When you have the opportunity to hear good music live, that makes all the difference. You feel like an inspired part of the music as it happens and that makes it extra special. Many of us here in California are fortunate to have local venues that support our music. They sponsor our jams, bring in special acts, and nurture our local bands. I hope you all know where these places are in your own community. We should all go out and frequent these venues whenever we have the opportunity or else they will simply not be there for us any more.
One of the most iconic venues in the history of bluegrass and folk music was the Ash Grove in southern California. Bill Monroe played there. So did Doc Watson, whom Bill credits for producing the guitar riff (right there at the Ash Grove) which became the framework of a new tune, the Watson Blues.
In the sixties, the Ash Grove was the go to place for east coast artists who wanted to find a western audience. Besides Bill and Doc, artists like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, The Dillards, Johnny Cash, June Carter, Pete Seeger, the New Lost City Ramblers, the Greenbrier Boys, the Weavers, Arlo Guthrie and the Kentucky Colonels flocked to the Ash Grove.
Chris Hillman and Clarence White met at the Ash Grove while they were in high school, long before they formed the Byrds. Ry Cooder got his start playing back up guitar at the Ash Grove as did Linda Ronstadt as a singer. At the Ash Grove in its heyday you could hear artists as diverse as Chuck Berry, Jackson Browne and Mongo Santamaria as well as comics like Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, the Firesign Theatre, Rowan & Martin and Steve Allen.
Sadly, the Ash Grove was long gone by the time I moved to southern California in 1980. It closed in 1973 after 15 years, a victim of fires perhaps set by opponents of their political activism. That and a more lucrative music industry for big stars who required larger venues.
During its short fifteen year life span, the Ash Grove was home to some astonishingly groundbreaking music. About 3,000 hours of tape still exist from those sessions. Wouldn’t it be great to download some of that from the music archives? In northern California, Paul’s Saloon started around the same time and lasted a little longer than the Ash Grove. What about those tapes? And the tapes from all the years at Grass Valley? I know Mark Hogan is working on those projects but I’ll also bet he could use your help. A worthy project indeed.
In closing I have to comment about how the Ash Grove got its name and why I am so fond of that name. The name comes from an old Welsh folk tune. It’s a beautiful melody and I heard it anew one day from my favorite guitarist Norman Blake. He plays a beautiful version in C on the album Whiskey Before Breakfast, following another beautiful Irish tune the Mistrel Boy (in G).
When I heard Norman play Ash Grove on that album, I recognized the tune immediately because i had sung it so many times over the holidays. Ash Grove has been used for many songs but the hymn I learned the tune from is called Let all Things Now Living:
Let all things now living a song of Thanksgiving
To God our creator triumphantly raise
Who fashioned and made us, protected and stayed us
By guiding us on to the end of our days
Happy Thanksgiving everybody!