(editors note: It is with great pleasure that I welcome Rick Cornish back to the welcome column. Rick FOUNDED the welcome column years ago and I was very fortunate to be able to share a love of writing with him over many years. I thought about parsing this rather long essay into installments but there are already enough numbers in the title without a part 1, 2, etc. and we’ve waited long enough for this CBA history. Enjoy)
Say old man, show me please
All those secrets up your sleeve
Teach me how to play the game
And when I’m you’re age I’ll do the same
(Say, Old Man, Traditional, recorded by Bog Trotters Band, 1937)
The story of number 537 begins nearly forty years ago when I fell suddenly and hopelessly in love with a particular kind of music, bluegrass. Bluegrass is the music of Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys, a rag-tag act that began crisscrossing the southeastern United States in the late 1930’s, the sometimes dark, always truthful music born of banjos and fiddles and of Scots and Irish and English who settled the Appalachians and of African immigrants whose syncopated rhythms flavored it with undertones of jazz. This music came out of nowhere and hit me like a ton of bricks. Looking back it seems so unlikely that my random encounter with this simple, altogether genuine music would imprint virtually every facet of my life. But there it was…a complete accident.
The date was June 16th, 1976, a Thursday evening and, as usual, I was the last person left at work. I was sitting in front of my IBM Selectric, struggling with the wording of a delicate memorandum…something we used to call a bad-news-bomb. It was from my boss, the county superintendent of schools, to his seven-member elected school board and adding to its gravity, it would be copied to all twenty-two hundred of his teachers and secretaries and bus drivers and managers and custodians and psychologists. For twenty minutes I’d been trying to compose the first paragraph, always the most important part in any bad-news-bomb, when the phone rang. It was my friend, John Bunch.
“We leave tomorrow. Right after lunch. A bluegrass festival. You in?”
“What’s a bluegrass festival,” I asked, trying to tear my eyes off the computer screen in from of me, “what’s bluegrass?”
“What’s it sound like, man? Bluegrass…BLUES…GRASS. Festival…WEEKEND LONG PARTY. And dig, it’s in a place called Grass Valley. GRASS Valley.”
John was a friend from college with whom I played the blues, he on harmonica, me on guitar and vocals, and smoked a little reefer every Friday night. He was a chemist, single, untethered and given to impetuous, feet-first adventures. John Bunch was the last vestige of my own life as a single man and played an important role in the delicate balance between being husband/daddy/ghost writer of difficult memos and tripped out novelist/thinker/bluesman determined to continue his pursuit of the answers to the great existential questions facing twentieth century man.
“So you in or you out?”
“Where is this place again,” I asked, finally breaking free from the memo headed, “LAY-OFFS, FISCAL YEAR 1976-77”, that blinked at me on the screen.
“Grass Valley, dude. Up in the mountains, you know, like east of Sacramento. On the way to Reno. In or out?”
“You need to ask Claudia first?” my friend asked.
“No, she’s taking Phil and the baby to her folks for the weekend.”
“All right then, Rick dude. WE ARE GONNA HAVE US A BLUEGRASS FESTIVAL. I’ll pick you up a 1:30 tomorrow. At work or at home?”
“Here,” I said, “I’ve got this stupid thing I need to finish before I can go anywhere.”
The next afternoon my friend and I headed off to Grass Valley. Although it’s called the Nevada County Fairgrounds, the venue for the music festival is very much in California. It’s a big, sprawling forest of Ponderosa pine trees and John and I had no problem finding a spot to call our own. Once we got our camp set up we drove into town for supplies, came back and cooked up some hot dogs and pork and beans and by then the evening’s show was ready to start. We wandered tentatively up to the stage area and found a nice log to sit on. After a few minutes five guys came out on stage, all dressed in dark suits, wearing ties and broad-rimmed cowboy hats and carrying instruments that were only vaguely familiar. John looked at me uneasily. The MC introduced Jake Quizzen-something and the Something-Something Ramblers. He told the audience that Jake was known as ‘Number 2’ because he’d co-founded the group that was putting on the festival, the California Bluegrass Association, (the CBA), and was member #2. All John and I knew was that this guy Jake and his pals were DEFINITELY NOT going to be doing any Lightnin’ Hopkins or B.B. King or Cream.
