Donna Hargis organizes many Southern California bluegrass events and is the MVP of the Southern California Bluegrass Association scene. A recent convert to the bluegrass fold, Donna exudes enthusiasm and energy that inspires both young and old to play, learn about, and get involved in bluegrass music. We need more of her ilk for sure.
Tell us about your role in the California Bluegrass Association.
I’m one of the regional directors for Southern California, and I promote bluegrass in any way I can. I just got back from a new jam that was started by someone who attended South State 48 and got inspired. He couldn’t find a bluegrass jam in his area, so he started one. This kind of stuff makes me so happy. I also host a monthly jam and hire a band for that. I generally just try to connect people.
That’s great. Tell us more about that jam.
It’s called the Southbay Bluegrass Jam and is the first Tuesday of the month at Project Barley in Lomita, California. We have a jam (all are welcome) and a band plays for an hour, then we jam some more. Dennis Fetchet of the Bluegrass Cardinal is there regularly. He’s a “So CA bluegrass treasure.”
That South State 48 Event was really cookin’. How long have you been involved with that?
From the beginning. I was on a team during COVID with the purpose of creating something in Southern California. It was decided to try and model it after the Great 48—a hotel jamming event—but also with outdoor jamming. I scoured the internet for local hotels that had a nice outdoor space, then called a bunch and asked about 24-hour jamming if we sold enough rooms. This was kind of scary because it was during COVID and we really didn’t know what would happen or if people would come. I found a few hotels that were willing to work with us, so I drove out and met with the management. Carlsbad-by-the-Sea really stood out as having everything we hoped for. Plenty of outdoor space, a nice conference room, and a cool bar with lots of food choices. It just had a really nice vibe and they were very accommodating. And of course, we sold out quickly both years!
Southern Cal CBA has grown a lot in the last couple of years. Who are the movers and shakers down there, besides of course yourself?
We have a few SoCal women on the board now, and that’s fantastic! Also, Mark Shutts, whose steadfast commitment to opening up his machine shop to traveling bluegrass bands has been paramount. Bands would otherwise skip Southern California, but Mark gives them a gig, an audience, and every cent that’s collected. Jeff Fleck is doing something similar with his Crazy J Ranch in Topanga. Both of these men do this simply because they love bluegrass.
Wow. What else are you working on?
I just started a bluegrass club at my school, where I’m a science teacher. I also hired a band to play an assembly. Any efforts to grow bluegrass should include a concerted effort to attract young people to our genre, as well as people from other types of music.
As you know, CBA has a wonderful Youth Program. Is this part of that?
Hope so? I have 7 kids after our first meeting and two teachers. I suspect after we have our assembly with Water Tower Band, there will be more kids. So far our PTA and Booster club paid for the assembly, but I got loaner instruments from CBA.
Southern California is so spread out. It must be difficult but it sounds like you’re all doing some great work.
Thanks. Southern California really took a loss when Danny Hootenanny Clark moved up north. Danny has a lifetime of expertise in promoting bluegrass, and he’s sorely missed. I hope that we can get more people willing to step up and try to fill the void, but it would probably take a whole team to match the efforts of the CBA ‘Volunteer of the Year,’ Danny Clark!
Who are some of the up-and-coming bands?
The Honey Buckets and Water Tower Band are two bands I’m really proud of, and see any chance I get. Both are so high energy and fun, as well as being fantastic musicians. I’m also really curious to see what Matt Michienzie does in the future.
What was your favorite festival of 2022?
The Father’s Day Festival in Grass Valley. It’s everything I imagined a bluegrass festival to be.
You were late to the bluegrass scene. How did you come into it?
In 2015 I left my marriage, and two months later I found myself with a guitar in my hand. I didn’t plan to get so into it, but I fell deeply in love with playing, singing, and jamming. I’m very fortunate that I already loved bluegrass, an inviting genre that makes it easy for a beginner to join in and learn. Since then, I’ve been very dedicated to trying to improve my playing. I’m a very social creature, and the bluegrass community provides ample opportunities for me to meet all kinds of people, and also to be of service, which is important to me.
Who are some of your favorites?
Flatt and Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, Red Allen, and Sierra Ferrell.
What instrument do you play?
I play guitar and sing. I’ve learned just enough bass and mandolin to teach the kids. I love traditional bluegrass and I love singing tenor, or high baritone if someone already has the tenor part covered.
How much do you play a week?
I practice a lot and go to a few jams. Jamming is sporadic, but my practice is not. I rarely miss a day of practice.
What do you think attracts you so the bluegrass fold?
I love the diversity. I might be in a big crazy testosterone-filled jam where guys are playing at breakneck speed and I’m on the outside just trying to keep up. The next day I might be barefoot in the park singing harmonies with one of my girlfriends. Teaching the kids to play is also satisfying and rewarding. Being at a festival, making new friends, and seeing old ones—I love it all. I even love to practice. I’m really lucky to have found this lifestyle.
Are you in any bands?
Currently, no, but I have something brewing.
What do you do when you’re not playing or promoting bluegrass?
For a job? I teach science and it suits me. Also art. I love to make things, all kinds of things. Clothes, candles, pottery. . . I love to write, but I do that sporadically; I don’t chase the muse on that one. And I get outside in nature as much as I can.
What do you think the bluegrass world could be better at?
I don’t know about the world of bluegrass, but in California, we need to get better at taking out our wallets. We spend a fortune on our instruments, but as a community, we need to do better at tipping bands, donating to organizations, buying merchandise, and patronizing places that host jams. It is a little embarrassing to me that I host a jam at a local brewery that loses money on bluegrass night but makes up for it on trivia night. We all need to support live music. We need to expose more folks to bluegrass.
That’s an interesting observation. What else?
We also need more educational efforts. We tend to think that everyone already knows about bluegrass, but they sure don’t. When I pitched hiring a bluegrass band at my school to the PTSA, a few moms didn’t even know what that meant! I tell all my students, “You may not like bluegrass, that’s fine, but you’re going to know what it is so you can articulate why you do or don’t like it.” And no one gets to leave 7th grade thinking a mandolin is a tiny guitar.
Hah, beautiful. Thanks for your time, Donna, and I’m looking forward to pickin’ with you soon.
Thanks, Dave! Always a pleasure talking about bluegrass.
Copy editing by Jeanie Poling