California Report: An interview with Larry Cohea

To west coast grassers, Larry Cohea really needs no introduction. Larry is a California Bluegrass Association and Northern California Bluegrass Society Lifetime Achievement Honoree, and member of many seminal Bay Area bluegrass bands such as High Country, Blue and Lonesome, and Dark Hollow.

DB: Hi Larry; I didn’t find much on your background, can you fill us in?

LC: I was born Nashville and lived in Springfield, 28 miles away, but my mom had to go to Nashville to have me because there was no hospital in Springfield. I moved to Bakersfield, California when I was little, then back to Tennessee and then back to Bakersfield in my teens. My dad was a farmer.

DB: When did you first hear bluegrass?

LC: I got interested in bluegrass when I was thirteen watching Flatt and Scruggs on the local TV shows around 1960. I saw them live in Springfield and was amazed at how much music came out of those five guys.

DB: What was your first instrument?

LC: It was banjo. Listening to Earl got my attention and then later I got a guitar. When I moved up to the Bay Area in ’73, I started playing bass with High Country even though I’d never played it before. I played banjo with them at pickin’ parties. I told Butch I’d like to play bass but I don’t know how to and he said no problem, we’ll teach you.

DB: Did you buy your banjo?

LC: My mom helped and was very supportive. My father passed away when I was a freshman in high school. My first banjo I rented, I think for $7 a month. It was a little open back Bacon. About the time I was a senior in high school, my mom helped me buy a new Gibson Mastertone, which new cost $440. Of course, they’re more like $4,000 now.

DB: Was it all Earl style for you then?

LC: Yea, I just always wanted to play the bluegrass style. The only book available at that time was a Pete Seeger book; so I learned a little bit of his style, which was kind of like clawhammer style but had more of an upstroke. I learned one song and then just skipped to the bluegrass section, which was written by his brother Mike Seeger. It had some tab for maybe three or four songs.

DB: What was it like in Bakersfield then?

LC: There was more country music down there and not so much bluegrass. I started playing seriously in Bakersfield with my friend Craig Wilson on mandolin and guitar, who I still play with from time to time. I came to visit my friend Robbie McDonald, who was in school at Stanford and knew the bluegrass scene well. There was a lot more bluegrass up here so I just moved up.

DB: What was the Bay Area scene like when you arrived?

LC: A lot of people had live reel-to-reel tapes from the ‘50s on of the first generation players like Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, and Flatt and Scruggs. We listened to that stuff a lot which I really liked cause I could just tune up and play along a whole set. They’d be in the same tuning but on LP’s they’d tune up the pitch, so I had to retune the banjo a lot.

DB: Have you always been a singer?

LC: Pretty much. Most of the time Craig would sing lead and I’d sing tenor on duets. After I came to the Bay Area, I learned to sing some lead. I still sing lead on a couple of songs in a set.

DB: Do banjo players tend to sing in the higher range?

LC: No, Earl sang baritone and J.D. Crowe did too. J.D. is also a good lead singer, though not much more than a song or two. A good tenor singer who is one of my favorites is Dave Evans. He just knocks me out; he is one of the best at playing while he sings. He keeps the banjo going real great even while he is singing. 

DB: I love that song Highway 52, have you ever seen him?

LC: Chris Smith and I, who play together in the Mighty Crowes, were ready to hop on a plane and go see him play, but my friend John Arms from Ohio who knows him said he’s not in good health, and doesn’t play much except maybe one or two songs with his sons. 

DB: I have recordings from the Golden Gate Bluegrass Festival from back in ’75 or so. Were you there?

LC: Oh yea, High Country played that festival. My friend Jeff Hawkins from Santa Cruz who played in the Bear Creek Boys recently put a picture of us up on Facebook, back stage with Jimmy Martin who was probably preaching his bluegrass sermon.

DB: Do you have a day job?

LC: I fix instruments out back at the house in a two-car garage that’s my shop. I work on guitar, mandolin, and banjo but no electric instruments.

DB: Are you a self-taught luthier?

LC: Yea, a lot of luthiers have helped me out, answering questions, but I never went to school for it, although they have a lot of schools for it nowadays. I’ve always been kind of naturally handy so I started fixing my own instruments. The most in-depth stuff I do is on banjo, the necks and things to convert tenors to five strings. For guitars and mandolins I just do the maintenance kind of repairs like neck resets, fret jobs, and crack repairs.

DB: I’m guessing you stick to the classic era.