Their first song was called Little Maggie, a lightening fast, pulsing, wild-ride of a song, a kind of music that was at once utterly foreign to me yet so familiar it felt like I could anticipate the words before they were sung. And that was that…Little Maggie hit me like a brick to the back of my head. That one song, sung by a guy named Jake Quisenberry on a tiny stage in the middle of a pine forest with maybe 75 people sitting on tree stumps and folding chairs, was to change my life forever. It would gobble up every bit of free time I had, it would take me to places I’d never dreamed of going, it would introduce me to the best friends I would ever have and it would chisel out a brand new, completely unexpected narrative for my life.
In 2000, just short of twenty-five Junes later, I was back at Grass Valley, back to the annual Fathers Day Bluegrass Festival staged each year by CBA, and was camped almost precisely where John and I had pitched our tents so many years before. In those twenty years, I’d learned to play the boom-chuck style of rhythm guitar so essential to bluegrass, had formed a band, the Grass Menagerie which ultimately had a run of thirty years, amassed a collection of bluegrass and old-time record albums and CD’s that took up the better part of one entire room in my house and had not missed a single, solitary Fathers Day Festival since the second in 1976. Two and a half decades worth of the June festivals, plus any and every other festival I could get to, put me squarely in the middle of a large, tight-knit bluegrass community. My camp at Grass Valley had, by the late 90’s, grown into sixty or seventy pickers, residing in everything from tents to broken down camp trailers like my 1952 twenty-foot Siesta to shiny forty-foot RV’s that could cost as much as a tract home in a middle class neighborhood.
In those twenty-five years the festival had grown from less than two hundred attendees to upwards of four thousand. The very first year at Grass Valley I joined the CBA and it wasn’t long until I began helping set up for the Fathers Day Fest, manning the Ice Booth concession, and generally helping out where I could. All the while, though, I kept a low profile to discourage any greater expectations from Association leadership. I wasn’t what you’d call a joiner and I certainly didn’t see myself as a gung-ho volunteer; I agreed to take on a few small jobs in exchange for being allowed to pull my old trailer into the campgrounds several days before the festival started…and that was it.
But then, in the year 2000, something happened, I don’t know what, and suddenly I found myself wanting to become a part of this organization called the CBA. Looking back it’s a strange thing. I certainly hadn’t been recruited to take on more responsibility; there was no pressing issue I felt passionate about, no populous cause I wanted to champion; I’d just started a new business and, if anything, my time was more limited than ever; and, like I said, I’m just not what you could call a joiner. I suppose the notion of becoming seriously involved in the group could have been sparked by some latent sense of gratitude; after all, I’d gotten an enormous return on my fifteen dollar per year dues. But if that was the reason, I truly don’t remember thinking about it. It was more like a sudden impulse, the kind that have periodically caused sharp rights or sharp lefts or even, on rare occasions, U-turns, in my life’s journey.
So, for whatever reason, on Wednesday of festival week 2000 I found myself drifting over to the encampment where the Association honchos hung out together. I honestly had no idea what I was going to say, had no plan, so when I spotted a woman I’d spoken with maybe five times over twenty-five years, someone I knew played a role, I didn’t know what, in the Association’s leadership, I just said the first thing that came into my head…
“So, like, ah, what’s a guy gotta do to get one of those fancy golf carts to cruise around in?
“Oh, not much,” she replied warmly and with a friendly chuckle, “just become the chairman of the California Bluegrass Association board of directors, work your butt off all year long and then come up here each June and REALLY work your butt off. Oh, and be the guy where the buck stops. Do that and you’ll get yourself a golf cart.”
“Oh, is that all? Where do I sign up?”
The woman was Suzanne Denison, wife of board member and current CBA President Don Denison, editor of the Association’s newspaper, the Bluegrass Breakdown and Director of Operations, whom I was to learn did pretty much everything. In the years that would follow, Suzanne would become one of my closest colleagues on the leadership team and one of the dearest friends of my life.
“You just wait right here, Mr. Cornish, and I’ll get you the paperwork you need,” and with that she disappeared into her camp trailer. I remember being surprised that she knew my name. When she returned Suzanne handed me a single sheet of paper headed “PETITION FOR BOARD CANDIDATE”.
“I thought you said I had to be the board chairman to get a cart,” I joked.
