Thursday, August 23, 2012


[Bluegrass banjo great Sammy Shelor of the Lonesome River Band]

August 17-19, 2012
Vista, California

The Summergrass Bluegrass Festival recently celebrated its tenth anniversary in the rolling hills of Vista, California just north of San Diego. The 3-day festival presented an impressive array of local groups alongside national acts, including some of the premiere acts in the Bluegrass field. The southern California sun shone mercilessly on the crowd, but clever festival organizers had assembled a large sheer tent of silky green cloth over the main seating area that provided shade for a majority of the onlookers.

You can expect to hear “Rocky Top” at least once over the course of a weekend spent at any Bluegrass festival. Local favorites Virtual Strangers did the old chestnut in fine fashion during a Saturday afternoon set that also featured a take on Poco’s “Honky Tonk Downstairs”, a song that many may be familiar with thanks to George Strait’s rendition from several years ago. San Diego’s Lighthouse kept the music flowing through the afternoon with a set heavy on gospel themes including the poignant “On My Mother’s Side”.

[Mike Tatar and Jon Cherry of Virtual Strangers on dobro and mandolin]

Among the youthful crews on the program were the Tuttles with A.J. Lee, whose sound featured beautiful vocal harmonies and the mind-blowing guitar work of young Sullivan Tuttle. The band’s bouncy spin on “My Window Faces The South” was a perfect showcase for Sullivan’s fluid, jazzy guitar lines. The faraway look in the young man’s wide eyes stood in sharp contrast to his confident mastery of the fretboard as he reeled off one hot lick after another, bringing an unexpected dose of Django Reinhardt to the proceedings. The band’s set was further brightened by the inclusion of Townes Van Zandt’s “White Freight Liner” and an encore of Bill Monroe’s “White House Blues”.

[Lighthouse onstage at the 2012 Summergrass Bluegrass Festival]

Another young band on the bill was Florida’s Flatt Lonesome. Their rendition of “Jackson” elicited enormous applause from the crowd, as did an excellent original song of theirs called “I’m Blue”. Ben Rochester’s gospel number “The Right Side” was beautifully embellished by the exquisite harmonies of Flatt Lonesome’s Kelsi and Charli Robertson.

[Flatt Lonesome]

The impressive vocal stylings on display at Summergrass continued with a Sunday afternoon performance by Blue Mountain Mule. The emotive vocal phrasings of Sharron Evans totally redefined “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”. Her voice soared above the melody, setting its own lilting pace across the tempo. Unfurling plaintive blue notes galore, Evans took this country classic we’ve all heard a million times and made it her own.

A clear highlight of the weekend was the appearance of Bluegrass legends the Lonesome River Band, whose Sunday afternoon set included spirited takes on “Jack Up The Jail”, “Perfume, Powder & Lead”, and “Flat Broke And Lonesome”. Thirty year veterans of the Bluegrass scene, these men have played more stages than you could count. In spite of the summer heat, the crowd could sense the band’s natural camaraderie and good humor onstage. Lead singer Brandon Rickman invited fans to join them for a swim after the show, saying, “If y’all get bored, we’ll be at the pool at the La Quinta.”

[Campground jam session at Summergrass]

After closing out their set with a deft sprint through the old classic “Sittin’ On Top Of The World”, the band was quickly called back for an encore. Rickman seized the opportunity to call attention to the great many awards and accolades that have been bestowed on the band’s legendary banjo player Sammy Shelor. Recently awarded the Steve Martin Award for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass, Shelor’s singular banjo style defines the Lonesome River Band sound. The band selected “Molly” for their encore, showcasing a banjo and fiddle duet of stunning beauty just before the song’s final chorus.

[Another of the many campground jam sessions at Summergrass]

Other features of the festival included workshops for adults and kids interested in learning more about Bluegrass singing, songwriting and performance, as well as numerous sponsors on site with booths featuring CDs, instruments, clothing, and a raffle that included two guitars, a banjo, and a mandolin among the prizes. All weekend long there were dozens of spontaneous jam sessions throughout the festival grounds, on picnic tables, and in the concessions area. The sound of live music could be heard coming from all around the adjacent campground, where many handmade instruments were being played including a large washtub that had been converted into a stout little upright bass that resembled a fat brown banjo.

[Handmade bass fiddle]

Perhaps the festival’s greatest feature is its setting on the sprawling grounds of the Antique Gas & Steam Engine Museum. Spread over several acres of rolling hills, the museum is like a giant American Folk Art sculpture garden, with several barns filled to overflowing with hundreds of vintage tractors, farm implements, steam engines, classic cars and trucks, and a stunning variety of antique machinery spread out all over the surrounding flatlands and hillside. It was the perfect setting for a Bluegrass festival. Tourists and travelers planning a visit to southern California are advised to consider the Summergrass Bluegrass Festival as their destination. A fascinating glimpse at our nation’s industrial past, the Antique Gas & Steam Engine Museum itself is worth the trip. Add a first class Bluegrass festival to the picture and it’s Americana overload, fun-filled and family-friendly. I can’t imagine a summer weekend better spent.


Summergrass website:

Antique Gas & Steam Engine Museum website:


1 comment:

Women Who Say said...

Great, great article about my favorite bluegrass festival. Thanks so much for sharing!!