Never Lose Sight of Those Little Red Lights: A Banjoman’s Journey

By Dan Mazer

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.

“BanjerDan” Mazer

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.

Brook Room at the Brookdale Lodge

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.

BanjerDan Dresses the Part

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.

BanjerDan in San Luis Obispo

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!

Dan Mazer Banjo Player

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!”

BanjerDan on Youtube:
https://youtube.com/channel/UCqAIxWUYr7Bye-wPojuauHA
BanjerDan on Facebook: http://facebook.com/BanjerDan

(c) April 2020, Dan Mazer for the San Lorenzo Valley Post

Nose to Nose with BanjerDan

Felton Trout Farm Devastated by Fire

Beloved Felton Trout Farm Inn Burns

June 10, 2016

By Julie Horner

While many of us were reveling in the music and magic at the annual Redwood Mountain Faire on Sunday, June 5, the much loved Felton Trout Farm Inn suffered a devastating fire just two miles away. The fire started in the vent above the kitchen’s grill around 2:20 in the afternoon. Cooks, wait staff, and owner, Kelly McGuire helped safely evacuate patrons enjoying lunch and using the pool as responders from Zayante, Ben Lomond, Felton and Scotts Valley fire departments arrived to battle the blaze. This tight-knit mountain community and all of San Lorenzo Valley has lost another precious local landmark and social hub.

Within a few minutes of initial news, friends and neighbors were sharing posts on Facebook: “What a terrible, terrible day. Our favorite place has burned down. We are told everyone is okay, which is the most important thing. But now knowing that everyone is safe, we can grieve for our loss, The Trout Farm. We love the Trout Farm and all of the people there. Kelly McGuire and Yvonne McGuire we love you, and will do whatever we can to help you rebuild.”

“We just went there yesterday to play in the pool. I really hope that it can be rebuilt. What a horrible loss to the community. Please keep the group posted about fund raisers.”

“I’m in tears, the McGuire family have worked hard to make The Trout Farm a special place to enjoy the history and the great food and dance bands. We had our wedding reception there and it was a ball! Kelly, Yvonne, Mandy, Luis and the rest of the crew…we will be praying for all of you and the future of The Trout Farm…that this all comes out in the best way.”

“Utterly devastating…so sad. Yvonne, Kelly and the whole team family were so warm and really built a community destination. I’ll miss it terribly but have faith that Trout will rise like a Phoenix. I’ll follow along and be there when the cause calls for lending a hand.”

“I was there with my wife and two kids at the pool on Saturday. We would’ve been there on Sunday too but for the Redwood Mountain Faire. We are all shocked and deeply saddened by this tragedy.”

According to reports, McGuire had been standing at the bar just feet from the kitchen when the fire broke out and the interior quickly filled with smoke. Firefighters responded within five minutes but the dry old bones of the structure rapidly became engulfed.

“The firefighters did everything they could,” McGuire said in a statement to Santa Cruz Sentinel reporter, Ryan Masters. “They could have been parked out front and it wouldn’t have made a difference. That’s how fast it went up.”

The original bar and gaming room was built across Zayante Creek on land that once housed a trout hatchery. In Ed Jasmin’s Web archive, The History of the Trout Farm Inn, he writes, “In 1942 the bar was moved to its current location and Bill Fischer and his mother purchased it in 1946 from Austin and Jackie Berry. In 1955 he began a small dining room where one could get a steak, trout or chicken dinner for $1.95 while ‘Ma’ Fischer managed the trout ponds. The lounge was later extended in 1956 and 1958. The Trout Farm in the 40’s and 50’s served as an Inn providing overnight accommodations located where the swimming pool now lies.”

The cabins were moved to locations along the creek as permanent residences so that the pool could be modernized to accommodate growing numbers of tourists. “Several owners followed Bill and his partner Bob. In early 2005, the stewardship of this landmark passed to Penny Siler and John Heibel.” The McGuires took ownership of the Trout Farm Inn in 2012 offering a full bar and restaurant, live music performance space and of course, the inviting family pool.

The building was declared a total loss by Troy Adams, Zayante Fire District
Battalion Chief.

Facebook posts continue to accumulate in support:

“My first job was washing dishes at the TF in 1975 … working for Bill and Bob was a wild introduction to the food industry. I’m sorry for your loss … we’ll stay tuned as we vacation every Summer in Ben Lomond. Thoughts and prayers!!!” “I’m so sad to hear this but glad everyone us safe. I grew up at the Trout Farm Inn, knew Ma Fisher, Bill Fisher, Bob. Had my first job there at the pool and worked as a waitress for several years back in the early 70’s. My mom was a hostess. Lots of great memories. I’m heartbroken. We just watched old videos of swimming in the pool when my brother and I were young.”