LC: I pretty much just play to the old chestnuts, although High Country plays originals by Jim Minton and Glen Dauphin that are in the traditional vein. Glenn wrote a song that Del McCoury recorded called Highway of Pain. Butch Waller of course writes a lot and has a new CD out called Waltz Collection that I played on with a bunch of friends. Sally Van Meter played one of Butch’s vocal tunes, Blues for Your Own, that was played during some bar scenes on the TV show Northern Exposure.

DB: Do you have any CD releases coming up?

LC: Blue and Lonesome was just in the studio to put together something for the CBA Fathers Day Festival, which we’re playing in June. I’m not sure it will be a full-fledged recording but we’ll see when we get there.

DB: Do you like the progressive bluegrass styles at all?

LC: I never disliked it but just always preferred the traditional sound. I’d hear them on stage at festivals and I’d enjoy them somewhat. I remember one time I was riding in my car to a gig or something, and I turned on the radio listening to what was then called a country radio station. There was this country rock kind of song with a banjo playing back up rolls, nothing crazy but it was just so good, great tone and rhythm. I was thinking, wow that’s really a great banjo player. Then when the song was over they said “and that’s the Earl Scruggs Revue,” from when his sons had the country rock band in the ‘70s. High Country opened for them once at Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus. I think John Hartford was on that bill too.

DB: Where all have you toured?

LC: High Country has toured all over; Ireland, England, Europe half a dozen times, Finland, and way up in British Columbia. We’ve also travel to the Far East and to Guam, Samoa, and various other places. We used to rent an RV and travel to all the festivals back east. We went to several put on by Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America (SPBGMA) in Missouri and Gettysburg, and Bean Blossom a couple of times. Blue and Lonesome plays Potomac and did an Australia tour which was a lot of fun.

DB: Is High Country still pretty active?

LC: We play a monthly gig over at the Taproom in Albany on the fourth Wednesday of the month. We play Potomac several times a year, which is Franklin Roosevelt’s yacht tied up in Jack London Square in Oakland. The guy there who does fundraisers loves bluegrass, so a lot of the local acts have played there like Kathy Kallick and Laurie Lewis. That’s fun and you always get an appreciative audience there. 

We play once or twice a year at Pacifica Performances, which is a community theatre that has pretty eclectic stuff. We also have one coming up in the little town of Newman, California, where they took an old movie theatre and put in a flat floor with tables and chairs and a stage set up for plays or music. They serve dinner and feed you real well. 

DB: Tell us about when you became a CBA lifetime achievement honoree.

LC: They usually try and surprise the person when they’re going to give them the award, so I didn’t know about it. A few years back at the CBA Fathers Day Festival, Laurie Lewis came up to me and asked if I would play on a little feature she was going to play between sets. I said why sure, so she got Kathy and Butch, and told me to just kick off Little Cabin Home on the Hill and the song would go like that. So I kicked it off and was playing backup and she starts singing, then I hear my name in the song. It was a song that she and Butch wrote which kind of told my story in a humorous way. It was quite good; I think it’s on YouTube. 

DB: You must be the busiest player in all of California.

LC: I play with Dark Hollow, High Country and Dim Lights out of Pacifica. The Mighty Crows get back together every once in a while and play every fifth Tuesday at Sam’s BBQ in San Jose. Blue and Lonesome plays every Thursday at the Willowbrook Ale House in Petaluma plus every odd month at a French restaurant in Berkeley on Telegraph Avenue called Bateau Ivre. Dim Lights plays the fourth Friday at the Pacifica Moose Club.

DB: We see you at the festivals and jams too.

 LC: I enjoy the jams; the Stork Club in Oakland is a fun jam. I used to run the jam with Butch Waller at Paul’s Saloon in San Francisco for many years and it’s not easy to do.

DB: You ever play or listen to other styles?

LC: When I was a teenager I liked all the music of the day, the Stones and Beatles and stuff, but I never wanted to learn to play it. When I would be at a high school dance and saw those bands with all of the equipment they had to haul in, set up and tear down, I didn’t want any part of that. With bluegrass, you just put your banjo in the case and you’re off.

DB: Thanks for your time Larry

LC: Thank you Dave, it was an honor.

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About the Author

Dave Berry

Dave Berry is an avid mandolin picker, singer and songwriter who writes an interview column for the monthly California Bluegrass Association (CBA) members publication featuring California regional and national artists who tour California. He grew up in bluegrass country on the Ohio River right between where the Big Sandy and Big Scioto Rivers dump into the Ohio. The columns are also featured on the CBA website at www.cbaweb.org. He is forever indebted to copy editor Jeanie Poling for cleaning up his act.