San Joaquin Valley Boys
It doesn’t seem like it’s been that long ago, but the lines on my face, as well as the calendar here by my desk, confirm the fact that 47 years have indeed gone under the bridge since I became a San Joaquin Valley Boys band member. Lets go back to the year 1960, and see how it feels to be 22 again!
After I got out of high school in 1955, for lack of a trade or knowing what I wanted to do in life, I went to work at Stockton State Hospital, as a Psych. Tech. It was there in January of 1956 that I met an older gentleman, a Mr. Carl Steward, who was originally from the state of Missouri. Carl and I shared a love of good country and bluegrass music, and I was to find out that he was one of the very best rhythm guitar players that I’ve ever heard in my life. We became close friends, and I had the good fortune to attend several jam sessions at his house over the ensuing years. Carl knew a lot of established musicians that played around Stockton back then, and he introduced me to them and I got to learn a lot from those older players.
I had just moved back to Stockton from Sacramento where I had been working for a year or so when Carl called me one night to invite me to a jam session not far from where I was living. He said, “Kid, I’ll be over to pick you up around 7:00 tomorrow evening, and we’ll go over to the ‘Key’ guy’s house and we’ll do some pickin’, cause they’ve got a hot banjo picker!” I sez,”’Key’ guy? What the hecky darn is a ‘Key’ guy?” Carl sez. “You know, the guy that makes all of the key’s there at the “Bughouse” where we work!” “Oh, okay,” I agreed, “come on over, I’ll be ready to go when you get here.” So, the next night at 7:00 Carl picks me up and over to the “Key” guy’s house we go. It was there that I met three gentlemen that would become three of the closest friends that I have ever had in my life.
The “Key” guy was Dave Carroll, along with Ken Freeman, and his brother Shelby Freeman. (Who by the way is one of our earliest CBA Honorary Life Members.) They made us welcome, and we sat down to listen to them play. Shelby was pickin’ the banjo, Dave was playing bass, and Ken was playing guitar. Carl got out his Martin and joined in on a couple of numbers, when one of ’em said, “I’d like to hear the ‘Salty Dog Blues’, any one here know the words to that song?” Carl said, “The kid there knows it, here boy, take my guitar and sing it fer ’em!” Well, sing it I did, and right after we finished it, Ken turned to Shelby and said, “I think that we’ve found that rhythm guitar picker and vocalist we’ve been looking for!”
I’ll never forget that Shelby had a big grin on his face when he said. “Ken, I think that yer right! Kid, how’d you like to become a San Joaquin Valley Boy?” I couldn’t believe that these older and seasoned musicians would take on a green kid like myself and ask me to join their band. I looked at Carl with that ‘Deer in the head light look”, and he said, “Tell ’em yes kid, you can handle it!” So I did, and that’s how I became a member of one of the 2 or 3 bands that were playing Bluegrass Music in Northern California back then.
We played a lot of jobs over the next 4 or 5 years, and had a lot of fun doing it, although we didn’t make that much money. I think that the most memorable gig that we played was at a fall Harvest Fair, in the little Valley town of Herald, in Sacto. County. We had a good fiddler at the time, named Andy Cass, and he was the one who lined that gig up for us. We were to play in the Elementary School Auditorium and there were 4 or 5 rock bands on before us, and they had those Amp’s turned up to Mach 10! There were a ton of folks there at the Fair itself, but there were only about 6 or 7 people in the School listening to the “Music”. I was totally discouraged, and wanted to load up and leave, but the older and wiser heads of Dave, Ken, and Shelby said, “You jes wait and see kid, we’re gonna knock ’em dead!” Yeah sure, I thought. WELL, come our time to play, and sure enough there was only 6 or 7 people in the room, so Shelby walked up to the mike, tore into Earl’s Breakdown, and by the time we finished that song, the Auditorium was PACKED! We brought the house down, and we were off and running! We literally KNOCKED ‘EM DEAD! We had the time of our lives and did three encores that night. We also got invited back the next year, and if I remember right we got payed $200.00 that night. A WORLD RECORD for a Bluegrass band back in those days! (I remember Vern and Ray playing for $50.00 a night back then.)
SO, that’s how I became a member of the San Joaquin Valley Boy’s, and how Igained three of the finest friends that a man could ever ask for. For, after all is said and done, the music is the glue that has bound us all together, but it is the friends that we have made over the years that is the real treasure. I’m proud to say that I am a San Joaquin Valley Boy!