“My grandmother, Bernice Fischer, started the Trout Farm in the mid 1930’s. My dad, Bill Fischer, owned it for 50 years, selling it in the mid 80’s. We moved the cabins to the creekside (from the current location of the pool), built the pool, expanded the bar and dining room, had luaus, floated Christmas trees in the pool and never missed the Friday night fights on TV in the bar during the 50’s. So much history – another chapter in life, closed. I pray for the owners to get through this tragedy, and extend my condolences to you!!! Thank you ALL for caring about the property, the business, and the historical landmark that it became. God give you strength, hope, and new vision. Sincerely, Cheryl and Francis Busa – Montana”

More about the Trout Farm: http://edjasmin.com/assets/Pages/8-Web/websites/thetroutfarminn/assets/pages/history.htm

On Facebook:

www.facebook.com/troutfarminn

www.facebook.com/feltontroutfarmfamily

#FeltonTroutFarmInn
#slvpost
http://slvpost.com/

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The ‘grass is Always Greener – Rick Ednie’s Bluegrass Roundup

By Julie Horner

Singer-songwriter, Rick Ednie, has advice for budding musicians and writers: Keep whatever you do. In 1998 or so he first tried writing songs, by hand, which he held onto in a folder for years, dragging it around thinking, “why am I saving this crap?” “Some of the thoughts were immature,” he felt, “Not focused, rambling.” He kept the old material anyway and it has proven to be a goldmine. “It might instill something in you that might inspire something else.” Like a seed. “I have this image of people writing something then saying, ‘oh this sucks,’ and crumpling it up and throwing it in the trash. Don’t do that!”

Locals will recognize Rick as a lead proponent in Santa Cruz Mountains-based band, Heathen Hill, favorites on the regional Americana folk music scene who play regularly at the Trout Farm, Joe’s Bar, LuLu Carpenter’s downtown Santa Cruz, and who used to have a regular Sunday slot at the Boulder Creek Brewery before fire gutted the building in March, 2015. Rick is quick to mention that Heathen Hill is far from a bluegrass band. “There’s no fiddle, no banjo.” It’s something they’re always talking about, he says.

In the meantime, Rick has branched out by forming another musical endeavor, which he calls Rick Ednie’s Bluegrass Roundup. “I’ve been a gig getter for many years. I wanted to get gigs but didn’t necessarily have the musicians to support it.” So he’d call around to find players to plug in to various gigs as he got them, basically rounding them up. He’d get calls from musician friends saying, “Hey Rick, why don’t you do another roundup gig?” So with a core group of four or five members in rotation, he started at farmers’ markets then helped make popular the Wednesday night Java Jam, which used to be at Coffee Cat up in Scotts Valley and is now down at LuLu Carpenter’s with a rotating roster of top folk musicians.

And with the help of his core posse, Rick Ednie’s Bluegrass Roundup has a new CD called White Turtle Dove. It’s his second CD and third time working in a studio environment. “I find it a challenge – the right people have to be together – there are so many variables, like getting the same people to focus on similar goals. We’re all just weekend warriors; I try to make a better effort.”

Most of the people on the CD are close friends, a few were hired as professional studio players. The album includes Rick on guitar, vocals, and mandolin; Bradley Richter on mandolin and vocals; Suzanne Suwanda on bass; Jason Lampel on banjo; Luke Abbott on fiddle; Liz Smith on fiddle and vocals; Mike Witcher on dobro; and Jered Chaney on banjo and vocals. Recorded at Joe Weed’s Highland Studios in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the album features outstanding bluegrass musicianship and showcases Rick’s songs, some new, some reworked from his saved archive of originals from his early songwriting years.

“I’m really happy with it. The first CD I did was definitely Americana, singer-songwriter stuff. This one is contemporary bluegrass. Or at least it’s structurally traditional – but I’m not from Tennessee, it’s how I hear the music, my expression.”

“Recording is a great way to improve your craft, to learn what you can do in that kind of environment – it’s not forgiving – it’s made me a better musician.” And he’s still feeling the love of recording with really professional players. “To have them on the project was encouraging for me, made me step up to the plate to play at a better level.”

This year Rick has been invited to play at the upcoming Brookdale Bluegrass Festival Spring Fling put on by the Northern California Bluegrass Society. The event takes place March 18 and 19 at Scopazzi’s in Boulder Creek – Rick Ednie’s Bluegrass Roundup plays Saturday the 19th from 6:00 pm to 7:00 pm and Rick says they’ll be doing a lot of songs off the CD. “The CD has some of the best songs I’ve ever written.”

