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Musicians thrilled to play to aid Girton

Dan BurkhartJohn Girton plays alongside daughter Catherina, 11, during a sound check at Center for the Arts on Sunday.
ALL | GrassValleyArchive

Guitarist John Girton didn’t know what to expect from the tribute-benefit in his honor Sunday night.

“It’s hard to describe,” said Girton about the event that featured Nevada County and out-of-the-area performers at Center for the Arts in Grass Valley. “I can’t really put it in words. But I’m looking forward to tonight.”



The tribute was planned six weeks ago by Peter Wilson, George Souza, Kirsten Wilson, Paul Matson, Paul Emery and Richard Ellers.




A popular Nevada County guitarist, Girton was out of work for more than two months after back surgery in January.

“John needed the money, and we got so much positive response that we decided to make it a tribute,” Wilson said. “John’s a key element in the music community; his talent is so great.”

Fiddler-percussionist Joe Craven eagerly anticipated the tribute Sunday morning – and felt quite nostalgic – as he drove here from a Virginia City gig. During the drive, Craven listened to a cassette he and Girton released in 1993.

Until Sunday, the Dixon-based Craven had not seen or talked to Girton in eight years. Craven is always traveling; he’s in his 13th year with the David Grisman Quintet and performs solo at festivals and with other groups around the country.

There was no way he’d miss this tribute, though.

“I was a fan of John Girton long before I met him,” said Craven, who first heard of him when Girton was lead guitarist with Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks in the early 1970s. At the time, Craven was a University of South Carolina student.

Craven will never forget the night he finally met Girton in Nevada City.

“I was playing with the Way Out West in the mid-1980s,” he said. “Someone told me John Girton was playing down the street at Friar Tuck’s. I said, ‘You mean THE JOHN GIRTON is living here?’ After my concert, I went down to meet him, sat in with him and that began our musical relationship and friendship.”

Through the early 1990s, the two frequently played jazz gigs in Northern California.

“John is a musical treasure,” Craven said. “I really admire and respect him.”

As performers started to show up three hours before the show to greet Girton, it was difficult for Craven to speak to him.

“That’s OK, we’ll reconnect onstage. That’s where our spirits live in the same house,” Craven said.

Unbeknownst to Craven, Girton had echoed the same sentiments earlier that morning.

“It’s going to be so cool when we’re all playing together,” Girton said. “Dan (Hicks), Joe (Craven), Alasdair (Fraser), Ty (Smith) and Paul (Klempau). I mostly play solo. I don’t get a chance to play with those good players. I’m truly excited.”

Girton performed with those friends in the second half of the tribute.

The first half of the benefit featured songs by Peter Wilson, Richard Ellers, Bob Sheffer (Girton’s father-in-law), Linda Girton (his wife), Catherina Girton, (his 11-year-old daughter), Kay Hanson, Jonathan Meredith, Harmonious Combustion and three-fourths of Backwoods Jazz (Tom Schmidt, Paul Emery and Girton).

Schmidt, a clarinetist who now lives in Merced, has performed with Girton since 1982. Besides playing with the former Backwoods Jazz members, Schmidt read a poem Sunday he wrote the day before about Girton.

Schmidt’s poem read in part:

John is one of the few born to play music.

I hear him smile when he plays the guitar.

I am happy to be helpless before his guitar.

It’s just not fair that he is also

One of my favorite clarinetists.

He has led me, weeping, to believe

He doesn’t even practice the clarinet.

John could touch a tree

And let it sing.

The music of John Girton

Is worth more than the service

Of any surgeon.

Girton has permanent back damage and can no longer lift heavy equipment.

“I want to thank everyone who’s supporting me. It couldn’t happen in any other community,” said Girton, who moved to Nevada County in 1981.

“This community is the best,” he added.

Organizers didn’t have a total of proceeds at press time. More than 400 people attended the show, and Wilson said well over $6,000 was brought in during the concert.

Donations in the form of checks can be sent to Girton in care of Richard Ellers, P.O. Box 927, Nevada City 95959.


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