2019 Parkfield Bluegrass Festival

In the California bluegrass world, the CBA Father’s Day Festival gets most of the ink. But fear not, bluegrass fans, there’s a wonderful Mother’s Day bluegrass festival held every year in the heart of California earthquake country. The picturesque hamlet of Parkfield, California was transformed into bluegrass heaven this past weekend when the Bluegrass Music Society of the Central Coast put on the 21st Annual Parkfield Bluegrass Festival. Known as the “Earthquake Capital of the World,” Parkfield springs to life every Mother’s Day Weekend with toe-tapping bluegrass, old-time, traditional and Gospel music. Music fans take over this small country village for four days of concerts, workshops, children’s activities, camping, and around-the-clock music jams. Music lovers come for the weekend or for the day with multi-day passes that include camping or single day admissions. The festival is a great day-trip outing for coastal residents from Salinas to Santa Barbara, and valley residents from Fresno to Bakersfield.

Headlining Parkfield 2019 was Special Consensus, Central Coast favorites the Cache Valley Drifters, Canadian band the Slocan Ramblers, and the ever-popular Phil Salazar & The Kinfolk. Also featured were Rebekah Long, the Littlest Birds, Snap Jackson & the Knock on Wood Players, AJ Lee & Blue Summit, One Button Suit, North Country Blue, the Have More Fun Stringband, and Mission Blue. Fresh from her European tour, Amber Cross returned and the lively SLO County Stumblers made their Parkfield debut. 

Last year the square dances were so popular that this year they added a second one, both with Robin Fischer as caller. On Friday night the Have More Fun Stringband provided the tunes, and Saturday night it was the SLO County Stumblers. Kids up to 16 years of age were welcomed to the free Kids Bluegrass Program. Under the direction of Gerry Higbie, Joy Williams, and Blue Summit, kids received instruction in fiddle, banjo, guitar, mandolin, bass, dobro, and singing. Loaner instruments were available and students performed on the Main Stage Sunday. On Saturday kids created Mother’s Day gifts in a free crafts class. 

Each night there was a rousing show in the Parkfield Cafe this year featuring the Littlest Birds, AJ Lee & Blue Summit, and Snap Jackson & the Knock on Wood Players. The bands typically mix it up and invite their friends to sit in making for a wonderfully intimate yet energizing show. AJ Lee & Blue Summit who just released there new album, Like I Used To, recently put their entire 2018 Parkfield cafe show up on their Youtube channel which you will not want to miss.

I stopped longtime organizer, volunteer, and Board member Connie Maxness on her golf cart for some history of the festival. Connie is keeper of lists including Ticket Holders, Volunteers, Bands & Guests, and Comps. Here is what she had to say:

“The festival was started 1998 by Pat and Rosie Conway. It was a small gathering… mostly of people from the Santa Maria and Lompoc area. The festival has always been at Parkfield, except for one year when it was at the Paso Robles Fairgrounds. No one liked that location so it moved back to Parkfield. I don’t know what year that was, but Joe Quealey took it over from Pat Conway and moved it back. The 2019 festival is the 21st festival.

In 2006 the Bluegrass Music Society Central Coast achieved non-profit status and took over the festival. BMSCC is an all-volunteer organization. Our mission is to promote and preserve bluegrass, old-time, traditional and Gospel music. The current Board of Directors is Julio Boysenberry, Jim Fissori, Gerry Higbie, Connie Moxness, Robert Otten, Linda Sorensen, and Dave Swartz. Festival Director is Dave Swartz. This leadership team has been in place since 2014. I started volunteering in 2006 and have been on the board since 2008.

I don’t have data for the early days, but when I started volunteering in 2006, ticket sales hovered around 400. By 2014 we sold 840 tickets and in 2018 we sold 1120 tickets. We’ve seen a shift in sales over the past two years from single-day tickets to multiple-day tickets, which we want. Last year when we had 1120 ticket holders plus the bands, band guests, volunteers and comps…. we decided that we were FULL. After taking a drive around the property, we decided we didn’t want to be any more crowded. We don’t want to be the biggest festival, we want to be the best. We sold out of 4-day camping passes this year but still sold day passes.

We have a geologist who does walking tours of the San Andreas Fault which is one of our most popular workshops. We’re also just down the road from the James Dean memorial crash site, where the Hollywood star perished driving his Porsche in 1955. He was not on his way to our festival. It was a bit before our time.

I spent some time wandering the grounds taking pictures and asking musicians, campers, volunteers, and board members what they liked best about the festival. Here’s what they had to say:

As you can tell, the consensus is that the Parkfield Bluegrass Festival has a little bit of everything, and people love the location, the bands, the size, the people, jamming, and of course, the weather. Lest we forget to mention that there are hundreds of great wineries less than an hours drive away in nearby Paso Robles. If California is in your future Mother’s Day plans, then be sure to plan ahead and get your tickets early for next year. 


Photographs and audio interviews by Dave Berry and copy editing by Debbie Benrubi.

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About the Author

Dave Berry

Dave Berry is a California based author, mandolin picker, and composer who writes the California Report column for Bluegrass Today. He grew up in the Ohio Valley right between where the Big Sandy and Big Scioto rivers dump into the Ohio. His articles, Morning Walk album, and video are available on streaming sites and his website at daveberrymusic.net