“You do. But first you have to get elected as a board member, which means you have to run in the election, which means you have to fill this out and get ten members in good standing to sign it.”
“Well, I know plenty of CBA members but I doubt many of them are in good standing.”
“If they’re dues are paid up, they’re in good standing. Here, here’s a pen,” she said, extending her arm toward me.
“Oh…ah…you thought I was serious about this?”
“Honestly, I don’t know whether you’re serious or not, but I hope you are. Don and I have watched you over the years, Rick, and we’ve agreed more than once that you seem like you’re a smart guy, you’re well-spoken and you obviously have a love of the music. That’s pretty much all it takes to be a board member; that and placing ninth or better in the board election. Having a bit of common sense and maturity helps, but unfortunately it’s not a requirement.” Suzanne Denison lit a cigarette and drew deeply from it. I lit one too and studied the form.
“Says here it wants my membership number. I don’t even know if I AM a member.”
“Oh, you’re a member alright, even though you’ve let your membership lapse four or five times since joining in ’76. While I was inside I looked you up. You’re number five hundred and thirty-seven. Here,” she said,” trying to give me the ball point pen again, “write that down… number five hundred and thirty-seven.” I obeyed and then completed the rest of the brief form until I got down to “Candidate’s Statement.”
“Hmm,” I said looking up at Suzanne, “this is a tricky one. You see, I don’t really have a reason for wanting to be on the CBA board. I don’t really know…”
“Didn’t you say you wanted a golf cart,” she asked?
“Well then, there you go. That’s your statement.”
“You really think that’s a good reason to run for the board,” I asked?
“No,” she said, drawing again on her cigarette, “actually I think it’s a pretty shitty reason. But I also don’t think it’s the reason that brought you over here. You say you don’t know why you’re interested in the board; I believe you. But it’s not the golf cart.” It was our shared penchant for cutting to the chase that would forge the bond between.
By the end of the Fathers Day Festival, I turned in twenty sheets of petitions with close to two hundred and fifty names scrawled on them. I could have stopped at fifteen but once I got started I found collecting signatures was great fun. Some of the people I asked to sign took the sheet and returned it later filled with printed names and scrawled signatures. I honestly hadn’t realized just how many friends I’d made during my twenty-five consecutive Fathers Day Festivals. Suddenly I found myself believing there was actually a chance I could win the damned election.
Sunday morning as I was breaking down camp after a long and dusty and glorious eight days of bluegrass I looked up to see a brand new Cadillac DeVille pull along side of my banged up old ’75 F-150. I immediately recognized the driver as he got out of the cobalt blue DeVille and approached me. He was a man of maybe seventy, dressed incongruously in pressed slacks, expensive leather loafers and a white, long-sleeved dress shirt open at the collar. An odd, sewn-leather, floppy top-hat sort of thing on his head was the only part of his attire that betrayed his presence at a down-home music festival held in the woods. The man was, of course, Carl Pagter, founder of the California Bluegrass Association, Chairman of the Board and its unquestioned leader, a master of the old-time, clawhammer/flailing style of banjo, a man known and respected throughout the country.
“Carl Pagter, right?” I said, extending my hand. “It’s an honor to meet you.”
“Well,” Carl said with a warm and genuine smile, “I’m sure we’ve met before, Rick. Unless I’m mistaken, you’ve been coming to our Fathers Day event for a long, long time; we had to have met before. In any event, Suzanne Denison tells me you’ve thrown your hat into the board election; she said you’ve turned in quite a substantial collection of signatures and that they’re still coming in. Am I too late to sign your petition?”
“Hell no, not at all.” I pulled a folded up sheet from my tee-shirt pocket and handed it to him. “Do you need a pen?”
“No, I’ve got one right here.”
Our conversation didn’t last more than three minutes. I’d met the legend. I’d met old Number One and I liked him.
It was about a week after my campaign statement, such as it was, appeared in the July edition of the CBA’s newspaper, the Bluegrass Breakdown, that I received a surprising telephone call.
“Hello, can I talk to Mr. Rick Cornish?” the man drawled. “This here is Quisenberry.”
“You’re kidding me,” I stammered, “Jake Quisenberry? This is a joke, right?
“Nope, no joke, son. Is this Rick I’m a’ talkin’ to?”
