Old-Time Music Hits Boonville
by Bruce McEwen, August 26, 2010
The Golden Old-time Music Camp-Out came to Boonville last weekend for the second time. It used to be in Yreka, way up north. This is the second music festival to relocate to Boonville in the last few years, the first being the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival, not that Sierra Nevada and the Golden Oldies have much music in common, if any.
I didn't have $20 to get in so I tried posing as a journalist. The two women taking tickets, Ellie May and Granny Bad Vibe straight out of the Beverly Hillbillies, smoked me right away. Granny said, “We don't care if ye are from the local paper, ya ain't getting’ in without ye pay the twentee bucks and that's final.”
A less cantankerous arrangement was made when Ellie May called event organizer Mark Hogan, who said, “Man, I been trying to get a hold of you guys! Come on in and enjoy yourself.” Granny, with a slight snarl, gave me a wristband so I could come and go throughout the weekend.
Like old Jed Clampet, Old-Time Music struck it rich a few years back when bluegrass came into mainstream vogue with the box office-hit ‘Oh Brother Where Art Thou?’ Previous movies, like ‘Deliverance’ featured the virtuosity of Old-Time musicianship but the albino prodigies and the sodomy scenes make it kinda hard to hear the tunes. ‘Oh Brother’ set the tone a little higher, but for a long time pluckin' and cluckin' seemed pretty much back woods entertainment.
But nowadays — oh boy! — every public radio station in the country has a bluegrass program, KZYX included.
But “bluegrass is only one leg of the stool,” Mark Hogan explained. 'The other two — shorter legs — are gospel and old-time music.”
What is old-time music? Well, it's the rootstock of bluegrass and even country music. But whereas country music focuses on the stardom of individual personalities — mostly songsters — and bluegrass showcases individual talent by turns, with solos for each instrument, old-time musicians and singers are more democratic. Everybody plays at once, all the way through a given number.
Mark suggested I bring a chair and table. This I did. And from this vantage point I watched the participants come in and set up their campsites. Did they come in old trucks with a soiled mattress thrown in the back? Hardly. Mostly, they came in new Priuses. And out of the Priuses came the most amazing high-tech camping gear available. Multi-room nylon dome tents with graphite poles, canopies that zipped, snapped and popped into veritable carports, full-size inflatable beds, recliners with footstools sprang out of little sacks, tabletops unrolled onto collapsible frames, little metal boxes unfolded into stovetops and concentric pots and pans popped out of nylon bags. Not to mention the instruments — everything from upright bass fiddles down to kid-sized violins. How do you get a fully furnished three-bedroom house with a two-car garage in the trunk of a Prius? It's incredible, to say the least, but zip, snap, pop, and presto! Instant road mansion.
I felt like Ma and Pa Kettle's orphaned son with my wooden TV tray and director's chair.
But if the digs were state-of-the-art, the clothing was the genuine article. The hats, especially, were right out of Grapes of Wrath and one man looked the very spit of Tom Joad — this turned out to be Barry Schultz, one of old-time music's more eminent performers. He played Friday night at Lauren's and the place was packed.
Mark the impresario told me his group wanted to make a positive impression on Boonville, and they did. If they'd been any more amenable we wouldn't have known they were in town. Mark seemed especially anxious to make Lauren happy and asked me to inquire about her feelings toward them. Lauren told me she liked 'em and appreciated the business. Moreover, I heard people from last year's camp-out telling newcomers what a great place Lauren's was. “Very good restaurant, just across the street,” I heard them say. “And look at this huge tri-tip sandwich I just got at the market next door to Lauren's. Only $7.50! Have you tried the local beer and wines? Terrific!”
So Lauren's was really hopping. As was Boonville, Mendocino County's hottest new stop.
Barry Schultz did some introductory samples of old-time music, playing guitar, fiddle, harmonica, singing some highly quaint lyrics about a billy goat in one number. Then he asked Carlo Calabi to join him for a song he wrote one day when the tractor broke down and he was stranded in the field. I forget the name, but the chorus was very apt for Anderson Valley: “Happy are the people who live in the valley,” they sang. There was a verse for each of the four seasons, sketching the lives of farmers, and ending in the winter with the fruit of their labor on the table.
