Darby Brandli Matriarch of California Bluegrass

Jun 11, 2023 | Bluegrass History, General News, Interview

Reprinted with permission from Bluegrass Today.

When someone in the California Bluegrass Association(CBA) says Darby, we all know who they are talking about as she is part of a select group like Carl or Laurie who have instant first-name recognition. As former CBA President, Darby is known far and wide for her passion for Bluegrass, the CBA, and now the youth programs. Her stewardship steered the CBA during difficult times to what is now a huge, thriving, modern bluegrass association welcoming anyone with an interest in bluegrass, gospel, or old-time music.

Hi Darby. What’s keeping you busy these days?

The 48th Annual CBA Father’s Day Bluegrass Festival(FDF) is coming up in Grass Valley June 15. Kimber Ludiker and I are really scrambling this week to get ready for the CBA Youth Academy beginning June 14th. We sold out and over-enrolled (we didn’t want to deny any kids admission). Kimber just hired another faculty member and we had to order more supplies.

Tell us how you first got involved in the bluegrass world.

My friend Ann Theobald Juell and I discovered bluegrass music in 1962-1963 in Berkeley. There wasn’t much of a “world” then. We came of age in a pretty vibrant music scene in Berkeley in the 1960s. When I met my husband Bruno in 1967 we shared an interest in the music but we didn’t get involved in the bluegrass world until 20 years later.

Have you ever played?

Well of course I did. There was a folk scene in Berkeley. I took my first guitar lessons from Merritt Herring in 1961 at Live Oak Park in Berkeley. Forty years later I took guitar lessons from Larry Chung and realized I would never become a picker or singer. I decided then that since I was a professional manager in real life I could create a space for players and fans to gather. It was a good move.

What singers do you like?

I am a fan of Dale Ann Bradley, Tina Adair, Rhonda Vincent, Brooke Aldridge, AJ Lee, Molly Tuttle, Laurie Lewis, Kathy Kallick, Celia Woodsmith, and Vicki Vaughn. I love ALL the women bluegrass singers. In my position, I cannot have favorites.

What festivals will you be attending this summer?

After Father’s Day, we are taking our grandson to Switzerland and will miss most of the summer festival season. We will definitely attend the IBMA World of Bluegrass in Raleigh in September.

You answered my next question? What is your favorite part of IBMA other than seeing the kids?

Yes, we already purchased plane tickets and the CBA is a sponsor of the event. I love seeing my friends in the bluegrass community at the World of Bluegrass. Everyone attending is a friend and it is the huggingest community on the planet. I cannot wait to hug everyone again.

What bands are you excited to see at the 2023 FDF?

I am most excited about Molly Tuttle and Golden Highway. Molly contacted us last year when she released her song Grass Valley but it was too late to make it happen for 2022. We made certain we had a slot for her band for 2023. We are so proud of her. She has appeared on our stages and represented the CBA at the IBMA Kids on Bluegrass (KOB) program since the World of Bluegrass was held in Nashville. She has taught at our Music Camp. Her dad Jack is an Honorary Lifetime Member of the CBA and has taught at our music camp every year for two decades and he edited the Youth Program Songbook. Molly is family. She is showing the world (yes the world) that California has bluegrass creds.

What other upcoming CBA artists are you excited about? 

I am keeping my eyes on AJ Lee and Blue Summit, The Crying Uncle Bluegrass Band, Broken Compass, and all the bands featuring Ida Winfree. I think AJ Lee are about a year and a half behind Molly Tuttle. I am also watching Josh and John Gooding now playing with Little Roy and Lizzie and Jesse Personeni who is playing with the Malpass Brothers. Birches Bend is making a splash and of course, Miles and Teo Quale are major talents and the world is open to them. We have dozens of potential bluegrass stars in our midst and many of them are years away from driving.

Who are some of the previous waves of CBA talent are you most proud of?

Annie Staninec, Angelica Brannum, Molly Tuttle, and AJ Lee make me weep when they perform. I watched them grow up around my camp. The CBA Youth Program has made it a point to pay special attention to our young female musicians and try to mentor them as we could. It has definitely paid off. The faculty of this year’s Academy is made up of former Academy and KOB participants. Helen Foley and Dana Frankel will be key to the Kids on Bluegrass Program.

Have you ever considered getting a new van?

Ha ha, The 1978 Green Machine has served us well for over 30 years.

How did your camp Spam get its name?

We had to name our camp for the Strawberry Music Festival and there was a can of Spam on the table. Dave Gooding made us a sign. We have collected a LOT of Spam memorabilia over the years. Once we even opened a can of Spam and ate it.

What is your go-to venue?

We haven’t gotten back out much post-Covid. We have been to the Freight & Salvage several times because of their Covid precautions. I hope some new venues open up.

What new things are in store for the CBA Youth programs?

The amazing Kimber Ludiker (Director of the Academy and the Jam-a-Thon) is polishing up our app and our On-Line Academy. The rollout of both of these is much slower than we predicted. Watch our website (www.californiabluegrass.org ) for announcements. We are also strategizing how to expand our mentorship program.

 What is your official role with CBA nowadays?

I am officially an Honorary Lifetime CBA Member and President Emerita and the current Director of the CBA Youth Program. I am looking to retire this year (before I turn 80). Contact me if you are interested in this labor of love.

