California Report: Backroads to Bakersfield for the CBA Great 48 Jam

The California Bluegrass Association (CBA) has been putting on the Great 48 Jam in Bakersfield for many years. The city of Bakersfield and the Marriott Convention Center have been a great host for the event that includes concerts, showcases, workshops, open mics, and of course jamming. Bluegrass jamming and hospitality suites were provided by CBA, CBA Fresno/Kings County, CBA Northern Counties, Southwest Bluegrass Association, Bluegrass Association of Southern California, Music Caravan, San Diego Bluegrass Society, and Bluegrass Music Society of the Central Coast. Lest we think this is all about the musicians, the city of Bakersfield, no stranger to supporting country music, had this to say on their Visit Bakersfield Travel and Information Facebook page.

Visit Bakersfield thanks the California Bluegrass Association for another outstanding Great 48 Bluegrass Jam in California’s ninth-largest city. Bluegrassers from throughout the nation converged on the Bakersfield Marriott at the Convention Center this weekend for lots of pickin’ and singin’. We look forward to seeing you next year when you again Visit Bakersfield…The Sound of Everything Bluegrass.

You can see a lot more about the event history, quotes, and pictures in these two interviews at bakersfield.com: Bow down to bluegrass at annual Great 48 jam and MATT MUNOZ: It’s heartstrings and harmony at Great 48 Jam, but today’s article is about the annual trek pickers from Central California take on the Amtrak San Joaquins to get there. Starting at Jack London’s Square in Oakland, the train rolls slightly north and east through the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta towns of Martinez, Antioch, Pittsburg, and Stockton. It then turns south in the Central Valley through Modesto, Turlock, Merced, and Fresno, arriving in central Bakersfield directly across the street from the Marriott Hotel and Convention Center.

This train ride has picked up steam in recent years largely due to the work of banjo playing CBA Statewide Activities VP, Ted Kuster. This year Ted organized an entire car for jammers to minimize the impact on Amtrak conductors and other riders. It was a kick watching Ted get off at each stop with his banjo while navigating pickers to the correct car. He had this to say about the train ride.

The first few times I went to Great 48, I rode with Ron Esparza and Geoff Sargent down I-5. We all noticed that we were getting there all tired and stiff and missing out on some of the fun as a result. In 2016, we recruited Peter Langston and the four of us experimentally took the train to Bakersfield, figuring that if it was a good experience we could let other people know about it for next year. Those guys graciously let me sit in with them in the seniors-only area of the train car, and we picked the whole way. The next year I put out some emails and a couple of dozen people joined in, and we ended up picking in the cafe car as well as the car where our seats were. We’ve done it every year since, which makes it officially a bluegrass tradition, by my understanding of the bluegrass tradition rules.

In previous years we took the 9:30 a.m. train. This year we took the 11:30 train instead, which is typically a less popular run, and some of us got on at Jack London Square, where the train first loads up. As a result, we got the entire rear car of the train to ourselves. Since the conductor didn’t have to worry about noise complaints from other passengers, we had no trouble picking all we wanted. There were about forty bluegrass people on the train this time and it was great. I always feel like I’m with my family when I get together with bluegrass people, but even better because we can argue about Earl and Ralph instead of Bernie and Trump. There were at least three picks going on throughout the almost six-hour ride, and everybody seemed to be having a good old time. Well, I personally was a bit irritated that there were some better banjo players than me on the train, so next year I think we might have to hold auditions to prevent that 😉

I had the pleasure of riding downstairs and picking with Sonoma County based fiddler and CBA Photographer coordinator Patrick Campbell, who was busy snapping pictures between fiddle tunes. Afterward, he shared his photos and thoughts.

I really enjoyed spending time chatting with you and cranking out a few tunes. Bluegrass and trains: that great combo came back to life on the trip down to Bakersfield. I never played so many train songs in one jam, and what a blast it was!

There were a lot of first-time riders on the train including myself and San Francisco dobro player, Brad Bechtel, who was traveling with his brother Brian. Brad seemed to be moving between jams quite a lot. He took one of the more unusual and popular social media pictures from the ride. I asked him his thoughts on the train.

This was my first time taking the train to Bakersfield and visiting the Great 48. I met the train at Emeryville along with about twenty other people. The station agent asked if we were a band or something. The train was empty enough that we took over the entire last train car and filled it with music. At one point I counted four different jam groups at the same time, three upstairs and one downstairs. I made some friends even before we got to Bakersfield, and it was an easy walk to our hotel. The train experience was excellent overall. The cafe car served a decent amount and variety of food, a step up from most airlines.

Not everyone was on the same train, some were on the early morning train, while others arrived Friday or even Saturday. I ran into San Francisco based fiddler Brandon Godman in the hotel lobby on Friday who had this to say.

This was my first time taking the train to Bakersfield, and I will definitely be doing it again. The drive from San Francisco down I-5 through the valley is always grueling, and of course, I generally hit traffic. Riding the train allowed me to avoid all of that, and exposed me to sights not typically accessible when driving so now I’m all caught up on my current Netflix binge. Talk about door to door service!

One thing about the ride that everybody comments on is the scenery and the backside view of the towns and cities which of course is not always pleasant. Seeing homeless encampments alongside the tracks while listening to your friends playing bluegrass is reminiscent of the California histories of Woody Guthrie and John Steinbeck. One thing is for sure, the music lives on and provides comfort to all regardless of their station in life.

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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.