“It’s my hope to get my music out there – I like to play music with people, and I also want to do more solo work.” He thanks the guys in Heathen Hill for being patient while he reworked his originals for the CD and for performing with them. “They allowed me the space to do that…to work through that. They weren’t judgmental about it…I mean, sure, they’d bust my balls about it, ‘You’re changing the song again?’ But they always allowed me the space to do it.”

Rick is a “project person” and with White Turtle Dove has a hand in everything from the artwork and design of the trifold CD case (make sure you look for the insert) to the promotion and booking. “I love the project aspect of it – it’s there to do – I feel a sense of accomplishment.”

The songwriting is the heart of it. “When I get a song the right way, I can say it’s new, it’s very fulfilling. I have the experience at the Brewery to thank for that, Heathen Hill, the music rights people,” who forced him to turn away from performing cover material and focus on writing his own songs. With White Turtle Dove “It’s not all me. I produced it, I’m on the cover, it’s got my name, but it’s more than that.”

Rick’s CDs, A Fine Place to Start and White Turtle Dove, are on the Web: www.rickednie.com/home/

Experience Rick Ednie’s Bluegrass Roundup at the Brookdale Bluegrass Festival at Scopazzi’s March 19th at 6:00 pm, 13300 Big Basin Way, Boulder Creek, CA 95006. Full festival schedule: http://www.brookdalebluegrass.com/

Julie Horner is an Irish folk musician and writer living in the Santa Cruz Mountains, California. Email: leap2three@gmail.com | http://www.slvpost.com

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A Measure of Sweet Mountain Music ~ Sugar by the Pound

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By Julie Horner

A tidy vase of dried hydrangeas and autumn leaves on a rustic wooden table greeted me as I let myself in the gate. I sank into a chair on the wide porch, for all the world transported in the Indian summer heat of early October to some place in the nation’s South. The grateful shade under a sweeping California oak reminded me that I hadn’t strayed too far from the Santa Cruz Mountains.

This old home is where banjo player and vocalist for Sugar by the Pound, Alison Steele, has sunk her roots to raise her babies, grow her own food, and nurture the love of making music. The other members of this all-girl band, Erin Valdivia (vocals, guitar), Cristy Aloysi (vocals, mandolin), and Sarah Farrell Mackassey (vocals, stand-up bass) live within walking distance of this quiet street of rustic bungalows tucked off the mountain town bustle of State Routes 9 and 236. So close to each other, in fact, that locals have reported seeing the girls walking their instruments across the highway on their way to practice!

Sharing a passion for family, food, and sense of community, the four friends started making music together just for fun at home. Before too long they found themselves playing out locally as a new force, dialing in their sweet sound together while rediscovering at the same time a sense of their own place as individuals. Each is already an artist in her own right: Alison, a fashion designer; Erin, executive baker and co-owner of Toast and Prost, which pairs craft brews with artisanal bread for local tastings; Cristy, artist and owner of Viscosity Glass; and Sarah, Yoga instructor, artist and owner of lille æske art house collective.

Now the girls are performing full throttle, breaking the all-male bluegrass old time-y mold with beauty, talent, and style. Alison explained that their music is not strictly bluegrass but is a blend of their experiences and interpretations built upon the foundations of old time, country blues, and American roots music. Inspired by the music of Appalachia, Sugar by the Pound sings folk songs in perfectly blended four-part harmony and plays melodies with simple traditional chord progressions using only acoustic instruments. Originally from California, New York, Indiana, and Virginia, the girls compose their own material and cover some of the most richly nostalgic traditional music ever written, bringing East and West Coast together for a uniquely warm, clear sound. And their contagious energy has audiences dancing and singing along.

Alison told me, “I have to say Georgie Buck is one of my favorites. I learned it after listening to Elizabeth Cotten’s version (she wrote the classic Freight Train Blues). She played clawhammer banjo and guitar. I like the part that says, ‘Georgie Buck is dead, last words he said, never let a woman have her way, boys, never let a woman have her way!’ We get a lot of hootin’ and hollering on that one for obvious reasons. It’s a powerful song with all of us singing strong harmonies and it really gets us and the crowd going. It’s fast, too, so it gets me stompin’ on my flatfootin’ board and smilin’. It’s one of the first songs we ever performed together, so it feels like home.”

An unknown composer once wrote: “Whiskey by the gallon, sugar by the pound, a great big bowl to put it in, and a spoon to stir it round…I wish I had a needle and thread, as fine as I could sew, I would sew all the girls to my coat-tail, and down the mountain I’d go!”

One little taste of Sugar by the Pound and it’s easy to picture this extended family toe-tapping the planks of that wide welcoming porch on a late summer evening in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

On the Web: http://sugarbythepound.wordpress.com

On Facebook: www.facebook.com/sugarbythepound

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(c) Julie Horner 2014

Julie Horner is a Boulder Creek based Irish-American folk musician and writer.