The Goat Hill Girls are five longtime friends who have been making music together for over 40 years. They started out as Side Saddle, born in the Bay Area and breaking from the all-male bluegrass tradition. Back in the day some of their guys were in an outfit called The Bear Creek Boys. The girls said, “You know? We can do this too!” So, they went and made their own way.
“While live music venues abide in the days of covid, revolutionaries have taken things to the streets and out over livestream. At the corner of 41st and Portola in Pleasure Point, in front of an abandoned service station with weeds growing in the cracks, the Joint Chiefs play to a masked gathering of passersby. A few days earlier, overlooking Monterey Bay from the deck of a private residence, Anthony Arya’s Chasing Ophelia performs to beachgoers below. A neighborhood gathers at The Hook to hear Ted Welty, Alex Lucero, and John Caruth belt out some serious blues while a cavalcade of bicyclists and boarders, toddlers, and dogs on leashes meander past. From side streets to front lawns to the roofs of local businesses, and all via livestream, Santa Cruz surfer, skater, writer, and radio personality, Neil Pearlberg, is turning live music on its ear.”
It began with a bike ride through the Santa Cruz Mountains on the summer day in 1974 that fundamentally changed my life. I was about to become a senior in college, was studying traditional Appalachian culture and folklore, and was learning to play the Appalachian mountain dulcimer—a 3-string hourglass shaped folk instrument you play on your lap. My friend Chris Finelli and I planned a fun bike ride coasting downhill along Highway 9 from Saratoga Gap to Santa Cruz. When we reached the southern end of Felton, something transfixed my eye and forced me to stop. That something was the “CapriTaurus Dulcimers” sign on a cute little clapboard store. Inside was proprietor, dulcimer maker, and dulcimer playing prodigy, Michael Rugg. He was soft-spoken, welcoming, and knocked my socks off with his amazing creativity, artistry, and musicianship. Unlike every other dulcimer player I had ever seen, Michael played the instrument more like a mandolin or flat-picked guitar, totally transforming the traditional sound. When he demonstrated his beautiful dulcimers to me that day, he played spritely Irish and American fiddle tunes, especially favorite musical genres. I was hooked!
Peter Tommerup Plays the Mountain Dulcimer
Over the next couple of years, I took lessons at CapriTaurus to learn their approach to dulcimer playing, and started performing and teaching dulcimer myself in the Los Gatos area. I also thoroughly enjoyed catching Michael Rugg and his friends performing, which they did a fair amount and in several guises. In Capitola, they performed at a popular deli called The Annex as “Hubert’s Hotshots,” a cutting-edge string band featuring Michael Rugg on dulcimer; Michael Hubbert on fiddle, mandolin, guitar, and hurdy gurdy; and Dan Warrick on banjo. So captivating you could hear a pin drop when they played. Michael and friends also performed seasonally at the Northern and Southern California Renaissance Pleasure Faires, and the Dickens Fair in San Francisco, where they also had a booth stocked with their beautiful handcrafted dulcimers, scheitholts, bowed psalteries, kalimbas, and a few hammered dulcimers. As you might imagine, they had a lot of interesting experiences “doing” these fairs, including meeting famous musicians like Ravi Shankar, the celebrated Indian sitar player, along with a few well known rock musicians.Watch Michael Rugg and Peter Tommerup playing a tune together at the CapriTaurus Bigfoot Discovery Museum: www.youtube.com/watch?v=eXybOXF_2cQ
The Dulcimer Connection
In addition to Michael Rugg, there were another dozen or so other very creative and innovative dulcimer players who were experimenting with new ways to play the instrument scattered along the West Coast, as well as a few inland to about Colorado. One animating characteristic of these creative folks was that, unlike dulcimer players in the Appalachian Mountains where the dulcimer was played traditionally, these aspiring players did not have a tradition to guide or channel their efforts. In a way, they were exploring new musical territory and starting from scratch in exploring their chosen musical genre and playing style. They periodically gathered, played together, and ultimately recorded a groundbreaking LP album, “The Pacific Rim Dulcimer Project.” And you could tell from this LP, they were having a lot of fun playing and exploring the dulcimer together! In fact, they were having so much fun exploring the dulcimer, that these creative souls started their own very non-traditional festival to support their musical forays into the avant garde. It started in 1975, and became known as the “Kindred Gathering for Friends of Modes and Dulcimerie” (KG). You can read more about the festival here: https://robertforce.com/HisStory/KindredGathering.html
Unlike most music festivals, this one differs in a number of ways. First, it was really more of a retreat for kindred spirits (who wanted to spend time discovering what was possible on their dulcimers) than a public festival. It was also largely created by the folks who showed up to participate, and marked by a lot of playful spontaneity: the “Unnatural Acts” segment, for example, has become a much enjoyed KG annual tradition. As with much of the KG, it’s an open-ended event, and also open to interpretation. In 1975, it included participants doing a limbo dance while playing their dulcimers. Ironically, this frame breaking dulcimer gathering is now also the oldest continuing dulcimer festival in the US.