I assured him it was and then gushed out my entire bluegrass conversion story…that Friday evening under the tall pines twenty-five years ago, the dark suits and white hats he and his band mates wore, the version of Little Maggie that rocked me to the core.
“You changed my life, Jake…er, Mr. Quisenberry. You really did.” I’d seen Jake over the years, mostly when he was on stage, and I knew that he was a founding member of the CBA, along with Carl Pagter. Numbers One and Two.
“Well now,” he said, “I’m just tickled to hear that, Rick. But Rick, let me tell you why I’m calling. You know, I’ve been around this bluegrass music a long time…been around this here organization a long time, too, and I have people come to me and, you know, ask ‘Who should I vote for, Jake?” He spoke in a slow and deliberate way, friendly and familiar though we’d never spoken before.
“So, tell me,” he went on, “what’s your dream for the CBA? I don’t reckon I can recommend you to anyone till I know the answer to that.”
“My dream for the CBA…hmm, my, um, dream for the…CBA.” I was stalling for time. “Well,” I said finally, “I’ll be honest with you, Jake. The truth is, even though I’ve been a member since 1976, and even though I’ve never missed a Fathers Day Festival, I don’t really know too awfully much about the, you know, inner workings of the organization. I guess if I get elected, I’ll have a lot to learn. I guess that I…” My voice trailed off into silence. I’d been caught totally flat-footed.
“Well, son, I guess that’d be one way to go…wait to see if you’re elected. But I’d like to suggest another way, which is for you to do a little bit of that learnin’ now. You up to that?”
“Sure,” I said, having no idea what I’d just agreed to. And with that Jake spent the next hour filling me in about the California Bluegrass Association, its history, its travails, major accomplishments, dismal failures, its current issues and the current board’s thinking on each. It wasn’t the ramblings of an old-timer reminiscing about the good old days; it was a cogent, structured presentation, with each point punctuated with Jake asking me what I thought and if I had any questions. A blue-collar worker from Virginia with little opportunity for a formal education, Jake’s delivery was drawled and homey and colorful, but each vignette was spare and structured and clearly chosen for its importance in painting the ‘big picture’ for this newcomer. What I knew about Jake Quisenberry before that phone call in July was that he was a CBA co-founder, a pioneer of bluegrass music on the West Coast and an outstanding singer and rhythm guitar player. What I’d learned during our one-hour talk was that Jake was a very, very smart guy, a straight shooter and someone whose commitment to the Association, as he called it, was both rock solid and dynamic.
During our conversation Jake hadn’t asked me about the candidate’s statement I’d written for the Bluegrass Breakdown special election issue, and I was thankful for that. Suddenly I felt childish and silly for making light of membership on the CBA’s board of directors with the lame I want a golf cartstatement. In the weeks that followed our talk, I made up for lost time by reaching out to whomever would talk to me, current board members and non-members alike. And I started attending monthly board meetings, sometimes driving five hours round trip to make the Sunday afternoon sessions. Slowly I’d begun fleshing out with more information and background the issues to which Jake Quisenberry had alerted me. CBA membership was on the decline…there was a huge backlash on the part of homegrown bluegrass bands to the board’s practice of hiring greater and greater numbers of ‘back east’ acts to the exclusion of local and regional bands…a five-four factional split on the currently seated board had gotten more and more contentious to the point that very little real business was getting done at monthly meetings…and far and away the hottest controversy, a real or imagined copyright infringement on the Association’s name; it seemed that the much smaller, Santa Cruz Bluegrass Society was in the process of changing its name to the Northern California Bluegrass Society, an action that most of the board members found, in the words of the Chairman, “unacceptable in the extreme.”
Although it was too late to change my candidate’s statement from the insipid “golf cart” nonsense to something with substance, I did write a Letter to the Editor and managed to get it into the October issue of the Breakdown, which came out just two weeks before the election closed. (Suzanne Denison, my new friend and sole ally on the Association’s leadership team, happened to be the long-time editor of the newspaper and she leapt at the chance to present my candidacy in a more serious light.)
There is only one event each year that is required to be held by the California Bluegrass Association’s Articles of Incorporation and it’s not the Fathers Day Festival, for which the CBA is clearly best known throughout California and the nation. That one event is the annual organization meeting held each October. There the board election ballots are counted, election results are announced to members and the newly seated board appoints its officers for the coming year.
