The Bluegrass Mojo
November 30, 2007
Missing Tom Tworek desperately last weekend, I pulled out a box of old photos and began looking for a snap shot of him back in the days we played in a band together. I found one, a black and white 8X10 of the band playing in somebody’s back yard in the late 70’s, Tom on guitar, svelte, a real lady-killer. I was on bass and the two of us were singing together. I even know what the song was…..somehow I remember. It was ‘If I Lose’, an old Stanley Brothers tune that he’d brought into the band. In the old box of photos, I also found a letter I’d written, it was from 1993.
I’d written the letter to Walt Bamber, a dear old guy who’d been saddled with producing the Santa Cruz Bluegrass Society’s Bluegrass by the Bay. Walt had called to ask a favor. “Hey, Rick,” he yelled (Walt started every conversation by shouting ‘hey’—it would drive you nuts if you didn’t love him, but everybody loved Walt). “We’re asking all the bands to give us a little written history for the newsletter. Will ya do one for the Grass Menagerie? Whaddahya say?”
I said sure, and after ruminating for a couple of weeks, I wrote the following letter.
July 17, 1993
Okay, pal, you asked for it. Try as I might, I couldn’t get on paper a history of the Grass Menagerie in any less space. Just too damned many people, too many good times, too much bluegrass mojo. So, here goes……
The earliest incarnation of the Grass Menagerie was a 1977 band called Duck Soup: Rick Cornish, guitar; John Bunch, Banjo; Greg Heinricks, Mandolin; Dick Foss, Fiddle; and John Wertzler, wash-tub bass.
It was John Bunch and I who had started playing bluegrass together first. Actually we played blues together, every Friday night, me guitar, he harmonica. One Friday morning my pal called me at work and suggested that, rather than get together for our weekly jam session that night we should grab our tents and sleeping bads after work and go to a bluegrass festival. “What’s a bluegrass festival”, I asked. “Figure it out, John replied, “blues……grass…..get the picture?” That afternoon we headed off for Grass Valley. Just about the time we’d gotten our tents pitched and opened a few cold ones, the music began on stage. We wandered over. “Doesn’t sound like blues to me,” I said. My friend agreed, but we sat down anyway. The first performer was Kate Wolf, and we listened to her entire set. Good music, but it sure wasn’t the blues I’d driven three hours to hear. Heh, where’s the blues. I came here for blues. Then a five piece band came on stage carrying instruments that were only vaguely familiar. Jake Quizz-something and the Something-Something Ramblers. This was DEFINITELY not going to be the blues. Then the band broke into Little Maggie, a lightening fast, pulsing rendition, with Jake’s pure voice cutting through me like a lazer. It was as if someone had taken a brick to the back of my head…..it was like I’d been waiting to hear this kind of music my entire life. That one song, sung by Jake Quisenberry in 1976 on a tiny stage in the middle of a pine forest with maybe 75 people in the audience, 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 and, most importantly, it would introduce me to the best friends I would ever have. I didn’t share the ‘Grass Valley misundersanding’ in the Walt Bamber letter of 1993. I think I was afraid it would make me seem less a bluegrasser in our little community.
Duck Soup’s first paid gig was a wedding in the Santa Cruz Mountains, for which we split $50 and a bottle of warm Champagne. Our best song was She’ll be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain; we played it many, many times that day. The Soups remained thusly for maybe a year, with a harmonica player (John Murphy), incidental guitar players (Dave Moran, Neil Margolis, Glenda Lee Hoffman and others) coming and going. Sometimes we’d have ten or twelve people on stage–kind of a sing-a-long bluegrass band. It was also this period that Uncle Tony played with the band.
Everyone back in those days knew Uncle Tony; he was a tremendous fiddler and a mentor to many newcomers to bluegrass music. He was still alive in 1993 when I wrote the letter to Walt but has since passed. Tony’s extraordinarily beautiful birds eye maple resides in a place of honor in the home of Dianna Donnelly to this day.
When Tony left and the mandolin player, Greg, got an offer he couldn’t refuse, (six months of solo bookings at a string of Howard Johnson lounges in the mid-west), John Bunch and I went foraging for an instrumentalist at the Monthly Fiddler’s convention at John Muir Middle School in San Jose and, bingo, we found Mike Jordan, a very capable dobro player. Right off the bat Mike found a tenor to my lead on Fox on the Run and that sealed the deal. Soon we’d found ourselves a gig at John’s Pizza on Winchester Blvd. in Campbell. We played there Thursday nights for pizza, beer and very few tips. With Greg gone, I’d become the front man, but the problem was I was deathly afraid to speak in front of people; to solve the problem, I insisted that we set up the microphones pointed at a blank wall, the audience, such as it was, to our immediate right. I have vivid memories of introducing songs and practicing my banter to a life-size painting of John the pizza maker’s Italian mother.
Next came a banjo change. When John Bunch left the band it was Mike the Dobro player and me who went to the Fiddler’s in search of a banjoist. We found John Erwin, a fine banjo player who went on to become one of my closest friends. (In fact, I’ve named two of my dogs after his two sons, Joey and Alex.) John Erwin was able to play fast and clean and that moved the band, still called Duck Soup, forward three or four notches all at once. I remember thinking how lucky we’d been to just sort of stumble upon John that Sunday at John Muir.
I remember the night so well when John showed up at a John’s pizza gig. I’d just bought my first Martin guitar and was about to show it off to the band when John burst in and announced that he and Rita were expecting their first child. If it was a girl, he said, they would name her Elizabeth. It was a baby girl, and she’s now doing her residency at Cedar Sinai in L.A. John, meanwhile, having made the mistake of becoming a close friend of mine so many years ago, now serves as an officer of the CBA and manages Fathers Day Festival ticket sales.
Our next challenge was to find a bass player; John Wertzler had tired of the wash tub bass. (In truth he’d tired of bluegrass music, something I don’t understand to this day.) This time around it was at the Fathers Day Festival, where the bluegrass bug had bitten me three years before. John Erwin and I were trolling for jams at about three a.m. and at a good one under a street lamp we hooked up with a tall lanky kid named Mark Nichols who just happened to live in Sunnyvale. Mark was playing a very solid bass, but it was his baritone singing that caught my attention. By the end of the festival, Mark was a card carrying Duck Souper. Just like that, we found ourselves a fine bass player and trio singer….amazing. I think it was driving home from the 1979 Fathers Day Festival that I first began pondering the bluegrass mojo.
Within a couple of months Mark introduced us to a mandolin player friend of his by the name of Dave Graves. Dave joined the band as the third instrumentalist, and we were actually on our way to sounding like a real bluegrass band. No sing-a-longs for us; we were actually singing three and four part harmonies. So the only logical thing to do was to give ourselves a half way serious name–Livin’ in the Past. Actually, we chose that name because we did strictly traditional bluegrass and a drunk in a bar one night who’d been demanding Eagles songs all evening accused us of it…..living in the past, that is, unable to groove with the times, old fas