The California Bluegrass Association, momentum ... and more!
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Jam Hall is sharing and passing oriented. It is just natural for us to have a look at this California association, founder of a huge development in culture and arts, on a personal or collective matter. The California Bluegrass Association was a starter and managed to build, gather and settle over time.
We asked Christopher Howard-Williams, a CBA friend, to guide us in this discovery.
California Bluegrass Association, driving Bluegrass in the San Francisco Bay Area, California and beyond since 1974.
Darby and Bruno Brandli are in their 70s. Their lives have encompassed the San Francisco Bay Area music scene since the 1960s - Bruno even lived at 710 Ashbury St., home of Jerry Garcia in the early days of The Grateful Dead; they still drive a VW Microbus to festival campsites (Bruno would know what model and which engine, and why this is important).
They have always lived in the Bay Area, mainly in their beautiful home in Oakland, a pretty, upscale town across from San Francisco, the hometown of Kamala Harris and Jack London.
I had often heard about them but only really got to know them in 2018 when they came to La Roche Bluegrass Festival. It made sense: Molly Tuttle, the rising star of Bluegrass, fresh out of the CBA youth program, was on the bill, and Bruno has Swiss origins (his cousin owns a house in the country, just across the Swiss border on the way from La Roche to Geneva!).
The following year, in 2019, the CBA invited me to their Father's Day Festival in Grass Valley and Darby invited me to spend a few days in Oakland.
This is how I was able to see up close the activities of the CBA — the association that provides the driving force for the Bluegrass community on the West Coast — and the welcome reserved for visiting musicians in the Brandli house: Greg Blake spent two nights there with his new band (including Chris Luquette), and a group of teenage musicians managed to find space to sleep on the floor. I had the guest room, called The Bluegrass Suite.
I’d heard of the CBA. Every year at IBMA's World of Bluegrass, they take a suite in one of the hotels, where groups play by invitation, unplugged, in front of around forty people with snacks and drinks provided (donations appreciated). It's a popular place to hang during the week, where you see great bands playing in an intimate and relaxed environment - I first saw Sister Sadie and Lonely Heartstrings Band there among others.
Bluegrass in California dates back to the 1950s with the duo Vern & Ray. In the 1960s, it was the days of the Kentucky Colonels (Clarence and Roland White), and then Old and In The Way in the 1970s (with David Grisman, Peter Rowan and Jerry Garcia).
To learn more about the history of Bluegrass in California, read this excellent article by Kara Kundert in the 2019 No Depression Journal.
The CBA was founded by Carl Pagter in 1974, newly arrived in San Francisco from Washington DC, where he was part of the thriving Bluegrass scene. 10 years later, Carl was also involved in founding the IBMA. The CBA still has a major presence at World of Bluegrass: physical, with its suite, showcases and participation in Kids on Bluegrass, and economic, through partnership and sponsorship actions.
From its first year, the CBA began to partner with festivals (Huck Finn) before launching its own Father's Day Festival in Grass Valley in 1976.
Initially, the CBA covered the San Francisco Bay Area, as far as the Central Valley in the South and Sacramento in the North, leaving the Bluegrass Association of Southern California and the North California Bluegrass Society to operate in their own areas. The three associations continue to co-operate and have several members in common, but it is the CBA that has established itself as a reference beyond the borders of the state, becoming the largest Bluegrass association in the world in member numbers.
Today CBA has nearly 3000 members (more than IBMA) and 500 regular volunteers to staff its various activities.
Father’s Day Festival - La Roche in the Pines
Grass Valley is a pretty little mining town, 2½ hours from San Francisco Airport, 800m above sea level in the Sierra Nevadas. Following the signs you reach the Festival Campsite in the middle of the pines. The campsite is organized into “neighbourhoods” and I stayed in “Camp Spam” with Darby and Bruno and a few families, pillars of the CBA community, who all have been coming for decades with their children, now teenagers or young adults, graduates from the youth program, who set up camp a little further away from the parents. It is very family oriented and the different generations mix easily for jams, drinks or discussions: there is no generational divide, except for the sleeping times!
