Bluegrass Is Taking Root at S.D. Festival

In the last decade or so, a thriving bluegrass music scene has developed in San Diego County.

There’s a club, the San Diego Bluegrass Club, with nearly 400 members.

There’s a music store, New Expression in North Park, that carries a healthy selection of bluegrass records and instruments.

There’s a radio show, “Bluegrass Special,” that airs each Sunday from 10 p.m. to midnight on KSON.


And, since last year, there’s also an annual bluegrass festival. The inaugural 1989 San Diego Bluegrass Festival was a single-day event featuring a handful of local performers.

This year’s festival, which begins Friday at the Lake Henshaw Resort in Santa Ysabel, is a three-day affair with performances by a dozen bluegrass bands, five of them from out of town.

“I’ve wanted to see a bluegrass festival established here for years,” said co-promoter Noel Taggart, a 35-year-old biomedical technician at the UC San Diego Medical Center.

“It’s something I feel San Diego needs,” he said. “The papers, the media, don’t give the local bluegrass scene nearly enough exposure, and I’m convinced there are a lot of people out here who, if they knew this stuff existed, would come out and participate.”

Headlining the 1990 San Diego Bluegrass Festival will be the Osborne Brothers, named the nation’s No. 1 bluegrass group for nine consecutive years by Music City News. Regulars at the Grand Ole Opry since 1964, the Tennessee quintet has toured with Merle Haggard, performed at the White House and recorded for such major labels as Decca, MCA and RCA.

Many of the Osborne Brothers’ songs have become bluegrass classics, including “Tennessee Houn’ Dog,” “Midnight Flyer,” and “Rocky Top,” the official state song of Tennessee.

Taggart said he is a lifelong bluegrass fan who “decided to take it up a little more seriously about 1975, I guess.” He bought a banjo, took some lessons, joined the then-fledgling San Diego Bluegrass Club, and, before long, had formed his own bluegrass group, Blue Skies.

For the next 12 years, Taggart said, Blue Skies regularly played around town, mostly at private functions, and periodically performed at bluegrass festivals throughout the state. When the band broke up, Taggart put together a new group, Higher Ground, whose most recent engagement was at McP’s Pub in Coronado.

Over the years, Taggart said, he’s attended myriad bluegrass festivals throughout the country. And, although he has often thought about producing a festival of his own in San Diego, he said, it wasn’t until last year that thought turned to action.

“I found out that one of my co-workers (at the UCSD Medical Center), Sebastian Gomez, loved bluegrass as much as I did,” Taggart recalled, “so we just kind of got together and did the one last year, with only local groups.

“After that, we decided to go ahead and try it again, this time making it bigger and booking acts from outside San Diego as well.”

Booking out-of-town acts for this year’s festival, Taggart said, “was a hit-or-miss situation.”

“I simply started calling people who might know somebody, and I ended up getting in touch with Wayne Rice, who hosts the bluegrass show on KSON,” Taggart said.

“He gave me a long list of contacts, and that’s pretty much how I was able to get the acts I got. The exception is the Lonesome River Band. They had somehow heard of the festival, and they called us, telling us they were going to be in the area and would be more than happy to play the festival.

“And we, in turn, were more than happy to get them.”

The Washington Post recently called the Lonesome River Band, from Roanoke, Va., “one of the best new mainstream bluegrass bands in some time.”

Other out-of-town bluegrass bands performing at the festival will be the Piney Creek Weasels from Sacramento, Damascus Road from Riverside and the Coyote Brothers from Lake Elsinore.

The San Diego contingent will consist of Higher Ground (in which festival co-promoter Taggart plays banjo), Pacific. . .ly Bluegrass, John Moore and Bluegrass Etc. (Moore is a former sideman of Bill Monroe, the legendary “father of bluegrass”), Old Train, Ranch Party, Hickory Ridge, and Sweetwater.

Also on hand will be the Stemware Steppers, a local clogging dance group.

Bluegrass festivals such as his, Taggart said, are essential to the genre’s survival because they provide practitioners of the old-time acoustic music with some badly needed mass exposure.

“Like jazz, bluegrass is one of the only pure styles of music that developed in the United States,” he said. “It’s a real American art form, a real piece of Americana, and I would hate to see it fall by the wayside.”

The San Diego Bluegrass Club meets the second Tuesday of every month in the Marketplace at the Grove shopping center’s fast-food emporium for a three-hour jam session, beginning at 7 p.m.

Schedule of Performances

The complete schedule for the 1990 San Diego Bluegrass Festival, which takes place this weekend at the Lake Henshaw Resort at Santa Ysabel:

Friday, May 18 Hickory Ridge, 4:30-5:05 p.m.; Ranch Party, 5:10-5:45 p.m.; John Moore and Bluegrass Etc., 5:50-6:25 p.m.; the Osborne Brothers, 6:30-7:05 p.m.; Ranch Party, 7:10-7:50 p.m.; Damascus Road, 7:55-8:30 p.m.; the Osborne Brothers, 8:35-9:15 p.m.; John Moore and Bluegrass Etc., 9:20-10 p.m.

Saturday, May 19 Old Train, 9:30-10 a.m.; Pacific. . .ly Bluegrass, 10:05-10:35 a.m.; the Piney Creek Weasels, 10:40-11:10 a.m.; the Stemware Steppers, 11:15-11:45 a.m.; Old Train, 11:50 a.m.-12:20 p.m.; John Moore and Bluegrass Etc., 12:25-1 p.m.; Higher Ground, 1:05- 1:40 p.m.; Damascus Road, 1:45-2:20 p.m.; the Lonesome River Band, 2:25-3:05 p.m.; the Osborne Brothers, 3:10-3:50 p.m.; the Stemware Steppers, 3:55-4:40 p.m.; guest bands, 4:45-5:15 p.m.; John Moore and Bluegrass Etc., 5:20-6 p.m.; Pacific. . .ly Bluegrass, 6:05-6:45 p.m.; the Piney Creek Weasels, 6:50-7:30 p.m.; Damascus Road, 7:35-8:15 p.m.; the Osborne Brothers, 8:20-9 p.m.; the Lonesome River Band, 9:05-9:50 p.m.

Sunday, May 20 Damascus Road, 9:30-10 a.m.; Sweetwater, 10:05-10:35 a.m.; Higher Ground, 10:40-11:10 a.m.; Pacific. . .ly Bluegrass, 11:15- 11:55 a.m.; the Lonesome River Band, noon-12:30 p.m.; the Stemware Steppers, 12:35-1:05 p.m.; Hickory Ridge, 1:10-1:40 p.m.; the Coyote Brothers, 1:45-2:25 p.m.; guest bands, 2:30-3:10 p.m.; Sweetwater, 3:15-3:55 p.m.; Higher Ground, 4-4:40 p.m.; the Coyote Brothers, 4:45-5:25 p.m.; the Lonesome River Band, 5:30- 6:15 p.m.