A.J. Lee and Blue Summit | Royal Calkins
Story and photos by Royal Calkins
PARKFIELD — If you find yourself in Parkfield, which isn’t likely, you’d better hope you already have everything you need. It’s a long way to a store of any kind.
Coalinga, over in Fresno County, is only 20-some miles away but much of the time you can’t get there without four-wheel drive. The road is fine for the Jeeps that zigzag around these hills carrying pig hunters and their long rifles, but not for your Prius.
Though the little town of Bradley isn’t much further away, it’s still a round trip of 90 minutes, so you’d have to wonder if you really do need whatever you’re missing. The same goes for Paso Robles, to the south in San Luis Obispo County.
Parkfield is in Monterey County, the way southern part of Monterey County, but it is a long way to the beach. Think cowboys, not surfers. Think cows crowding under oak trees for shade, coyotes chasing ground squirrels until it gets too hot to hunt.
In other words, Parkfield is in the middle of nowhere, which is its greatest strength. Most of the year, it specializes in nothing. Nothing as in no stores, no traffic, no traffic lights, no teenagers hanging out on the corner, no nosy neighbors.
It also specializes in earthquakes. On average, about once every quarter century, the San Andreas Fault that runs right past the edge of town lets loose with a magnitude 6 quake that excites the heck out of the scientists who maintain the world’s largest collection of seismographic equipment here. They’re hoping they can learn enough about earthquakes here to help predict The Big One before it occurs.
Parkfield bills itself as the earthquake capital of the world. That’s probably the only reason you’ve ever heard of it. The hills surrounding the tiny town are even known, officially, as the Temblor Range.
What propelled me to Parkfield, population 18, for the first time was this past weekend’s 21st annual Parkfield Bluegrass Festival, a celebration of the kind of music produced by fiddles, guitars and banjos. You say you like country music but not that “twangy” stuff. This is that twangy stuff.
The festival is here, a long ways from everywhere, mainly because the Varian family, which runs cattle on the 20,000-acre V6 Ranch, provides most of the space. There is an outdoor theater, some food booths, lots of portable toilets and plenty of open space for twang lovers to pitch tents or park their campers. Quite a few of the 3,000 or so folks in attendance simply threw mattresses in the back of their pickups.
The stars of the show get to stay at the Parkfield Lodge, a rustically elegant hotel open the rest of the year to those who don’t know where else to go. The Varians also offer opportunities for dudes and dudettes to go along on cattle drives a la that old “City Slickers” movie. From what I hear, the Varians are very nice people.
What’s that? What about the music? Well, I appreciate you asking, but you probably don’t really want to know. You do? Well, OK, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. Even if you don’t have the sound on, you might hear some of that twang if you keep reading.
It’s a relatively small, regional festival so it doesn’t have the big names in bluegrass. Yes, there are big names in bluegrass. Ralph Stanley, for instance. Doyle Lawson and Steve Martin. Yes, that Steve Martin.
But they did have some great acts this time around, headed by Special Consensus, one of the most successful touring bands in the bluegrass world. But for me, there were other highlights.
Tops on my list were the Slocan Ramblers, a Canadian outfit that began many tunes in typical bluegrass style and ended with some full-on, jumping-up-and-down jam band wall-of-sound stuff. Remarkable.
Also way up there, the Cache Valley Drifters, a trio from Santa Barbara. They recorded the first bluegrass album I ever bought and a couple of them practiced around a nearby campfire while I was tenting in the Sierra a few decades ago. Lovely songs, beautiful harmonies. Someone needs to tell the lead singer that his voice seems to have taken early retirement, but other than that it was a marvelous show.
Remarkable as well, A.J. Lee and Blue Summit, a bunch of kids barely old enough to drink. They’re more or less from Santa Cruz and they’re rising stars in the world of bluegrass even though it was only a few years ago that they played regularly at Phil’s Fish House in Moss Landing.
A.J. plays mandolin as well as she sings. One of the guitarists, Sullivan Tuttle, is the best, or at least most interesting, guitarist I have ever heard. His picking together with his unusual, deep, deep voice produced the biggest ovations of the weekend. He is a younger brother of Molly Tuttle, who is already a big name in folk/bluegrass circles. Jack, their dad, taught a couple generations of fine young pickers.
And then there was my new favorite singer. Amber Cross. If you like Iris Dement, you’d likely like Amber. If you like Celine Dion, you probably wouldn’t like Amber. Amber’s middle name should be twang, pronounced in a profoundly southern style even though she is originally from Maine. She lives in Los Osos now.
She sang two sets, one featuring her own songs and a second Sunday morning gospel session. The great thing about bluegrass gospel is you don’t have to believe in anything to enjoy it. When Amber Cross started singing “A Closer Walk With Thee,” I got a little tear in my eye even before I thought about my Methodist grandmother plinking the same tune on her piano.
For me, another highlight of the festival was Game 6 of the Golden State Warriors playoff series against the Houston Whiners. That was the game in which Steph Curry scored no points in the first half but 33 in the second in order to put away James Harden and friends.
I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to see the game because, guess what, not a single campsite in Parkfield comes with a cable hookup. But I scouted for a solution early and found that the one business in town, the Parkfield Cafe, does have a TV in the bar, a big screen, in fact.
I feared the bar would be crowded with Warriors fans willing to duck out on Snap Jackson or One Button Suit but I underestimated the crowd’s devotion to finger rolls and wash tub thumping. I found myself squarely in front of the TV next to only one fan, a fellow on the gray side of 60 with a long, pointy beard that he must have been growing all his life.
His name is John. He wouldn’t tell me his last name but he did let on that he is a retired computer guy from Silicon Valley. I had already noticed him at the festival because he apparently is the Parkfield Bluegrass Festival’s official “hippie dancer.” He sets up near the stage and dances to every fast tune. By himself, mostly. He told me that, now that he is retired, he goes to a lot of festivals. A friend at the festival says he has seen John two or three times year for as long as he can remember.
What struck me about John was that he seemed so normal as we sat there watching the Warriors win, and that he knew even more about the Warriors than I do. He said he’s thinking about moving away from Sunnyvale because of the rent and becoming a vagabond.
Back to the music. Later on I managed to snag a good seat in the bar for the late-night bluegrass show, featuring the aforementioned A.J. Lee and Blue Summit. They played sprightly versions of bluegrass standards into the wee hours and were joined on stage by friends from other bands, tremendously talented young men and women, mostly from Central and Northern California.
In my younger days, around the time I bought that first Cache Valley Drifters album, I feared that this music would die along with folks the age of my parents and grandparents. In these fast times, what young people would be willing to spend the time necessary to master “Angeline the Baker” on fiddle or “Cotton-Eyed Joe” on banjo?
My long weekend in Parkfield put my worries to rest — and the long ride home, miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles, also made me feel a little better about California.
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