The festival is like many others, with different stages, an integrated campsite, vendor booths, luthiers, etc., and there is a particularly nice and friendly atmosphere. I felt like I was at La Roche in the pines. It's both big and on a human scale; perfectly organized, relaxed and stress free.
There is plenty of room for Californian artists: young ones with the Kids, and older as I got to see Kathy Kallick, Laurie Lewis & Tom Rozum, Keith Little, Evie Ladin, and even Frank Solivan, who came through as a tourist. There are also headliners from across the continent: Della Mae, Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers, Sister Sadie, Lonely Heartstrings Band, Carolina Blue, The Po 'Ramblin' Boys.
The California audience, contrary to what one might imagine, is particularly fond of traditional bluegrass and the local groups mix the trad with original compositions and modern bluegrass with easy familiarity.
It really is an experience not to be missed if you get the chance.
To find out more about Father’s Day Festival
Because this is San Francisco, we expect to see CBA leading the way in promoting diversity. There is, indeed, a long list of women from California who have headed the bill — probably longer than elsewhere in the States. We have seen some of them in Europe: Kathy Kallick, Laurie Lewis, Suzy Thompson, Alison Brown, Molly Tuttle, AJ Lee, Brittany Haas ...
In 2017 the CBA, with a young and dynamic team led by Kara Kundert, decided to participate in San Francisco Pride. Several musicians came from far and wide to play on the float and they won first prize at their first participation.
Today that Bluegrass Pride Association has grown into an organization in its own right and takes an active role in diversity actions within the IBMA and in American Bluegrass in general.
CBA Youth Program
In 2015, La Roche Bluegrass Festival was the first festival to invite a group of Kids on Bluegrass, from the program supervised by Kim Fox during World of Bluegrass. Among the Kids who came to La Roche was Helen Foley from California.
The CBA, under the leadership of Frank Solivan Sr., created the first Kids on Bluegrass program in the 1990s when his son, Frank Solivan, whom we know well in France, was an apprentice.
In 2005 CBA set up an instrument library and launched the Youth Academy, managed today by Kimber Ludiker. The Youth Academy focuses on music training, either to play for pleasure or for a professional career. It runs throughout the year, whereas Kids on Bluegrass is linked to an event and is more focused on performance and stage craft, with Father's Day Festival being the main event of the programme. Helen Foley (who came to France with the KOB) manages this programme with a camp during the week before the festival and a they get to perform on one of the stages for a whole afternoon during the weekend.
Among the alumni of the CBA Youth Academy and KOB we have seen at La Roche: Annie Stanninec, Frank Solivan, Helen Foley, Molly Tuttle, AJ Lee & Blue Summit. And that's not all. The list of young talent is long and we will see more at La Roche in the years to come.
Under Kimber’s leadership they now have ambitions that go beyond California with plans for online courses accessible worldwide.
In the Community
The CBA operates throughout the year leading or supporting independent events and on various promotional or support actions. There is plenty of creativity that allows the association and its members, as individuals, to act and react for the good of the music and the community.
Here are a few examples.
Young Helen Ludé, herself of Chinese origin, adopted at 9 months and from the youth program, has created an association to raise public awareness of adoption through Bluegrass. Sponsored by the CBA, Helen’s association organizes concerts, is preparing a CD and planning to put on a Bluegrass benefit concert in China.
After Keith Little’s project to bring Kazuhiro Inaba to California, the CBA is considering an exchange program with Japan.
During the terrible fires in California of 2018, the CBA launched a fund raiser to remplace the instruments of its members that were lost in the fire. La Roche Bluegrass Festival and I made donations — which helped consolidate our friendship and informal collaboration.
During lockdown, the CBA launched Turn Your Radio Online, a series of virtual concerts, raffles and auctions to benefit musicians stranded at home.