Ray Edwards, the MTA bus driver who'd reminded me to look in on the Golden Old-Time Camp-out, was there. Besides driving the bus, he also drives to Berkeley every week to do an old-time music show on KFPA. Pig in a Pen, the show's called. The slogan? “You can't hurt ham.” Hambone, a rhythmic thigh-slapping, could be the reference. Daniel Lee, who wanders the streets on Ukiah and Fort Bragg is the King of Hambone.
More music followed Mr. Schultz. Eric and Suzi Thompson ripped out a guitar duo to make Eric Clapton's head spin, the picking and 'cross picking' was so elaborate, swift and deft. Mendocino's very own Frannie Leopold took Suzi's guitar and Suzi took up her fiddle. They did another dizzying number, “Catnip,” an old Frank Wakefield tune and the dance floor started filling up. The trio spiced up the tunes with some Cajun hot sauce and more dancers flooded the floor. I counted quite a few local heads bobbing out in the flood, including members of Lauren's regular band. The merriment went on until nearly midnight.
Saturday was the big day. More camps had popped up, and a chilly breeze was soughing through the trees. The groups of musicians had moved out of the shade and into the sun. The beauty of acoustic music is that if you tire of one group, you can stroll a few meters away and listen to another. There were dozens of groups playing at any given time. A thumping bass, plunking banjo, squealing fiddle, sizzling mandolin, thrumming guitar — here, there, everywhere. A core group of highly skilled virtuosos would always have an outer circle of beginners playing along, filling out a fat sound. Everyone was encouraged to join in.
Workshops went on all day, as well. These were well attended. I went to the guitar seminar featuring Eric Thompson, mixing my vocation with my avocation. A young woman with an old Yamaha like mine came late and Eric patiently brought her up to speed (which was way slow, due to our novice standing) on the bass licks he was teaching. The whole group finally mastered the bass line and Eric fleshed it out with a lead. This was great fun and we all felt like pros after an hour of practice. After class we all took their guitars and went to play on the periphery of one group or another.
I went to Lauren's for a beer and chatted at the bar with a mandolin player named Lee. He wouldn't divulge his last name because he had a sour opinion of some of the newer participants. The ranks of old-time music lovers have been infiltrated by refugees from the punk-rock scene, it seems, and Lee didn't approve. “A lot of these people are slumming,” he said with a sour smile. “It used to be just us hillbillies and now you've got a bunch of PhDs and the like. They drive all over the United States to play it but won't walk across the street to hear it!” I told him I'd find out his last name but he wasn't worried. “I've got lots of 'em,” he said.
I went home for dinner and a nap and was running a little late for the big square dance on Saturday night. The moon was full, but the breeze off the coast had brought cloud cover so the moon never came out. When I got to the dance the caller, Celia Ramsay, was lamenting a poor turn-out.
“If we can't get any more dancers, then this will be the last set,” she said. I crossed to Lauren's and it was packed again. Every table taken, but as they finished eating they were heading to the dance. I ran into a local gal who wanted to go. She was practically with child to go to a square dance, she said. I squeezed my wristband off and gave it to her. The economy being what it is, I felt a little cheating could be forgiven. Later, when I returned, I saw her out on the floor — it was packed with dancers now! She'd found a big strapping fellow for a partner who sorta looked like Jethro Bodine and she was having the time of her life, prancing like a pony and beaming with pride.
The Road Oilers were playing. Celia was calling, “Allemande right, ladies! Face your neighbor, balance and swing! … No finger lacing, no holding hands,” she scolded. “It's a cupped hand only, not even thumbs should lock. Balance and swing with your new neighbor — keep the sets tight and allemande right.” The bow squeals on the fiddle strings, the banjo comes plunking up the scale, and the guitar and base pick up the rhythm — there's some happy confusion on the floor. Dancers here and there have ended-up with their neighbors when they should be with their partners; a little parody of life, true. If you don't follow the rules, you could get your toes stepped on. But all in good fun, and no harm done, even though I did see more fraternizin’ than the forbidden hand-holding and finger-lacing.
I wandered back through the campground. Even though the dance was packed, there were still many groups of musicians picking and grinning away in little pools of lantern-light. I wandered around, stopping at one group then another, hoping for a taste of moonshine. But no. It was too cloudy. No moonshine. Nary a drop! But it had warmed up, as it always seems to do in the Anderson Valley when the fog has settled in.