Another example of how much this largely underground progressive dulcimer movement tied in with the Santa Cruz Mountains is that Kindred Gathering # 3 was sponsored this time by CapriTaurus Dulcimers. It was held a bit south of Los Gatos on Bear Creek Road, just off Highway 17. Originally, this was the site of a Catholic college. In the 1970s, the school buildings & the beautiful campus had become Daybreak Free School. Today it’s the site of Bear Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve. In that summer 1977 weekend, however, it was the temporary home of the largest, most populated Kindred Gathering that had yet occurred. It was unusually churning with activity that year because there was a lot of interest in the dulcimer in this area. The event was attended by all kinds of folks, many of whom had an abiding passion for this unassuming little instrument. Several out of town dulcimer aficionados who attended this festival actually moved here after the event. These included Neal Hellman, Robert Force, and Albert d’Ossche, who then further stirred the bubbling pot in the Santa Cruz Mountains by adding their passion, discoveries & approaches to the progressive dulcimer stew.
Michael Rugg and his business partner and brother, Howard Rugg, stayed in the folk music business until the late 80s. From 1969 to 1989 the brothers and another crafter, Stephen Jackel, produced approximately 20,000 dulcimers from their workshop in Felton under the CapriTaurus and Folk Roots labels. In 2003 Michael and partner Paula Yarr launched the Bigfoot Discovery Project, and Michael opened the Bigfoot Discovery Museum at the family compound where the Roaring Camp train whistle (and other mournful howls) raise goosebumps. In 2011, Howard Rugg started making mountain dulcimers again, and you can order them online: dulcimuse.com/capritaurusdulcimers
Redwood Dulcimer Day
The playful dulcimer counterculture lives on in another Santa Cruz Mountains tradition: Redwood Dulcimer Day. Starting in the early 1970’s, Santa Cruz and the surrounding Santa Cruz Mountains were a hotbed of creative activity and exploration which culminated in a variety of progressive playing styles within the local mountain and hammered dulcimer communities. Redwood Dulcimer Day is a place for contemporary players of both dulcimers to gather, learn, enjoy playing together, and further explore new possibilities in playing styles and repertoire.
Redwood Dulcimer Day at Boomeria
Local dulcimer player, Janet Herman, organized the first Redwood Dulcimer Day at the Boomeria (boomeria.com) in July 2000 under the auspices of the Community Music School of Santa Cruz. The Boomeria, a colorful Renaissance estate created by San Lorenzo Valley High School science professor Preston Q. Boomer and his SLVHS students over the last 60 years or so on private land in Bonny Doon, was the perfect place to rekindle dulcimer magic! The estate features (among other interesting aspects) a miniature wooden chapel dominated by a 40 rank pipe organ which has been played by many world class concert organists. You can read more about that here: http://scbaroque.org/community/boomeria-organ-extravaganza-2
The estate also contains a series of catacombs, a science lab, a miniature castle, a working guillotine, and a swimming pool. And it plays host to weird, wondrous, and very playful events cooked up by PQ and his science students, like water cannon fights and more! But one day a year for 10 years, this playful miniature fantasy world hosted dulcimer workshops and a much enjoyed playing circle which culminated the day’s dulcimer activities.
Redwood Dulcimer Day Goes Virtual
Beginning in 2010, Redwood Dulcimer Day moved to more easily accessible locations in Boulder Creek, Scotts Valley, and Santa Cruz. Interestingly, Redwood Dulcimer Day is celebrating it’s 20th anniversary this year. That’s 20 years of helping folks feel more connected to their dulcimers, to one another, as well as to the creative process and life enhancing experience of making music.
