Strum for the ages: bluegrass festival returns this weekend

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Photos by Donna Pacini-Christensen, and courtesy of the Northern California Bluegrass Society.

Every August, the twang of banjos fills tiny Tres Pinos. At the Good Old-Fashioned Bluegrass Festival, a crowd of about 1,000 gathers for concerts during the day and jam sessions around campfires lasting well into the night.

Bluegrass originated in the uplands of the rural south: Appalachia, back before radios or record players, when nightly entertainment happened live on neighborhood porches. But the genre has a longstanding home in San Benito County thanks to the festival, returning this weekend from Aug. 11-14.

The event is moving this year after 22 years at the Bolado Park fairgrounds. Concert-goers instead will gather next door at the San Benito Historical Park, bringing folding chairs and picnic blankets to the park’s recreation area.

“We’re excited to show people what a great venue space this is,” said Don Pidd of the San Benito County Historical Society.

This is a distinctly homegrown festival. All 50 of the bands hail from California, with the farthest-flung performer coming from Los Angeles. With no touring bands and no Nashville names, it’s a bluegrass festival as it would have been 20 or 30 years ago, said Northern California Bluegrass Society President Michael Hall.

“We do this for ourselves and our friends,” Hall said. “Like they say, real musicians have day jobs.”

Bluegrass is a fast, fervent music whose cheerful sound often doesn’t match its bleak lyrical content. With themes of poverty, heartbreak and death, the unflappably upbeat songs are like wry laughter in the face of struggles for its composers.

When it began, bluegrass centered around just a few performers, like Bill Monroe, who is credited with creating the genre, and Earl Scruggs, whose lightning-fast, three-fingered picking of the banjo is the sound most often associated with the songs.

The genre has mellowed and broadened in recent years, according to Hall. California also left its mark: female-led groups and soloists are a hallmark of Bay-area bluegrass, owing to pioneers like Sidesaddle & Co. formed in 1979. The group is led by Hollister native Kim Elking and will perform on the main stage of the festival this weekend.

“It’s a great local festival,” Elking said. “It’s a chance to play with the close friends we’ve made over the years.”

But first-time festival-goers shouldn’t be shy: Elking describes the regular crowd as some of the friendliest people she’s ever met, leading to a safe environment. Even at larger bluegrass festivals, she and other performers feel comfortable leaving their instruments out in the open.

“You’ll go away with a melody in your head,” she said. “And tapping your toes.”

Another performer is 14-year-old Helen Lude, a festival regular since she age 7. Her repertoire includes the mandolin, fiddle and guitar. She’s also the lead vocalist for her band, 35 Years of Trouble, composed of other kids around her age.

“The great thing about bluegrass is that you can make little mistakes and it’s part of the music, unlike classical,” Lude said. “Classical needs to be perfect.”

She loves the Good Old Fashioned festival in particular for its friendly vibe and inclusivity. She said she’s always been welcome to perform, no matter her age. Her 10-year-old brother will perform with a band of his own for the first time this year at the festival’s Kids on Stage event. It’s a family tradition for Lude: her mother plays the bass, and her father plays banjo and guitar.

This year, the festival is welcoming back Blue Sun Catering, a fan favorite that dishes out a little bit of everything. But plenty of attendees choose to camp out for the weekend instead, cooking around campfires and sleeping outdoors.

That’s where the signature jam sessions happen. Around 60 percent of the audience also plays an instrument. After the performances, they gather around campsites to play. Guitars and banjos are common, as are fiddles and mandolins. A Dobro or two might also make an appearance. This resonator guitar — a signature instrument of the genre — lends a distinct, drawn-out warble.

“It’s people who know each other, playing together,” Hall said. “And people who don’t play, get to listen.”

Hall himself is not a musician. But he grew up listening to bluegrass in Tennessee and became a fan after moving to the Bay Area in the 1980s. San Francisco is home to the massive Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, a three-day event that draws more than 750,000 fans every year in October.

But for local artists and classic bluegrass music, the San Benito festival is unbeatable. Hall is excited about the new location of the festival—which he said is set up with a nice look, a great place for performers and audience members to hang out, and less expensive to host it than the fairgrounds.

He pictures festival-goers gathering around the park’s historic buildings to jam. The park is home to a historic village made up of salvaged and restored structures from the late 1800s: a schoolhouse, a jail, a bar and homes. For curious attendees, docents from the historical society will be on hand to give tours. But the park will be open to wanderers throughout the festival.

In this old town, square-like setting, the jam sessions that inevitably break out will happen on neighborhood porches and lawns, in a nostalgic nod to the earliest days of the genre.

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