San Diego has been home to many a successful bluegrass musician. One example is Alison Brown.She grew up in the La Jolla area playing bluegrass banjo and guitar at The Pizza Place, a monthly jam where she met and played often with world-renown bluegrass fiddler Stuart Duncan. She went on to college, and after graduation worked for Smith Barney in San Francisco where she worked in the investment world for 10 years. In 1995, she married Garry West and they decided to move to Nashville where they opened Compass Records. Compass Records is an internationally recognized label with a catalog of over 600 roots music releases. Alison returns to San Diego area a couple of times a year for gigs and to see family.
On the first weekend in May, Mike and I and our band Virtual Strangers played at the Ramona Bluegrass & Old West Festival, which is only 15 miles from home. This young event is only 5 years old and offers of great local and touring bands in their lineup each year. This year their increased attendance was obvious and the event’s addition of a 3rd stage made the music available all the time during the festival hours. They also added the Wild West Camp where trail bosses, sheriffs and stage robbers roamed among their old west encampment. Fans enjoyed the new things to see and do along with the fine stage shows and jamming in the growing campground. It was great to witness this young festival’s growth and success!
After our stage show, that evening we made our way over to the Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad which is hosting a banjo extravaganza program titled “The Banjo: A New Day for an Old Instrument” series. This special exhibit runs from March 29, 2014 – October 31, 2014 and “reveals a compelling and triumphant story about “America’s Instrument.” Bluegrass leaning banjo artists included to perform in the series are Alison Brown , Sammy Shelor & Lonesome River Band (June), Tony Trischka (August); Mark Johnson & Emory Lester (October), and Dan Levenson (November).
Deering Banjos was instrumental in helping the museum get this event up and running. And Saturday night, May 3rd, the Alison Brown Quartet was highlighted at the museum. The concert was not specifically bluegrass but many genres were played, and it was very entertaining with topnotch style and taste. Alison was on the banjo and the rest of the quartet included bass, drums, and piano. One sweet highlight of the show was the Grandpa Jones song, “Are You From Dixie?” sung by Alison’s 8 year old son Brendan who also flat footed during the breaks. With his shock of red hair and cherubic face, he’s a natural!
The next day was Sunday, and, as luck would have it, it was also our 40th wedding anniversary. What better way to celebrate than to host a 2-hour banjo workshop at our home. It was such fun! Ten five-wire pickers converged and the twanging began. Alison highlighted the Scruggs and melodic styles along with specific tunes and student requests for assistance. The workshop ended with satisfied banjo pickers who were enthused by what they had learned. (Side note – Mike Smith, longtime San Diego Bluegrass Society member and banjo player, attended both her concert and workshop. He was grinning from ear to ear the whole time. You see, Mike is a retired teacher and Alison’s former music teacher when she attended La Jolla High School. He is uber proud of her!)
It was a music-packed weekend but also memory-packed with great times. When I’m rocking in that ol’ rocking chair in years to come, this weekend will supply some sweet recollections. The pursuit of playing, listening, and learning music is a charmed endeavor. Can I get an Amen?!