In August of 2020, Redwood Dulcimer Day went virtual. If you’re wishing you had a new hobby to sink your teeth into while riding out the pandemic, consider learning to play the Appalachian or the hammered dulcimer by beaming in to the virtual event: redwooddulcimerday.org
Enter the Hammered Duclimer
Saturday, August 15 offerings will also bring something comparatively new to Redwood Dulcimer Day: workshops in a second kind of magical dulcimer, the hammered dulcimer. In some respects, this is a very different musical instrument. Unlike the typical 4-string mountain dulcimer with an hourglass-shaped body, the hammered dulcimer has a trapezoidal shaped soundbox across which are strung anywhere between about 46 to 98 strings. Another difference is that while the mountain dulcimer is usually placed on one’s lap while being plucked or strummed, the hammered dulcimer is placed on a stand and its strings are activated by a pair of small hand-held hammers. The mountain dulcimer is considered to be an American folk instrument, while the hammered dulcimer has roots in the Middle East.
What the two dulcimers share is a distinctive yet comforting sound that many folks find appealing. Also, and perhaps most importantly, they are unusually accessible to beginning aspiring musicians. For one thing, both kinds of dulcimers are easily viewed while being played, which makes a big difference. In addition, aspiring dulcimists don’t have to contort themselves in unusual ways to play either of these instruments. In that sense, they are a bit like a piano: capable of sounding good the very first time a neophyte tries to sound a note!
Grassroots Advocacy Groups Organize to Stem Toxic Runoff
Julie Horner joins a community workday to assist the local effort to stem toxic runoff from burned properties after the CZU Complex Fires.
On a bright Saturday morning in mid-November, about 30 volunteers gathered in the meadow just inside the gate to the community of Last Chance, coffee cups, water bottles, and sunscreen in hand. We had signed up in advance to join Fire Remediation and Recovery Action Days coordinated by a coalition of individuals and the grassroots groups Wildfire Protectors Corps, Santa Cruz Relief, Grow the Change, and CoRenewal to help prevent soil erosion and contain ash and toxins from structure burns by installing material to filter and break down toxic runoff before it enters the watershed. We’d be working side-by-side with environmental leaders, fire remediation experts, volunteers from all over Santa Cruz County, and neighbors from Last Chance who lost everything to the CZU Complex Fire. Over the course of a 3-day effort, as many as 80 volunteers were on hand in Last Chance to work through affected properties one by one. The coalition has visited sites where homes and structures burned in Bonny Doon, Boulder Creek, and Last Chance.
Last Chance is a rugged, back-to-the-earth alternative community in the hills above Davenport and the name of the approximately eight miles of dirt road that winds from Swanton Road at Highway 1 between Waddell and Scott Creeks into the western boundary of Big Basin Redwoods State Park. Along its spurs and private drives, few structures were spared by the CZU Complex Fire. With over 100 homesites affected, remediation and recovery has been something property owners have had to do on their own without support from the county or private insurers.
Fire Remediation and Recovery Action Days organizers coordinated with property owners to determine where to assign erosion control teams. Priority was determined by the ability of the property owner to mitigate their own toxins and by areas considered to be the most impacted.
Boulder Creek resident and community leader with Grow the Change, Rebekah Uccellini, and Tiffany Worthington of Wildfire Protectors Corps based in Santa Cruz delivered the welcome and overview before volunteers loaded into 4-wheel drive vehicles, most driven by Last Chance locals. Once at our assigned property many miles into the heart of the community, Oroville based permaculture educator, consultant, and designer, Matt Trumm, who lost his own home in the Paradise Fire and whose work in Paradise has set the standard for community fire remediation, and Mau Rivera of Sherwood Design Engineers talked volunteers through the basics.
Our job was to swale and contour areas around burned structures; lay and stake lengths of straw wattle into the contours to direct runoff; pair the wattles with 20-foot compost socks to absorb toxins; inoculate the wattles with native fungi; and then pack low points on slope with straw to act as catch basins to contain toxins. Mycelium-inoculated wattles, called “myco-wattles,” are part of a pioneering area of study to put living organisms back into the soil to help regenerate the scarred earth while also acting to remediate heavy metals, plastics, and other chemicals from toxic ash. In our case, native oyster mushroom mycelium was provided.
