Bluegrass in Blythe

January 16, 2002
Filed under Destinations

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Blythe, California, is here because of the farms that surround it. And the farms are here
because of the Colorado River that meanders by and irrigates this fertile valley called the
Palo Verde. The river draws tourists to town, and the warm winters draw snowbirds. Others
just stumble onto Blythe while traveling over Interstate 10, which connects Phoenix,
Houston and Jacksonville with Los Angeles. But in our wheeled accommodations, we have a way
of altering the status quo of any place. For the next few days, Blythe will be a serious
destination, the place to be for thousands who will get completely immersed in bluegrass
music. During the third weekend in January (including the week leading into it), they come
for the annual Colorado River Country Music Festival. (This year’s date is January 18-20,
2002.) January days are warm and sunny here. Of course, this is Southern California –
almost Arizona, since it’s on the border — where almost every day is like that. “Sunshine
360 days a year,” they say here on “the coast.” Because of the river, they call this the
coast of Arizona. These Californians don’t brag about weather, though. They brag about
earthquakes; they don’t have any here. And the urban sprawl and smog of the rest of
California has not reached Blythe and probably never well. This town of mostly farm workers
and some prison guards is out here by itself in the Mojave Desert — desert as in vast and
empty. Palm Springs is 120 miles west and Phoenix is 150 miles east. Shopping consists of
walking the aisles in the Super Kmart, Albertson’s, or maybe the Payless Shoe Store. The
interstate keeps 15 gas stations, as well as a cluster of plastic-roofed franchises, in
business. But the best meal in town is probably at the Amapola Cafe. It’s been on Main
Street since 1950, serving up traditional Mexican cooking, plus margaritas. This detached
town of 22,000, which includes the inmates of two state prisons, has been the locale for
the festival since a half-dozen bluegrass fans put it together for the first time in 1988.
The town is supportive, but not heavily involved. Few local people even come to it. I am
told that much of the town doesn’t know it exists and couldn’t care less about it. The
Chamber of Commerce sponsors it and a group of 20 volunteers do the work. As the event’s
co-chairman, Steve Montgomery, put it, “Bluegrass is not exactly mainstream. Most of the
town does not understand what’s happening out here.” “Out here” is the state fairgrounds
and “what’s happening” is an extraordinary, only-in-America phenomenon, where the high,
lonesome sound of bluegrass music permeates everything from just after a biscuits-and-gravy
breakfast to well into the night. On two stages at the fairgrounds, seven professional
bluegrass bands rotate sets and play all day. As the sun goes down, groups collect around
fire pots where beer, snacks, coffee and cookies are easy to reach. Creating bluegrass with
various mixes of fiddle, bass, banjo, guitar, mandolin, Dobro and voice, they play well
into the night. Most are pickup jam sessions, and the mix of musicians is like that of an
all-night poker game where the players change one at a time. “There are the pickers and the
grinners,” the old-timers like to say. We “grinners” cluster in the aisles created by the
rows of RVs. The music of the “pickers” is never amplified, so two groups can be playing
with just a couple rigs separating them and not overlap each other. The festival folks
provide the fire pots and the wood. The festival founder, 72-year-old Dave Mort, told me
that the free heat has become a tradition. “I had just cut down two cottonwood trees in my
yard. So that first year, 13 years ago, we hauled all that wood out here for the folks to
burn. Jack Madden welded together 40 fire pots for us. Some have walked off, but we still
have most of ‘em. We place them around the campground along with firewood that people
donate during the year.” The fire pots are ingenious stoves made from the perforated steel
baskets taken from discarded washing machines. The Grasshoppers is a professional bluegrass
band from Caldwell, Idaho. Glen Garrett is the oldest member at 47. He plays rhythm guitar,
sings and is never without his white hat. “We play straight-ahead bluegrass that’s hopped
up a little,” Glen said, explaining how they came up with the name “Grasshoppers.” Glen
started his son Jeremy playing fiddle at the age of three. “That was a few years ago,” he
added. Jeremy now plays fiddle with the band. Randy Glenn is the Grasshoppers’ lead guitar
and banjo player; his wife, Honi, plays bass. He struck me as the cogitative sort, a guy
who takes his music very seriously. So, I asked Randy to describe for me the sound of
bluegrass. “No ready-made answers,” I added. “I’ve heard the hackneyed line that calls it
country music in overdrive.” Randy’s ruddy cheeks tightened into a squint. I could tell his
mind was searching. “That’s one to ponder. I’ve never really tried to put it in words,”
Randy said, looking off at the mountains on the Arizona side of the river. “It’s easy to
feel. I can express it with music. I know how to do it, but I don’t know how to say it.
That’s such a probing question.” He thought some more. “Lots of subtleties to it,” he went
on. “The simple nuances are tricky. There are certain progressions of notes that have to be
there. It’s almost like stories passed along, one on one, like learning to talk. People in
the East play different than people in the West. We are more aggressive out here. I can
tell where a person is from by how he plays, maybe even who he learned from. “It’s never
pretty or slick,” Randy was still searching for the right words. “You don’t try to make it
pretty?” “Not at all,” Randy shot back. “I am more interested in getting the right feel
into it. Maybe that’s the answer to your question.” Randy grinned. “It’s as much a feeling
as it is a sound.” However it is described, bluegrass is made-in-America music that
originated in the mountain country of the East. It grew toward the mainstream in the late
1940s, but was never in it. It almost died when rock music took over the country in the
1960s. Now it is performed at festivals like this one that are held all over the country. I
know nothing about the others, but if it were not for the RV, this festival would not be
what it is and probably would not be at all. Close to 10,000 people are at this three-day
event. Except for a handful of day visitors, all are camped here at the fairgrounds.
Country Current is a favorite with this crowd, the only band to be invited back two years
in a row. It’s the bluegrass branch of the U.S. Navy Band based in Washington, D.C. From
the moment these four guys in white uniforms walk on stage, they have the audience. There
was an instant connection with these fans, many of whom had served in this country’s
military and take great pride in it. This was the only band that consistently brought the
audience to its feet at the end of every performance. We shopped and we ate, we walked and
we visited, but mostly we sat. We sat in lawn chairs and on wooden benches hour after hour,
enraptured by the music of America’s heartland. I have seen nothing like it. For the pure
joy of music, Woodstock was a shameful flop compared to this.

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