So then, at the dessert potluck held on the third Saturday night in October, 2000, Carl Pagter called for quiet in the dining hall at the Colusa County Fairgrounds, site of the annual Fall Camp Out that year. He waited until the crowd of two hundred or so eventually fell silent and then read the results of the election to fill the nine seats on the board of directors. I received the eighth largest number of votes. I’d been elected. As each of the top nine vote getters were announced, we were called up on stage where we shook hands with our leader, Old Number One.
That year I was fifty-three years old, had just made a major and very positive career change, had moved with my wife from the city to a lovely place in the Sierra Foothills and felt, professionally speaking, at the top of my game. If you were to conjecture that in that very first fall of the new millennium Rick Cornish had a pretty high opinion of himself you’d be awfully close to right. You’d also be right if you guessed that his having been the undisputed boss in his own little world for the past twenty years had the potential of causing a little friction between him and Old Number One. In many ways Carl and I were alike: our natures were similar, (inquisitive, confident, quick witted); as were our professional roles, (executive leader, policy influencer, political operative); and our strengths, (analytical, articulate, persuasive). And too, we shared some personal weaknesses: a need to be right, all the time and on every subject; a tendency during debate to steamroll; and a more than passing interest in playing the alpha role. And, of course, we had our differences: Carl was a conservative, I was a liberal; he was old school, I was new-is-better; he was grave, respectable and sober, while I was flip, brash and always in search of a punch line. And there was one other difference…Carl, who was a recently retired corporate attorney, (for a Fortune Five Hundred company), felt very strongly that the CBA should take legal action against the upstart organization about to change its name and in the process steal two of the three words in our name, California Bluegrass. I felt just as strongly that we should not.
The possibility of bringing suit over the alleged infringement was discussed at my first meeting but no action was proposed. Carl had brought in an attorney who specialized in copyright and branding issues and he laid out what he, (and Carl) felt was a likely scenario. The CBA would retain legal counsel, a letter would be sent by said counsel announcing plans to file suit and the Santa Cruz crowd would retreat, tail between legs. Mainly I sat back and listened as a few of the people around the table asked for clarification. I’d sat through similar discussions in the meetings leading up to the election and it was pretty clear that Carl had his ducks in order; he had the requisite amount of righteous indignation, the step-by-step legal process mapped out, the copyright expert, who was also his close friend, backing him up and, quite clearly, enough ‘yes’ votes to carry the day. But he was cautious and he didn’t underestimate the seriousness of the action he was proposing. He ended the agenda item by telling the board he would bring the issue back to the next meeting in the form of a proposed motion.
As it happened, at the time I had a friend with whom I was friendly, who sat on the board of the Santa Cruz Bluegrass Society. I called her, asked if she’d be willing to speak with me about the trouble brewing between the two groups…informally and off the record is how I put it…and the next day we met at a restaurant half way between her office and mine. Lisa spent the first twenty minutes of our talk giving me the backstory. The idea to change their name to the broader, Northern California was, she said, the idea of SCBS’s board chairman, also, it happened, an attorney. At first the idea received a tepid response at best from her and her colleagues, but as discussions continued, their chair, an unpleasant, pompous man with a well-known flair for drama and taste for controversy, was able to recite, chapter and verse, Carl Pagter’s vociferous legal objections to the idea and his personal outrage that this upstart club would presume to hijack two-thirds of the CBA’s name, one that had served it well for ‘a quarter of a century’. With a membership roughly twenty times its size, a history five times as long and a financial footing inestimably broader and deeper, the California Bluegrass Association had been the Goliath to the Santa Cruz Bluegrass Society’s David in a number of fracases over the past five years and this current one promised to be the most serious. Lisa was certain her board would not back down. It was no longer some goofy, grandiose scheme cooked up by a guy widely known for taking short cuts instead of putting in the work. Now it was a matter of pride. Of right and wrong.
So here was my quandary. Would I do whatever I could, pull out all the stops, in trying to convince a majority of the CBA board to drop the lawsuit idea? After all, I knew, felt in my gut, that it was a loser and would end up being a nose bleed for the Association and, I believed, for the broader bluegrass community whose members already felt there was too much politics going on. Or, when it was my turn to speak at our next meeting, would I simply state my view and then step back. After all, challenging the preponderance of board sentiment at only my second meeting and on such an emotional issue, not to mention taking on the chairman, founder and longest-tenured member of the board, could be a little dicey. I decided to ask Jake what he thought.
