BY CESAREO GARASA Contributing writer
It's an irony -- in this case a happy one -- that as modern times have distanced us from much of our heritage, the Information Age also has been instrumental in helping us rediscover it, at least musically. Just ask Craig Wilson, who for years has helped organize a Bakersfield bluegrass weekend that has become a wintertime tradition for many fans from around the state.
"I would say that bluegrass music is holding its own and showing steady growth," said Wilson, who sings and plays guitar and mandolin with his own group, The Roustabouts.
The Great 48 bluegrass weekend
DoubleTree by Hilton, 3100 Camino Del Rio Court; for tickets and information: cbaonthewab.org
Thursday: Showcase Showdown contest at 7 p.m. $15 in advance, $17 at the door.
Friday: Jamming throughout the day. Free.
Concert featuring The Special Consensus and The Roustabouts at 7:30 p.m. $20 in advance, $25 at the door. Can be purchased at California Keyboards or by calling 979-0786.
Saturday: Jamming throughout the day. Free. Various instrument instructional workshops midafternoon; bluegrass band scramble and open mic starting at 8 p.m.
Bluegrass in Bakersfield: Not there yet
For 48 hours every January, Bakersfield is ground zero for bluegrass music. The rest of the year? Meh.
"There no established bluegrass hangout, really," said Craig Wilson, 69, a Bakersfield native who fell in love with the music in 1962 and has been playing it ever since -- on guitar, mandolin and as a vocalist.
"Some groups come and some groups go. And there's less than a handful of bands that are professional quality bluegrass bands."
Beyond his own group, The Roustabouts, Wilson can count the other local acts on one hand, with fingers left over: the Brothers Barton being the pre-eminent band, and then there's a group of sisters who play in a few different iterations.
The real hindrance is lack of venue, though Wilson mentioned that some spots -- Lengthwise Brewing Co., Imbibe Wine and the Padre among them -- have, on occasion, shown a willingness to host bluegrass performers.
"It's catch as catch can. Our band has had trouble finding places to play because only two of us live in Bakersfield, two are in Visalia and one is on the Central Coast. For us to get together as a band, the gig has to pay enough."
So with venues scarce, Bakersfield has spawned a number of "underground jamming groups in somebody's home," said Wilson, who describes the local scene as "kind of static."
But that's where the Great 48 bluegrass weekend comes in. Several years ago, Wilson and other organizers decided to bring in name performers like Doyle Lawson, The Lost and Found and last year's headliner, Rhonda Vincent.
Performers of that caliber attract the casual fans, who end up staying for the jam sessions and other activities.
"The non-bluegrass people maybe showed up for whatever reason, had a great time and come back and tell their friends," Wilson said. "They always say, 'How come we haven't heard about this bluegrass thing?'"
"With the advent of satellite and online radio -- as well as satellite TV radio stations -- more people are being exposed to the genre. The use of bluegrass instruments is also being heard more and more frequently across a broad spectrum of music, including country, rock, Americana and others."
And just as the genre itself is doing well, so is the Great 48, a weekend of jam sessions and concerts, which kicks off today at the DoubleTree Hotel. Attendees from as far away as Hawaii are expected, according to Wilson, a hopeful sign that attendance may surpass last year's total of 800 fans drawn, in part, by bluegrass legend Rhonda Vincent. This year's main concert, on Friday, is headlined by Grammy-nominated group Special Consensus. Proceeds from the concert go to the TigerFight Foundation, which benefits the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
But beyond the main event are opportunities for both serious players and the general public to appreciate the music.
The three-day affair starts this evening with the Showcase Showdown, a contest among four non-touring bluegrass bands from various parts of California. Each band plays a 25-minute set and the winner is awarded a slot at the California Bluegrass Association Fathers' Day Festival in Grass Valley. This year's participants are Canyon Johnson, The Grasskickers, California Pearly Blue, Cliff Compton (not the professional wrestler) and Mountaintop.
Saturday features an all-day jam session, where musicians are encouraged to find other kindred souls to play with and make some mighty noise. The Bluegrass Band Scramble pairs players at random who work on a number all day before performing it publicly later Saturday evening. Spontaneous combustion is a possibility -- at least music-wise.
But the festival isn't limited to pickers.
"While the greatest percentage of attendees are bluegrass jammers from around California and beyond, who rub elbows and generally pick till their fingers bleed, there are always a good number of non-playing folks that show up just to ramble around the hotel and listen to lots of good and happy music," Wilson said.
"The event is open to the public, and a hearty walk-up crowd is encouraged as to introduce non-bluegrassers to our music."
Wilson will get into the act on Friday with his band, which will open for The Special Consensus, whose 2012 release, "Scratch Gravel Road," was nominated for a Grammy.
The album is the quintessential modern bluegrass release: lilting harmonies and soaring melodies from fiddles, voices and mandolins, rolling banjos and upbeat tempos. There is no way you can hear these songs (even when the lyrics are somber) and not tap your foot.
"I still believe in the old adage that if people could just hear bluegrass music they would most likely enjoy it," said Greg Cahill, who plays banjo and sings baritone and tenor harmony vocals with the quartet, which formed in 1975.
In addition to its resurgence in the United States, bluegrass, a style steeped in the rich tradition of Scottish, Irish and British music, is experiencing something of a homecoming, Cahill observed.
"We've played Ireland every year since the '90s and it's huge over there. They feel like we're bringing their music back to them."
Echoing Wilson, Cahill chalks up the music's popularity to "the impact of social media and the accessibility of the Internet."
To build on that interest, especially among the young, Wilson encourages attendees to join in -- and owning an instrument isn't necessarily a prerequisite.
"The California Bluegrass Association has a long history of involvement in youth music programs including Kids on Bluegrass and the recently established Youth Academy," said Wilson, a member of the association himself. "They also have a lending library of musical instruments that have been donated to place in the hands of youthful budding bluegrassers."
Along with engaging the youth, what else is in store down the road for this genre, which has come a long way from the familiar call and response of "Dueling Banjos" and visions of hillbillies plucking on a stick on a bucket?
Cahill, for one, sees a lot of potential.
"I think the bar has been raised with new recording methodology, and this is a very positive and interesting time for bluegrass music. I am honored and excited about being part of this era and look forward to seeing and hearing both the old and new sounds that continue to emerge."