Parkfield Bluegrass 2006
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May 11, 2006: It’s early May, and that means bluegrass in Parkfield CA. It also means the National Hockey League playoffs are well under way. In the past, going to Parkfield has meant missing quite a few playoff games, so in 2004 I signed up for DirecTV and got a portable dish and control box.

At the time it was too late for the 2004 playoffs, but I took the system with me on my trip to Ohio. The only time I tried to use it, I was unable to get the dish aimed properly, so I put it away for the rest of the trip. I used it on my trip to Arizona in February-March of 2005, but due to the lockout, there were no hockey games at that time, and of course, still none during last year’s Parkfield festival.

This year I loaded up the dish, control box, tripod and tools, and headed down Highway 41, then Highway 198, then the Avenal Cutoff to Avenal. Here I visited and had lunch with some old friends, Ben & Wilma Briscoe. After a great Mexican lunch, I headed south to Highway 41 again, over the hills into Cholame Valley, and north toward Parkfield.

After I arrived and got the trailer unhitched, I set up the dish, and soon was watching hockey in Parkfield for the first time. There were two games, the first starting at 4:00, and the second game went to three overtime periods. At the end of the second overtime I was falling asleep so I gave up and went to bed, realizing that I had been watching hockey off and on for seven and a half hours. The rest of the games will be on at the same time as the music, so I’ll just be checking in from time to time.

Now where was I? Oh yes, bluegrass, the main reason for being here. This year’s lineup looks pretty good, and superficial observations suggest that the promoter may be a little better organized than he has been in the past. Music is scheduled to start today at 2:30, but it has never started on time yet, so we’ll see how it goes.


12:30 p.m.: After eating breakfast and starting this report, I drove up the Parkfield-Coalinga Road, which heads out of town in a northerly direction. About five miles from town in turns to dirt, which in wet weather is impassable (I tried it last year, and realized after 30 feet that I needed to back slowly back onto the pavement). This year I went up a few miles, and did a little walking around the countryside. The paved part of the road goes through the upper end of the valley, and is fairly flat, but once you leave the pavement, you start climbing. I think it probably goes up to around 2,500 feet (from 1,500 in town). If you keep going it will join Highway 198 west of Coalinga. That part of the road is said to be in bad condition, but on the Parkfield side it was just a normal country dirt road, bumpy in spots, but with signs of being graded.

Immediately north of town are fields of hay, some of which have been cut and are drying on the ground. At the start of the dirt road, much of the country is open range with lots of oaks, pines and brush, and a steep canyon in the upper part. The sides of the canyons around here show signs of slipping due to earth movement. There are still a few wild flowers, and the grass is mostly green, but it’s drying fast. It is around 80 to 85 degrees, quite warm for walking.


May 12: For the first time since the current promoter took over, the show started on time. Thursday’s acts were mostly lesser known (and sometimes lesser-skilled) regional groups. A couple stood out. I saw Stay Tuned here last year, but did not recall how good they were. Since it rained on Thursday last year, enjoyment of that day’s performances was seriously compromised. I had also seen the Bluegrass Redliners, inside at the Colorado River Festival in 2004, because it was pouring rain outside at the time. In fact, I had a CD by the group before I ever saw them, purchased on the basis of an article in the Bluegrass Soundboard newsletter, and I had been quite happy with it.

Also very enjoyable is The New Five Cents, who play what they call old-time and good-time music. This includes Irish jigs and reels. What we now call “old-time” music is simply pre-bluegrass country, usually called hillbilly or mountain music back in its contemporary period of the 30s and 40s.

Today is mostly a repeat of the same bands as yesterday, with several others being added this evening. All but one are regional bands, but Chris Stuart and Backcountry is certainly of the highest caliber, and have had songs and albums on the national Bluegrass Unlimited magazine charts. The only national group today is Special Consensus, which started in Chicago over 30 years ago. Although there have been a number of personnel changes over the years, founder Greg Cahill remains the anchor of this group that I first saw on TV on the Nashville Network back in the 1980s.