In January 2021, the CBA hosted the Jam-a-thon — 50 hours of non-stop virtual concerts to raise money to develop online music training materials for children, accessible around the world.
The concerts were expertly curated and presented by the brilliant Kimber Ludiker with a small team from the CBA. I had the honor of participating by inviting and presenting some of the international groups. This is how we got to see French band New Blue Quitache, among other European groups.
There were some exceptional moments with familiar names and new discoveries of young Californian talent, discussions between remote artists and even a virtual live mandolin jam which actually worked quite well!
With a starting goal of $10,000, they ended up raising over $25,000.
Here is the official Jamathon page, with links to the concerts.
Reviewing all this for this article, I became more aware of all the good that CBA does for its members (of which I am one) and how it can be a model for other associations to follow.
In Europe, we are far from being able to mobilize 500 volunteers for 3000 members, but we can aspire to the creativity, dynamism and benevolence of the CBA. Long may it continue.
To learn more
Facebook - (active) Facebook page.
History of CBA article from its origins to today.
Article rédigé par Christopher Howard-Williams
Darby Brandli, interview
Jam Hall : Darby, Bruno, how did you become fans of Bluegrass?
Darby & Bruno Brandli : We both (separately) were introduced to bluegrass during the folk music craze in the early 1960’s. There were lots of small clubs and a few “festivals” in the Berkeley / San Francisco area.
We continued to hear the music through the 1970’s and attended our first bluegrass festival in the mid 1980’s. I was hooked after hearing the Johnson Mountain Boys at the CBA Father’s Day Festival.
My husband had always played guitar and he met friends who jammed. He now plays mostly mandolin and some bass when needed. Our children loved attending festivals so the CBA became our community.
Jam Hall : We French are very impressed with the realizations of the CBA and how lively the association is. Where does all this energy come from ?
D & B Brandli : The organization was started and kept alive the first 15-20 years by the super organizers and bands from the San Francisco Bay Area. It is only recently that the “founders” are beginning to pass away, the CBA was founded in 1974 and the first festival was held 1975.
Volunteers have always kept the organizations together and the success of our festival has been essential. Our members come from a country music background with a larger contingent of folkies and DeadHeads.
We maintain our membership by making certain we remain “family friendly” and offer as many youth activities as we can both at our festival and year round.
We are multi generational. We are actually working on bigger outreach now and have proposed some new programs and are artily reaching out to the Southern California community.
California is a HUGE state and we focused mostly on the Northern California region for the first 35 years or so.
J H : Bluegrass and Old Time are not European traditions. But today these musics may be at a crossroads, especially in France, with a new generation of players. Any advice for the "new wave"?
D & B Brandli : Finding ways to reach out to families is essential in my view. If we can engage kids we hook entire families AND develop picker, fans, future leaders. If you have attendeed La Roche you may know Frank Solivan, Molly Tuttle, AJ Lee who al participated in our Kids on Bluegrass programs and now teach or volunteer in the same programs.
We support some school bluegrass programs, offer scholarships to our Youth Academy, free tickets to our festival to families from local music schools etc.
We are trying to do more because we worry about post pandemic interest and attendance. Bluegrass and Old Time are not well known musical forms and do not receive much attention.
J H : "And now, something completely different": your VW Microbus is kind of a wonder and seems in perfect condition. What do you feed it with ?
D & B Brandli : The "Slime Green Machine" (named by our kids)?
We bought the 1978 VW used about 25 years ago as a camping / festival vehicle for our family of 4. It was in great shape then and my husband was able to maintain it and we have a garage for storage.
We have only used it in the last couple of years to transport our bicycles to places for us to ride. Covid has definitely hanged our life and I can no longer drive (vision issues).
It might be time to think about passing it on to someone else who can care for it. We love it once we arrive at a destination.
Read more :
Facebook - CBA Facebook Page.
Histoire de la CBA History of the CBA from start until today.
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Vous aimez le Bluegrass, l'Old Time, l'Americana.
Vous aimeriez que ces musiques et leurs valeurs soient plus représentées