“Well Rick,” he drawled into the telephone after I’d laid out the issue as neutrally as I could and then acknowledged what I thought were my two options, “my advice would be to do the right thing.” I waited for him to go on, but there was silence on the other end.
“Yeah,” I said, “I agree. Totally. I need to do the right thing. So now the next question is, what’s the right thing to do?
“I dunno, son, that’s for you to decide. I wouldn’t even want to tell you how it is I’m feelin’ about this Santa Cruz thing. Yeah, I got my own thoughts on the matter, but I reckon that you prob’ly have a better notion of it than me, you bein’ a member of the board now.”
“So, no advice, eh?”
“Sure I got advice for you. I gave it and I’ll give it again. You do the right thing. And the right thing is what’s best for the music. You get it? The MUSIC. Not what’s best for the Association, or what’s best for you and how you git along with the rest of ‘em on the board, or how you git along with Carl. And for that matter, it’s not about how well our organization gets along with this one or that one. Rick, you ask yourself honestly what suing them people is likely to do to the music, and then you listen honestly to the answer you give, and I guarantee you’ll know what the right thing is.”
Jake couldn’t have been more clear. So now the job at hand was to prepare for the next board meeting, and I did it the same way I’d been preparing for boardroom battles during my thirty years in county politics. From the time I was in my early twenties I’d had a direct report to the county superintendent of schools and my principle duty was to help him get his way with the county board of education. That could mean different strategies and tactics for different issues, but the basics tasks were always the same: collect every shred of information I could find; confirm that it was good, trustworthy information; go down the list of board members and based on observation, attempt to divine what one or two arguments was most likely to move each director; and then package the materials that rose to the top into as persuasive an argument as possible. At age fifty-three, helping to steer elected boards toward a desired outcome was how I’d made a living my entire adult life and I’d gotten pretty good at it.
When the next board meeting rolled around I made a point of arriving early so I could speak, one-on-one, with Carl. I’d learned over many years that even the hint of ambush could derail the best laid plans, hence I wanted him to know that I’d be speaking against his proposal to proceed with legal action against the Santa Cruz Bluegrass Society and that I’d prepared a short written outline of the points I’d be making.
“Can I take a minute and share the outline with you?” I asked deferentially.
“May I pass the summary out when we get to your item on the agenda?”
“You can do whatever you like,” he said with a polite, frozen smile before turning and walking away. My worst fears about Carl’s reaction had materialized.
The chairman of the board began discussion of the legal situation by formally moving that the board of directors approve an expenditure of up to but not exceeding $1000 to engage the services of an attorney who specialized in copyright litigation. That attorney, who would be selected by Carl, would draft a letter to the Santa Cruz Bluegrass Society indicating that if it proceeded with its plan to undergo a name change and to use the term California Bluegrass in the new name, the CBA would file suit for copyright infringement. His motion was immediately seconded by long-time board member Yvonne Gray and then Carl invited discussion. We’d begin, he said, by taking a non-binding straw poll; each member of the board would, in turn, state their position on the motion and, if they chose, take up to one minute to explain it. At the conclusion of the round robin, the proposal enjoyed the support of seven board members, was opposed by one, (me), and was recommended for tabling until the next meeting by one. At that point Carl opened up the discussion.
An hour and twenty minutes later, the chair called for the question. The motion failed on a one aye, seven nay, one abstention vote. And that was that. A few months later the Santa Cruz Bluegrass Society became the Northern California Bluegrass Society and legal action against it was never discussed again, at least not a the CBA’s monthly board meetings. A few months after that Carl Pagter announced that he’d reached a decision to retire from the board. He would finish out his term and he would, of course, continue his involvement with the Association, lending any and all assistance asked of him. But, he said, it was time to step aside and make room for new people with new ideas. I remember with such clarity scanning the faces, one by one, of those seated around the table during the moments that immediately followed Carl’s unexpected declaration. There was fear and disbelief and confusion and, more than any other emotion, there was a palpable sense of deep sorrow. And why wouldn’t there be? Carl Pagter was Number One.