May 13: The festival is in full swing now, with two days gone and two to go. Last night we saw two extra special groups. Chris Stuart is a San Diego resident who is an excellent song writer and singer, and has been performing with his group Back Country for two or three years. The group for this event included singer-guitarist-mandolin player Eric Uglam, who has been (and still is) with the internationally acclaimed group Lost Highway for close to ten years. Back Country also includes his two stepsons, Austin (15) and Christian (14) Ward on bass and fiddle respectively. I’ve seen them several times over the last two years and they have developed into good musicians, playing with several groups at festivals.

Special Consensus was started in Chicago a little over 30 years ago by banjo player Greg Cahill, who is still the leader of the group, persevering through many personnel changes. Handling many of the lead vocals is Ron Spears, who toured for six or seven years with his own group Within Tradition. Two other former members of Within Tradition are now in Lost Highway, who will appear today and tomorrow. This allows the program to include a Ron Spears & Within Tradition Reunion.

The weather has been plenty warm, but not unbearable. There is quite a bit of shade in the performance area. I continue to check in on the hockey playoffs each day, although my team, the San Jose Sharks, have lost two in a row at Edmonton, after winning the two opening games at home. I also keep tabs on our local minor league team, the Fresno Falcons, who are in the third round of the playoffs, for the American Conference championship. They are playing the Alaska Aces, a team they could not defeat in six tries in the regular season, but we now have a 2-1 lead.

I’ve commented on gas prices in previous reports, although most comments now are unprintable. I was talking with the owner of one of those huge motor homes. He gets eight miles to the gallon, and if he fills his tank, he’s pumping in 150 gallons. It makes me glad for the twelve MPG I get pulling my trailer.


May 14: When you arrive at a bluegrass festival, it seems that there is an endless supply of fun and music ahead. Then before you know it, the last day arrives. The music starts at 9:30 this morning, although I will probably skip most of the first group (it’s already 9:10 and I’m just up and dressed). The official ending time is 5:30, although things tend to go on a bit longer with encores and goodbyes.

The music yesterday was outstanding. My favorite without question is Chris Stuart. I’ve seen him here three times, and have all three of his CDs. He is an amazing songwriter, and his songs are highly arranged, so that the musical accompaniment fits the song and virtually every one is a gem. The Ward Brothers and Eric Uglam play with him, as well as an excellent singer and banjo player, Janet Beazley, and together they make wonderful music.

The Ron Spears and Within Tradition reunion was also excellent. Ron is now with Special Consensus, while fiddler Mike Tatar and bassist Joe Ash are part of Lost Highway. Former members Charlie Edsel, a master guitarist and singer, and banjo player Hal Horn also came over for the reunion. After two years apart, and with only 20 minutes rehearsal, they sounded as good as ever, although they had to stop and discuss which key a song was in once in a while.

Eric and the boys also performed together as Eric Uglam & Sons (I told them they should change the name to The Ward Brothers & Eric). He did a lot of songs that would be considered folk music, for which his solo voice is perfect, and with Christian on fiddle, they also performed some hot bluegrass instrumentals. I am continually amazed at how good Chris has become after only four years.


7 p.m.: The music’s over, most of the audience is gone, and the promoter and his helpers are taking down the stage and cleaning up. The afternoon included more appearances by Lost Highway, Eric & Sons, and The New Five Cents. Today and yesterday Lost Highway was outstanding, as they have been since their start in the late 90s.

Today was promoter Joe Quealy’s 60th birthday, observed with singing and a big cake and homemade ice cream, which was shared with the remaining audience members.

Now it’s time for me to relax and watch the San Jose Sharks beat the Edmonton Oilers (hopefully) (Update – Sharks in deep trouble, down 3-2). I also watched the last half of the final game between Carolina and New Jersey in which the Hurricanes sent the Devils home after a four games to one battle.