And unofficial role.

Kimber describes me as the Matriarch of California Bluegrass but I think that makes me sound old.

How did you first get involved with CBA?

I surprised Bruno (my husband) with a trip to the Father’s Day Festival when our children were small in the late 1980s. We loved it and joined the CBA and returned the next year and the next year Late in the 1990’s I realized that members could participate in the organization. Bruno and I helped organize the McGrath’s Jam in Alameda and Bruno led the jam for years. My first big project was getting bicycles allowed at the Festival. (took three years of a pilot program). I was recruited by JD Rhynes and Rick Cornish to submit my name for President (a liaison between the Board and the membership). I served for about 15 years.

You were critical, many say a savior when you stepped into the CBA President role. What did you do to steady the ship?

Thank you, I am proud of the work I did. Butch Waller came to my house after I was elected by the Board and gave me a very helpful thumbnail history of the politics of the CBA and what the pitfalls might be for me. That conversation clarified a lot of the “mysterious dysfunctional history” and allowed me to move forward with an agenda I knew was needed and would be supported by the membership. There were people in the Association who questioned the wisdom of choosing me as President. My goal has always been to increase the number of families attending our events in order to keep the music, the community, and the organization alive in the future. I simply remained focused on that goal and nudged the Board in the directions I thought important for the future. I think the monthly column I wrote for over a decade helped focus the membership on all my goals.

Do you feel the next generation is up for keeping CBA afloat when we old-timers are uh, less active?

So far each generation has stepped up to lead. We have a very young generation of fans and pickers who will step up to the plate. We will see if our Mentorship Program worked. I have no fears of the future.

What are you most proud of in your involvement with CBA?

I am most proud of the CBA Youth Program. When I became President we had Kids on Bluegrass led by Frank Solivan and a Lending Library headed by Sharon and Steve Elliott but we didn’t have a vision or mission for the future. There were fewer families and young people at our events. We needed to focus on the needs of families. I know I have built a foundation and now there needs to be energy to take the program forward throughout the State and the year. I am recruiting for my replacement.

What is something about Carl Pagter that most people don’t know?

Carl stayed active in the bluegrass world while also on dialysis. Carl traveled west coast to east coast to festivals while also scheduling dialysis treatments at clinics throughout the US. Carl’s love of the music and the music community was astounding.

Who are some unsung heroes in the CBA world?

Carl Pagter (CBA #1) received the acknowledgment he deserved. I don’t think past Chairperson Rick Cornish gets the credit he deserves. Rick brought the organization from a smallish regional organization into the well-known and respected organization it is today. Under Rick, we developed the website, began to store our records digitally, added two more stages to the Father’s Day Festival, started Music Camps and the Great 48. Rick spent countless hours recruiting people to serve in leadership roles (he recruited me). Rick served as Chairman for a pivotal decade and accomplished some remarkable things.

Current Chairperson Pete Lude has steered the CBA through a very challenging time. His vision and streaming skills kept us alive and interacting with our membership during the Covid lockdown. All our meetings are now via Zoom which allows our Southern California members to participate in leadership roles. Pete’s experience on other Boards has streamlined processes in the CBA that were historically daunting. He has pushed for expansion into places we have never been before. We developed our Prison Program-Bluegrass Bridge under his watch. We acquired another Music Camp in the San Diego area (Julian Family Fiddle Camp.

The Leadership Team is extremely important to the CBA but they direct the real ENGINE of the CBA–the Volunteers. The CBA is an all Volunteer organization and we have accomplished everything we do through the selfless and hard work of hundreds of volunteers. Our membership keeps the CBA going. The volunteer community is inspiring.

What do you think CBA and other organizations could do a better job at?

I think we need to embrace the times we live in and demonstrate that our music, while rooted in the past, belongs in the present and the future. Our younger artists like Molly Tuttle and Billy Strings are filling stadiums and introducing a new generation to the music. Bluegrass Pride (originating in the CBA) demonstrated a desire to include EVERYONE in our community. We need to open our arms to a broader community if we want the music to persist into the future. We need to be less fearful of change.

What is the most outrageous memory you have of the FDF?

I remember the night someone called the Nevada County Sheriff’s department at 4 am to report a jam we were having during the Father’s Day Festival. It was probably time to shut down since a number of the jammers were due on the main stage early that morning. But still…asking us to stop “hooting and hollering” was a bit much. For a few years following I posted a large sign saying “LOUD CAMP” at our campsite to warn off anyone who didn’t appreciate 24-hour jamming.

Have you read any interesting books recently?

Haha, that is a trick question by someone who knows I have Macular Degeneration and can no longer read books. Well, I signed up for Audible and bought some good earbuds, and am looking for recommendations.

Oops, sorry. Maybe I need to modernize the question to books or podcasts.

I actually liked the question. I do want people to know I cannot see them and to introduce themself when they approach me.

Thanks, Darby for all of your contributions. Is there anything else you would like to say?

I am optimistic about the future of the CBA. Successfully getting through the last 3 years is an example of the imagination, creativity, and resilience of the leadership team. Stay tuned for the next fifty years of the CBA.

Copy edited by Mary Ann Goldstein

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