“I make up most of the melodies for my dad’s songs,” said D’Jango Ruckrich with all the aplomb of a veteran writer-performer, which he is.
The youngest performer ever — at age 5 and again at 6 — D’Jango auditioned and played at the prestigious MerleFest in Wilkesboro, N.C. That’s where he met Doc Watson and Peter Rowan. David Grisman was so impressed he gave D’Jango some of his personal mandolin picks.
Now “almost 9,” D’Jango and his little sister, Jasmine, 5, will be playing the main stage this weekend at the 38th annual Father’s Day Bluegrass Festival in Grass Valley.
Although they usually all play together as the Ruckrich Family Band from the Nevada City area, dad Phil Ruckrich and mom Brenda Shawley are celebrating this Father’s Day weekend by watching their kids do what they love.
“We’re a family band for our kids, as long as it’s fun for them,” said Phil, who plays rhythm guitar but totally defers to D’Jango’s natural lead talent. “He’s a sponge with perfect pitch,” he said. “I used to teach him, but now I just make suggestions.”
And although her hands are just now getting big enough to play a fiddle, Jasmine has the same “rhythm, drive and determination,” said mom Shawley, who plays keyboards.
It remains to be seen whether D’Jango will play guitar, mandolin and/or fiddle.
It’s impossible to name all the acts that will be performing on the three stages at the four-day festival this weekend, but some of headliners include Blue Highway, Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper, Melvin Goins and Windy Mountain, Della Mae, Special Consensus, Front Country and the Larry Stephenson Band.
Staged by the California Bluegrass Association, the Father’s Day Festival is one of the largest bluegrass conventions on the West Coast, said Rick Cornish, who just retired from the CBA board of directors after 13 years (11 as chairman).
Unlike the Strawberry and Kate Wolf camp-out fests, which have expanded from their roots in bluegrass and folk music, the Father’s Day Festival is still strictly bluegrass, Cornish said firmly.
“We believe there still should be a place for traditional bluegrass, from the late ’40s to early ’60s,” Cornish stated. He did, however, concede they do tolerate a little “edgy newgrass.”
As in years past, the impromptu, all-hours music jams in the camping area will be as popular as the stage shows. Most of the 5,000 to 6,000 people who attend are listeners, he said, but some just come to play.
“There’s this kind of a funny paradigm those folks have,” chuckled Cornish, who is a fiddler himself.
There is really no substitute for actually being there at the festival, but if you’re in North Carolina, Brazil — or a hospital bed — you can still listen to much of the festival on KVMR, said DJ Eric Rice (“County Line Bluegrass Show,” 10 a.m. to noon Saturdays).
For the last 28 years, Rice has marshaled a small army of volunteers to broadcast live from the fairgrounds. At first, it was just a jury-rigged radio broadcast, he said, but now the show is heard worldwide via http://kvmr.org.
Rice recalled one of his favorite Father’s Day stories: A few years ago, Steve Dilling of IIIrd Tyme Out (Third Time Out) was on stage late Saturday night. Because of the three-hour time difference, Dilling was able to wish his father a happy Father’s Day on the actual Father’s Day in North Carolina.
KOB — Kids on Bluegrass
Although there has been an instructional music camp for youngsters earlier this week, D’Jango and Jasmine Ruckrich are already at performance level. Therefore, they’re in the advanced KOB program that runs simultaneously with the festival.
The KOB kids rehearse during the day and then perform on the main stage at 5:10 p.m. to 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
KOB is where stars are born. Local favorites Paige Anderson and the Fearless Kin (of Anderson Family Bluegrass), got their start at KOB — and now they’re the featured act on Vern’s Stage at 1:35 p.m. Saturday.
“Our family was a part of KOB 2004-2008 at the Father’s Day Bluegrass Festival, and it was awesome! I’m glad that it’s something that kids like D’Jango and Jasmine can experience,” Anderson said.
“I’m sure D’Jango can show the kids a thing or two as well!” she added.
Just 19, Anderson has already been featured in “Flatpicking Guitar Magazine” several times. She knows the real deal when she sees it.
Once, before a big performance, father Phil asked his real-deal son if he was nervous.
D’Jango just looked up at him curiously and asked, “About what?”
Tom Durkin is a freelance writer and photographer in Nevada City. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.