California Report: Ida Winfree, former CBA Teen Ambassador

California Bluegrass Association member Ida Winfree is a former CBA Youth Ambassador. She plays mandolin and guitar in two bands—North Country Blue and West 45. She’s currently based in the California Central Valley town of Turlock, and when not playing or listening to music, she’s with her friends or beloved dogs, Martin, Bernie, and Stanley.

Hello Ida. Let’s start at the beginning. What are your earliest musical memories?

Hi Dave! My earliest musical memories involve sitting in my living room and listening to my dad play his guitar. He’d be making up songs to make me laugh, playing with local friends, or playing with his bluegrass band, Red Dog Ash. There was always music in the house when I was growing up. As far as festivals, I began attending the Father’s Day Festival around age four, and RockyGrass when I was two. I grew up at these festivals listening to the main stages and hula-hooping.

Does your family play, and if so what instruments and styles?

Yeah! Both of my parents play. My dad plays the guitar really well, and my mom just started playing the bass over the past couple of months. She’s picking it up really quick!

What was your first instrument and song/tune you remember learning?

My first instrument was the guitar, because that’s what my dad played. I remember sitting in the living room and he was showing me how to play Salt Creek. He had to show me note by note, so it was a very laborious process. He was very patient.

How did you settle on the mandolin?

That’s a good question! I’m not entirely sure how I ended up choosing the mandolin. I think it was the sounds you can get out of it, and because it was the instrument my favorite singer, AJ Lee, played. Also, it was a smaller instrument so it fit my smaller hands better.

Who were your instructors and role models?

I haven’t had many instructors—two to be exact. My dad taught me most of what I know on guitar, and Sharon Gilchrist taught me most of what I know on the mandolin. As far as role models go, the first vocalist I ever felt drawn to was AJ Lee. She’s certainly been my biggest inspiration. Other inspirations/role models include Sharon Gilchrist, Della Mae, Sierra Hull, Rhonda Vincent, and the group Flatt Lonesome.

What’s your process for learning a tune?

It’s pretty simple. I just listen to the tune on repeat until I’m able to hum it on my own, and then I’m able to play it pretty quick.

What bands are you active in?

I’m currently playing in three bands. I formed my first-ever band, North Country Blue, in 2017 with Megan January and Tessa Schwartz. And I recently formed another bluegrass band, West 45, with my dad, Mei Lin Heirendt, Hal Horn, and Bruce Lacey. And last November I began playing with a local rock/blues band called Jake and the Party Hamsters.

Ida with North Country Blue in 2019 Rockygrass Band competition

Have you and your bands ever played at your school?

Unfortunately, my bands have never played at my school, but I’ve thought about how fun that would be!

What shows do you have coming up in 2022?

I don’t have too many shows booked in 2022, but North Country Blue is playing the Father’s Day Festival this year as a showcase band. I’m super excited to get back to playing with those folks. I haven’t seen them all together since September! They’re always fun to pick with and hang out with.

Do you enjoy working on recording or prefer live and why?

I definitely prefer live because the energy is unmatched.

Tell us about your role with the CBA Youth programs.

I first attended the CBA Youth Academy at the age of eight or nine. I continued to participate for a few years, and then I switched to Kids on Bluegrass for a year or two. After Kids on Bluegrass, I went back to the CBA Youth Academy as a teacher’s assistant for a few years. This year will be my first year as an official Youth Academy instructor. I’ll be teaching guitar!

What were your duties as CBA Teen ambassador?

My role as was to try and recruit more teenagers into the scene. One thing that kept me interested in playing bluegrass was seeing all the other young people enjoying it. So the way I went about trying to engage more teenagers into the scene was by playing with and supporting the new musicians I saw coming in. 

Are there any other things you might like to do for CBA?

The CBA has been so supportive ever since I can remember. I’ll always be interested in helping the youth programs. I want to give back in every way possible to keep young kids playing bluegrass.

I’m sure you have some great CBA memories. Are there any that really stand out?

My favorite CBA memories are the ones when I’m with my friends. I cherish the memories of learning new songs with my friends during the day, and jamming late at night (sometimes up to 6:00 a.m.).

Ida and NCB singing Pick Me Up on Your Way Down

I imagine you’re looking beyond high school. Do you have any ideas about what you want to do?

My current plan is to attend Modesto Junior College, so I can get my general education out of the way while staying at home and thinking about what my next move will be. I’ve been working at an elementary school since August as an after-school kids program rec leader, and I think I want to do something with elementary education.

What would be your ideal career musically or otherwise?

For a long time I was only able to see myself playing music as a career. I was so enamored with the idea that I auditioned for the Berklee College of Music over the winter. I was accepted, but I decided that I want to keep music as something for myself, something fun and relaxing. I’m proud to say I got in, but it’s not the right move for me. I always want to play music whenever possible and continue getting as good as possible. I love kids, so I can see myself as an elementary teacher—ideally second to fourth grade.

What hobbies do you have outside of music?

I don’t have too many hobbies outside of music, but I’m always down to hang out with my dog or my friends, and shopping, or taking care of my plants!

What current tunes are stuck in your head these days?

I went to a Bonnie Raitt show last week, and I’ve had her songs Thing Called Love and Bluebird playing in the car nonstop. I’ve also been listening to a lot of Jim Croce, and I have had his songs Working at the Car Wash Blues and Top Hat Bar and Grille on repeat.

What styles of music do or might you play other than bluegrass?

I’ve always loved old country; Keith Whitley has been my most-listened-to artist on Spotify for a few years running. I also listen to a lot of Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, and George Jones. Recently I’ve been listening to and playing a lot more rock n’ roll and blues.

What advice would you have for someone just starting out playing music?

My advice is to play and learn songs you like! Music is so fun, it just needs to be the genre and songs you enjoy.

Thanks again, Ida. Hope to see you soon at a festival or campout.

Thanks for having me, Dave.

Copy editing by Jeanie Poling

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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.