While compost socks and wattles look similar, they each perform a separate role in controlling toxic runoff. Straw wattles are used for erosion control and to direct water runoff away from sensitive areas and toward the compost sock, which is filled with wood chips and other organic materials that are good at containing toxins. Compost socks are most effective when placed about five feet from the burn site, while straw wattles can be used anywhere in the site to control water flow.
Initially, areas are assessed to estimate how rainwater will run off, and colored flags are placed to indicate to handcrews where to apply the wattles and compost socks. Teams then use pick-axes and shovels to create a swale, or shallow channel, in line with the markers where the wattles and compost socks will be laid on contour. Next, crews drive wooden stakes into the wattles and compost socks at specific intervals to hold them in place, about every four feet. Crews then optionally stuff a handful of mycelium-inoculated straw into the wattles at two-foot intervals. Absorbent material can be removed as hazmat after the rainy season.
Work with organizers to help build policy and develop community coalition: wildfireprotectorscorps.org | email@example.com
The 27th Annual Brookdale Bluegrass Festival was scheduled for this weekend (April 17th – 19th, 2020), but it was one of the first events this year to be cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As one of the scheduled performers, it hurts my heart to miss one of my favorite events, but being stuck at home gives me the chance to reminisce about my first booking at that event, and my first visit to Santa Cruz County.
I’m a professional Bluegrass/Folk musician. In the late 1990s, I lived in San Diego and was the banjo player in a group called “The Jackstraws.” We were a costumed, themed entertainment act, combining folk music and comedy, performing at venues ranging from SeaWorld to the world-famous San Diego Zoo, to private parties, corporate events, and festivals all around California. After a painful divorce, I moved back to my old hometown of Washington, DC in the year 2000, to recover near family and friends.
In early 2001, The Jackstraws’ band leader convinced me to return to San Diego for one more summer with the band, so I began making plans for a cross-country tour to bring me back to California. One of the venues I contacted was the Brookdale Bluegrass Festival. Eric Burman, the festival director, told me that although he didn’t usually book solo acts, he’d take a chance on me, and that was how I got my first-ever gig in Santa Cruz County.
My tour began in mid-February, and started with a trip North on I-95 to see family. The first stop on the tour was The Cantab Lounge in Cambridge, MA. From there it was a quite an adventure, driving across the country in late winter. I had shows in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin; Pierre, South Dakota; Gillette, Wyoming; Bozeman, Montana; and Sandpoint, Idaho, on my way to “The Big Gig” of the tour, which was the Wintergrass Festival in Tacoma, WA. I have a vivid memory of driving into a fog bank on the way to Bozeman. The fog was so thick that I had to follow dangerously close to a truck, just so I could see its rear lights. I was afraid that if I lost sight of those little red lights, I’d drive right off the road!
After the weekend at Wintergrass, the tour continued with gigs in Portland and Eugene, Oregon; a recording session in Ashland; and in California I had shows in Arcata and Eureka on the way to Brookdale. The festival was held inside the Brookdale Lodge, and when I arrived I was immediately impressed with the beautiful old hotel, especially the natural stream running right through the middle of the dining room. Eric Burman greeted me when I arrived, and made me feel right at home.
The 2001 Brookdale Bluegrass Festival featured Frank Solivan Sr. and Jr., Sidesaddle, Harmony Grits, Regina Bartlett, and Eric’s band, The Birchlake Ramblers. There was also an “underwater banjo contest,” which I missed, unfortunately. I remember in particular enjoying the Solivans’ show, but I have no clear memory of my own performance. That’s OK, because Eric assured me that the audience enjoyed it a lot.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of Bluegrass Music is the jamming. Bluegrass relies on the interplay between guitar, mandolin, banjo, fiddle, and bass, with every instrument playing a support role in between solos. Just as in a jazz “cutting session,” each instrumentalist is given a turn to play lead on a given tune. So, when all the performances were over for the evening, Eric led me to “the green room” where the jam session was taking place. The air was filled with the sound of hot pickin’, and redolent with the sweet smell of high quality cannabis. I was home!