In the next election I was re-elected to the board, this time receiving the third highest number of votes. And at the annual Fall Camp Out and Organization Meeting in 2001 I was chosen as chairman of the board by my eight fellow directors. No one else was nominated.
One week later I got a call from Jake Quisenberry. We’d become pretty good friends in the year since that first phone call. We’d jammed together, he’d been to my home and we always had lots to talk about when it came to the Association. But not once since my call to him about the Santa Cruz crowdand my options for dealing with it had Carl’s name come up. Now it was clear that Carl, who was one of Jake’s oldest and dearest friends, was the subject of the call.
“I heard tell you was elected to be the new head of the board,” Jake began. “Seemed like nobody was too surprised about that.”
I waited, wanting to see where he was going with this.
“Folks I talk with say they think you’ll do a good job filling Carl’s shoes.”
“Well, I hope so,” I said.
“Me too, son, me too. But, I’ll tell you true. I got me some doubts.”
My stomach turned over and I could feel blood rush to my head. I hadn’t been expecting this and Jake’s direct words made me a little queasy.
“Why’s that, Jake? Why doubts?”
“Well now, lemme ask you something, Rick. Why do you ‘spose Carl Pagter stepped down off the board?”
“I know why he retired, or at least I know the reason he gave. Carl said he wanted to make way for new blood, that he’d carried the weight of leadership long enough and that he was just plain tired of the responsibility.”
“Bull crap,” Jake said, “Carl walked away over you…he left on account of Rick Cornish. He was tired of having to go toe-to-toe with you on every damned thing that came up. And he was tired of you trying to undercut him and his authority at every turn. That’s how I understand it. And yes, he was ready for a rest…and yes, he does believe in bringin’ new folks in. But mainly he was just sick and tired of havin’ to deal with you.”
“But…but,” I stammered, “Jake, don’t you remember when we talked last winter. Don’t you remember I told you I was afraid I might offend Carl over the Santa Cruz thing? I asked your advice on it…don’t you remember?
“Sure I remember. And what did I tell you?”
“You told me to do the right thing.”
“And did you?”
I considered for a moment. “Yes,” I said, “yes I think I did do the right thing.”
“Then why are we talkin’ about that now? That’s ancient history, boy.”
“Well then, why did you…”
“I’ll tell you why I called. I called because I know you and Carl are on the outs and…”
“Did he say that?” I interrupted.
“He didn’t HAVE to say it. It’s just the way it is.” He paused for a long moment. “And it’s probably the way it had to be. Sooner or later somebody new had to step up. It just so happened that it was sooner than later…and it so happened that it was you. But that ain’t why I’m callin’ you, Rick. I’m callin’ to tell you that if you don’t find a way to patch things up between you and Carl you’re gonna have a mighty tough row to hoe tryin’ to keep this here Association together. Carl Pagter has got one hell of a lot he can teach you. You turn your back on that and yer a damned fool.”
“But how can I…”
Jake laughed. “I don’t guess that you’re a’ needin’ me or anyone else to tell you how to make it good, son. You broke it, you can fix it.”
The International Bluegrass Music Association, known to everyone whose lives revolve around the music invented by Bill Monroe as the IBMA, holds a weeklong extravaganza each year in Nashville. Before that it was in Louisville, Kentucky. The first half of the week is comprised of a trade show for performers, promoters, recording industry executives and every imaginable vendor with a product or service even remotely related to the industry…tour bus manufacturers to health insurance providers specializing in small group coverage to sound engineering outfits to high-end luthiers. Everyone gathers in mid-October to buy, sell or trade. The last three days are known as Fan Fest and attract bluegrass devotees from throughout the nation and world. At least some of the CBA leadership attends each year and maintains an extensive hospitality operation. As the largest bluegrass organization in the country, at least in number of members, the Association has from the beginning had a “presence” at the annual blowout. Moreover, the CBA conducts a good portion of its business…the business of hiring a hundred thousand dollars-plus worth of bluegrass talent…back there. As the new chairman of the California Bluegrass Association in 2001, I would go to the IBMA in Louisville, I decided, and it would be there that I’d find a way to get back into Number One’s good graces.
