Tom Durkin
Special to Prospector

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June 12, 2014
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Fathers Day bluegrass festival returns to Grass Valley for 39th year

After 39 years, it just wouldn’t be Father’s Day weekend in Grass Valley without the California Bluegrass Association’s annual Fathers Day Bluegrass Festival at the Nevada County Fairgrounds.

The first of the major festivals of the season, this year’s four-day jamboree is headlined by the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band. Rowan, a Grammy-winning and nominated artist, has ranged across multiple musical genres in his five-decade career, but as a protégé of Bill Munroe, his roots are pure bluegrass.

Monday, Prospector learned that the makeup of Rowan’s band has changed slightly from what was previous advertised, a not uncommon occurrence with touring bands.

According to Al Evers of A-Train Entertainment, Northern California homeboy Keith Little on banjo, Paul Knight of bass, Chris Henry on mandolin and Blaine Sprouse on fiddle will be backing up Rowan this Thursday and Friday.

The Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band will perform on the Main Stage at 2:55 p.m. and 9:45 p.m. Thursday. They will play again at 8:45 p.m. Friday.

Almost strictly bluegrass

The mission of the CBA Fathers Day Bluegrass Festival is to preserve traditional bluegrass. Unlike other festivals that have grown to embrace other genres, the CBA festival remains “strictly bluegrass,” say the organizers.

Nevertheless, in recent years, the organizers have invited one “newgrass” band to perform, said George Martin, publicity director for the festival. It’s an attempt to attract younger fans, he explained.

This year, the “newgrass” concession is The Deadly Gentlemen (pictured on the cover). Although rooted in bluegrass, “their music is all over the place,” Martin said.

The five-piece band from Boston is led by singer-banjoist Greg Liszt, who has performed with Bruce Springsteen and holds a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology from M.I.T. Other members of the band bring heavy metal, jazz, hard rock and spoken-word influences to the group’s newgrass sound.

“They’re big crowd favorites, especially with the younger audience,” reported KVMR DJ Eric Rice. “I’m really looking forward to seeing them.”

As he has done for almost three decades, Rice will be broadcasting the festival live worldwide via KVMR.org.

A three-stage attraction

Not all the action is on the Main Stage. There are also the Bluegrass Pioneers Stage and Vern’s Stage.

Vern’s Stage deserves a little extra attention this year, because Jenny Lynn Williams, granddaughter of the stage’s namesake, is performing Saturday on the Main Stage and Sunday on the Bluegrass Pioneers Stage with Matt & George and their Pleasant Valley Boys.

It’s fitting Williams is playing on the Bluegrass Pioneers Stage, because Vern Williams, along with his erstwhile partner Ray Park, are considered the fathers of traditional bluegrass in Northern California, according to Martin.

“It’s hard to overestimate Vern and Ray’s impact,” he said.

Williams and Park are so integral to the roots of Northern California bluegrass that, in addition to performing with their own bands, Kathy Kallick and Laurie Lewis will perform a Tribute to Vern and Ray Saturday – on the main stage.

Martin, who is old enough to have seen Vern and Ray in their heyday, said he previewed a Kallick and Lewis rehearsal in Berkeley several weeks ago. The show was still under development, but, “It was wonderful,” Martin said, adding he expects it to be one of the highlights of the festival.

On stage and off

It’s impossible to name all the acts who will be performing at the four-day festival, but just as the CBA reserves a spot each for a non-traditional bluegrass band, they also select at least one Nevada County group.

This year, Ragged But Right was tapped. Although the “foot-stomping old time string band” has performed on Vern’s Stage three times in the past, Friday will be their first shot on the Main Stage, confirmed fiddle and guitar player Jonathan Lyerly. They are schedule to take the stage at noon.

“We play old-time music,” Lyerly said. He will be joined onstage by his wife Karel Hendee on bass, James Carlson on mandolin and guitar, and Al Ferguson on banjo.

Despite wall-to-wall music nearly 24/7 (when the shows end, the all-night music jams in the camping area begin), there’s plenty of action offstage as well.

“A mid-size village of tents and motor homes pops up like mushrooms early in the week and the camping areas are full of music all day and most of the night. Plus there will be a nice selection of food vendors, sellers of hats and art, leather, musical instruments and accessories, and an entire building full of violinmakers, banjo makers, mandolin makers and guitar makers,” Martin wrote in a recent CBA publication.

The festival begins at 9:45 a.m. Thursday (June 12) and ends around 4 p.m. Sunday.

Tom Durkin is a freelance writer and photographer in Nevada City. He can be contacted at tdurkin@vfr.net.


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The Union Updated Jun 12, 2014 05:52PM Published Jun 12, 2014 05:39PM Copyright 2014 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.