The best of bluegrass
Publication Date: Friday Mar 24, 1995

The best of bluegrass

Palo Alto ain't Owensboro, but this weekend it's the bluegrass capital of the country

by Michael J. Vaughn

When the 9-year-old International Bluegrass Music Association decided to gather outside its Owensboro, Ky., home for the first time, it chose a town not normally associated with banjo pickin' or mandolin playin'. It chose Palo Alto. The IBMA's first regional conference, World West '95, takes place Friday through Sunday, March 24-26, at Hyatt Rickeys, with two all-star evening concerts tonight, March 24, and Saturday, March 25, at the Spangenberg Theatre, 780 Arastradero Road.

So why Palo Alto? "Contrary to what people might think, there are a large number of bluegrass fans on the West Coast," said IBMA Executive Director Dan Hayes. "A lot of people come from there to our annual conference here in Owensboro." Spangenberg Theatre, he added, has had success with bluegrass bookings over recent years, including performances by the Johnson Mountain Boys and Seldom Seen.

A lot of bluegrass's Bay Area popularity is a holdover from the folk revolution of the '60s, a musical movement in which San Francisco and environs played a major role. Bay Area bluegrassers have brought many new elements to the music--including David Grisman's jazz-influenced "dawg" style. But the most noticeable may be the number of bands led by women. In fact, all four of the Bay Area bands in the IBMA conference's showcase--Kathy Kallick & the Little Big Band, the All Girl Boys, the Sally Van Meter/Tammy Fassaert Band and Laurie Lewis & Grant Street--are headed by females.

Vocalist/guitarist Kathy Kallick, a founding member of the watershed bluegrass group the Good Ol' Persons, said the trend was more attributable to Bay Area culture than to bluegrass music per se. "Nationally, there aren't a lot of bands fronted by women," she said. "It's more of a Northern California phenomenon. The Bay Area has been really supportive of women in bluegrass."

Kallick is a child of that '60s folk renaissance. Both of her parents played in groups around the Chicago area when she was growing up. When she moved to San Francisco in the early '70s, she didn't find many folk groups, but she found a lot of bluegrassers, many of them gathering at Paul's Saloon in the Marina District (Paul's closed in 1991). "I found people I could play with at parties," she said, "and that's how the Good Ol' Persons got started."

The Persons are taking a year off right now, but the band's presence will be felt at the IBMA gathering, nonetheless; three of the four Bay Area bands are led by Good Ol' Persons veterans: Sally Van Meter and Laurie Lewis in addition to Kallick.

Kallick's current Little Big Band is no small potatoes, either. The roster includes a founding member of the David Grisman Quintet (bassist Todd Phillips), a former Ricky Skaggs sideman (banjoist Keith Little) and a mandolinist (John Reischman) who cuts solo albums for Rounder Records. The band also has a bit of local cache, as it made its debut last March at Palo Alto's University Lutheran Church.

With 2,400 members in 48 states (Hawaii and North Dakota are the holdouts) and two dozen foreign countries, the IBMA is strong testimony to the appeal of bluegrass's rhythmic country sound. One might think the current craze for "unplugged" rock performances would add fuel to the fire for this all-acoustic form, but Kallick said she hasn't seen it.

"Somehow, the people who are interested in hearing rock 'n' roll musicians unplugged are not interested in hearing people like us who play unplugged all the time," she said. "It's the novelty of it that really draws the attention. They want to hear Led Zeppelin unplugged--not us. But we haven't given up hope."

The International Bluegrass Music Association Regional Conference, Trade Show and Workshops

When: 2-6 p.m. Friday, March 24; 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, March 25; and 9 a.m.-noon Sunday, March 26

Where: Hyatt Rickeys, 4219 El Camino Real, Palo Alto

Cost: $30-$50 for one-day tickets

Information: 691-9982

IBMA Artist Showcase

Who: Laurel Canyon Ramblers, Kathy Kallick & the Little Big Band, Fox Family, Piney Creek Weasels, All Girl Boys, Sally Van Meter/Tammy Fassaert Band, Copperline, Cache Valley Drifters

When: 7 p.m. Friday, March 24

Where: Spangenberg Theatre, 780 Arastradero Road, Palo Alto

Cost: $14-$22

Information: 691-9982

IBMA Award Winners Concert

Who: Josh Graves & Kenny Baker, Laurie Lewis & Grant Street, Lou Reid, Terry Baucom & Carolina

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 25

Where: Spangenberg Theatre, 780 Arastradero Road, Palo Alto

Cost: $17-$27

Information: 691-9982 

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