate Brislin, Los Alacranes, Mimi Wright, Roy Ruiz Clayton, Janet McBride, Andy Gallaher, the Budapest Brothers, Siamsa Gael Ceili Band, Ross Altman, the New Lost Melody Boys, Wayne Brandon and Clark Powell, Tanya Rose, Brian Pickering, and Tomcat Courtney.

Appearing for the first time this year are Liz Masterson and Sean Blackburn, Lou and Peter Berryman, the Kathy Kallick Bluegrass Band, Sourdough Slim, Teagen McClain, Tom Brosseau (although his partner, Gregory Page, is a regular), Adam Miller and Laura Lind, Tom Rozum (partnering with Ray Bierl), Robin Henkel, and that’s about it, except for SAM HINTON, whom I first heard on an old 78 recording of “Lost John” that I bought at an army surplus store called The Three G.I.s (George, Don, and Buford’s shop slogan being “We don’t pay no rent, because our business is in a tent.”) in Lake City, Washington. Sometime during the ‘50s, after I moved to San Diego, I bought a Decca L.P. I saw Sam live at Southwest Junior High and again a few years later at Mar Vista High School. Later, when I started going to folk clubs and festivals, I saw him often—on local television and at festivals in Berkeley, Newport, UCLA, Riverside, Cal Western, and so many others, I’ve lost count. When we started doing the San Diego Folk Festivals, Sam was always a part of it. He was one of the people we went to for advice and more for approval. A word from Sam that we were doing the right thing always meant a lot. It still does. Sam has played all 28 of the previous San Diego Folk/Adams Ave. Roots Festivals. Physically he won’t be at the festival this year, but his spirit and his encouragement will continue to be a part of everything we do. Thanks, Sam.

Recordially,
Lou Curtiss

Note: Reprinted from the April 2002 edition of the San Diego Troubadour.

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