At the jam session I met Frank Solivan II, who’s a truly amazing mandolin player and singer, and Santa Cruz’s own Pete Hicks, who’s a also a very talented singer and multi-instrumentalist. It was an insanely fun jam, made even more fun by Frank and Pete’s enthusiasm and broad knowledge of Bluegrass. Pete told me that he happened to have a recording session scheduled the next day, and asked if I’d like to be on it. Since I had a couple of days off the before the next gig, I eagerly accepted.
The next morning I accompanied Pete to Jim Lewin’s place. I didn’t know Jim, but he’s another Santa Cruz County fixture. He’s a great guitarist and singer, and is a member of at least two fine bands, “Edge of the West” and “Great American Taxi.” Jim was the engineer on the session, and he blew me away with his guitar playing!
We spent most of the day recording live with no individual overdubbing, and toward the end of the evening, all the travel and partying and lack of sleep caught up with me. I had a bad headache, and someone gave me an industrial-strength Tylenol. A bit later, as we were recording a tune called “Minor Swing,” I hit a creative wall. That tune hadn’t been scheduled for the recording, but we were jamming away. The tune went around the circle several times, and Pete, Frank, and Jim were playing hotter and hotter solos, but after my second round, I was sleepy and out of new ideas. The other guys were playing so well, and when the third solo came my way, I played it almost exactly the same as the second. I was afraid that I was going to completely mess up and ruin the entire take, so when the bridge of the tune came around, without any warning, I changed the rhythm to half-time, and fortunately the guys followed the time change, and took over the melody for me. Then, when it came back to the “A part,” I just put my hands over the strings and let the rest of the band finish the tune. After that, I retired to sleep on the couch.
That session was eventually released as Pete Hicks’ “Upstairs Jam” CD, and despite the banjo suddenly disappearing from “Minor Swing,” it remains one of my favorite projects that I’ve ever recorded.
After a couple of days visiting Santa Cruz and Monterey, I continued my tour with stops in San Luis Obispo and Palm Springs, before rejoining The Jackstraws in San Diego. During that summer season, I booked another tour to take me back to Washington, and as it happened, the departure date for that tour was September 11, 2001. So, I had the experience of driving across the United States during the weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but that’s a tale for another time.
Frank Solivan II joined the U.S. Navy’s country/bluegrass band, called “Country Current,” and moved to Washington, DC. He and I reconnected there, and played a few gigs together. He’s now the leader of “Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen,” which is one of the most prominent Bluegrass bands on the national circuit, and which features Mike Munford on banjo, one of my very favorite pickers. Pete Hicks is a member of “The Central Valley Boys” and “Bean Creek,” and Jim Lewin is busy with his two bands and many other projects.
I spent the first decade of the 21st Century living in the DC area, playing and teaching the banjo, and performing everywhere from busking at Metro stations to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. I also did several tours as a solo act, and went on the road with an “outlaw honky-tonk” band called J.B. Beverley & The Wayward Drifters. At the end of 2010 I was thoroughly fed up with the cold winters and crowded noisy city life and decided to return to California. I ended up in northern San Luis Obispo County, near the town of Atascadero.
One of the first things I did upon returning to California was to start booking festivals, and so I reconnected with Eric Burman. It turned out that he’s the director of two festivals, as well as being a band leader. He booked me for the Brookdale Bluegrass Festival in 2012, and we got to know each other better. He eventually made me an ad hoc member of his own “Brookdale Bluegrass Band,” and I’ve been delighted to join him at the Brookdale Bluegrass Festival, the Good Old Fashioned Bluegrass Festival (both held at the San Benito County Historical Park), and the Pick & Gather Festival in Livingston. The connection to Eric has given me the opportunity to visit Santa Cruz County many times now, and I’m grateful to him for his kindness and generosity. I look forward to many more visits!
Since all my Spring bookings have been cancelled, and likely the cancellations will continue into the Summer, like most musicians and other workers in the “gig economy,” my income stream has dried up almost entirely. However, like many of my fellow musicians, I’ve turned to live-streaming performances from my home. If you’d like to hear my music and maybe contribute to my “virtual tip jar,” please subscribe to my Youtube and Facebook pages. To paraphrase an old wine cooler commercial: “I thank you for your support!”