Overall it was a great weekend, with good weather – warm but not terribly hot; cool nights, no rain, and hot bluegrass. The only disappointment was that my friend Janell Sidney was unable to make it, when one of her twin girls became ill. Hopefully we will be able to attend the Huck Finn Festival at Victorville next month.


A Previously Unreported Bluegrass Festival:

In February my daughter Teri, Janell, and I attended an indoor festival at Bakersfield. It was the first SuperGrass festival, presented by the California Bluegrass Association, and was the first indoor festival I had attended. Free camping was provided at the fairgrounds, about a mile and a half away, but most people stayed in hotels. There were only 20 RVs or so at the fairgrounds. Teri & Janell stayed at the hotel, but I “roughed it” in my trailer.

The sound was shaky at first, but it soon got fixed, and the music was excellent through the rest of the event. Big name groups included Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Nashville Bluegrass Band, Cherryholmes, Blue Highway, Lost & Found, and Marty Rabon. Marty was the lead singer with the country group Shenandoah before he decided to return to his roots, and his group was the only one I had not seen before.

Having my “home away from home” so far from the action was a little inconvenient, but on the other hand, an indoor festival avoids any possible problems with rain, cold or fog. The location was the Bakersfield Civic Auditorium, which holds 3,000, but probably had only a thousand at the most at any one time.

I guess there was another unreported festival, the Kings River Bluegrass Festival at Hobbs Grove near Sanger, about 20 miles from my house. Janell and I and my grandson Mikie went to that for one day only. It is a small event, but had a couple of good California groups. I have gone in the past and it had very little bluegrass and lots of loud country, but this year was pretty much all bluegrass or old-time music, and it’s supposed to be bigger and better next year.


Parkfield the Town: I may have discussed some of this before, but just in case you missed it, you should know that Parkfield is a unique little town. The sign at the edge says “Population 37, Elevation 1530.” There are only two businesses in the actual town, the Parkfield Café and the Parkfield Inn. I counted seven houses within the town area, although there are others within a quarter mile. Except for the main road through town (Parkfield-Coalinga Road), all the streets are unpaved.

There is a community hall, a school, and a compound which I believe used to be a California Department of Forestry station (as of 2015 the CDF station has re-opened). The town has a Zip code, but I have not seen a post office. There used to be a couple of gift shops, one located in an old railroad caboose, but both are now closed.

There is a building which houses earthquake-measuring equipment, and sensors set up in several places around the area, as scientists pursue the elusive quest for the ability to predict quakes.

This is because the town sits right smack dab on the San Andreas Fault. Whether you approach from the south from State Highway 41/46, or from the northwest from US 101, to get to the town you turn east and cross Cholame Creek, which follows the fault line. You are going from the Pacific Plate to the North American Plate, and hopefully nothing shakes while you’re crossing.

The bridge was built about five years ago, because the old bridge had been moved out of alignment due to slippage of the fault.

The town motto for the rodeo, bluegrass festival and other events is “Be here when it happens,” which of course refers to “the big one.” There was a “little one” a couple of years ago, which you can read about here.

--Dick Estel


(Photos open in a new window)

Hay fields just north of town Oaks near Parkfield-Coalinga Road
Exposed faulting Near the top of the road Parkfield Cafe
Old Pump House On the fault line
The New Five Cents Bluegrass Redliners Stay Tuned
Slingshot Soul Chris Stuart & Backcountry Lost Highway
Special Consensus Ron Spears & Within Tradition Reunion Eric Uglam & Sons
Band, Festival & Related Web Sites

Recommended CDs, DVDs, Books

Special Consensus Lost Highway Cherryholmes
 Chris Stuart Parkfield Festival L & S Promotions
Huck Finn Jubilee Parkfield CA CBA
SWBA Doyle Lawson Nashville Bluegrass Band
Eric Uglam Dick's Bluegrass Links Dick's Bluegrass T-Shirt Photos

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Updated August 26, 2020