The World of Bluegrass, which is what the IBMA calls the combined trade-show, convention and late-week FanFest, draws thousands of people from all fifty states and scores of countries. It’s an eight-day, twenty-four/seven whirlwind of activity and one need only surrender to the madness to be carried blissfully along with it. In 2001, the CBA ran three suites on the seventh floor of Louisville’s Galt Hotel, which would afford me plenty of opportunity to approach Carl. But I was being cautious; I’d wait for the right time when we could speak one-on-one, which we hadn’t done in the better part of a year. Our second night at the Galt I asked if I could buy him a drink in the lounge downstairs; he said he wasn’t drinking. The next day I suggested we have breakfast; he wasn’t a breakfast person. Later, would he like to have dinner tonight; busy. Tomorrow night; tied up. Would he have a few minutes when we could chat; yes, he was sure we could but couldn’t commit to any specific time.
Then, late Thursday afternoon, I was in my room trying to grab a little catnap when the phone rang.
“Meet me outside the lobby, on the sidewalk, at six. Wear a heavy coat.” Before I could even ask why, Carl had hung up
I didn’t know what to expect, but I arrived exactly at six, bundled up as directed, and Carl greeted me with a nod and a stiff handshake. “There are a few people I’d like to introduce you to,” he said, his eyes darting around the crowded hotel entrance. Almost before he got the words out, a couple, the man in a tux, his lady in an evening gown, came through the Galt’s massive revolving door and Carl motioned them over. “Sonny, it’s so good to see you. Hello, Eileen. Sonny and Eileen Osborn, let me introduce you to Rick Cornish, my successor as CBA board chairman. He’s a sharp guy and has some damned good ideas.” I shook the hand of the legendary banjoist and mumbled ineptly. Suddenly it was all clear to me. It was Thursday evening, just an hour or so before the night’s huge formal annual awards show held one short block up the street at the Louisville Memorial Auditorium. For the next hour and a half, everyone who was anyone in the world of bluegrass music would pass through the revolving doors on their way to the awards show and Carl Pagter, who knew everyone who was anyone in that world, would introduce them to his successor. Members of the hottest bands of the day, pioneers of bluegrass who shared billing with Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys in the early years, millionaire record company owners, magazine executives, talent agency scions, national radio personalities, promoters of the largest music festivals in the world; they in their tuxes and gowns and jewelry, me in my faded blue jeans and tennis shoes and heavy plaid hunting jacket, making small talk under the watchful eye of Old Number One. It was like a dream.
I had trouble falling asleep that night. As I lay in the king-size bed looking out my fifteenth story hotel room window at the great Ohio River, and beyond it, the expanse that was Indiana stretching westward to the horizon, I luxuriated in the process of cataloguing every last moment of the time I’d spent with Carl that evening. It hadn’t been a dream, and I was determined to hang on to every little morsel. The collection of images and sound bites, each with its own special blend of emotions…excitement, awe, intimidation, reverence, pride, gratitude, joy, humility…gently churned in my mind. The distance and unease between Carl and me wouldn’t be erased by that hour and a half we spent standing in the frigid evening outside the Galt. It would take time to melt away, and even though the mentoring envisioned by Jake would begin soon after we returned to California, it would take more time, years really, for the easy, comfortable and loving friendship between student and teacher to take root and flourish. But flourish it has…just one more reason to be grateful for mistaking blues for bluegrass so many years before.
Member Number Two played bluegrass music right up until his death in 2007 at age 77. Jake and I remained good friends, but I noticed that after I’d patched things up with Carl we never again had one of our serious talks. Jake understood well the importance of mentorship and its special power when it was undiluted.
Member Number One is, at this writing, (2021) eighty-three years old, plays in two old-time bands, one on the West Coast, the other back east, and divides his time between his home in Northern California and his farm in Virginia. He is vital, he is deeply committed to and involved in the CBA and he is excited about each new day.
Member number 537 served as chairman of the CBA board for another twelve years. During that time, I never made an important decision without speaking with Carl first, never tackled a serious problem or proposed a new program without first mulling it over with my old friend. When it came time to retire from the board and give someone else a chance, however, I knew it and felt no need to ask Carl’s advice. Nowadays, when I speak with the new chairman, which happens pretty often, it’s as though what I’m saying is coming from numbers 1 and 2 as much as it is from me. And I guess it is.