California Report – Lucy Smith

Lucy Smith from Chico, California is a guitar picker, singer, promoter, jammer and for the last 5 years, head of the California Bluegrass Association’s IBMA Hospitality and Showcase Suite in Raleigh, NC. She’s passing that torch to very experienced and qualified new leaders, but will continue her other bluegrass-related activities.

DB: Hi Lucy, tell us how you first became involved in bluegrass?

LS: I’ve played guitar since I was 12, and back then, was more into the folk scene and fingerpicking. When I got married in 1971, my husband bought me a banjo for Christmas from a pawn shop in Bakersfield, where Larry Cohea worked. We lived in King’s Canyon National Park at the time, so there was no one to really learn from, only a few books and records. No jam groups, no teachers, no slow-downer, no YouTube. It was slow going! 

B: So what did you do?

LS: I met up with Bob Garcia (now mandolin-player for the Grasskickers), who played banjo with a Park Ranger there, and he really encouraged me. After 5 years of hard work on banjo, I developed a serious problem in my right hand, so I went back to guitar, and learned how to flatpick fiddle tunes and breaks. I also play a little bass now —great instrument!

DB: Do you play in any bands?

LS: I play bass in an all-girl folk-rock band. Does that count? I had a bluegrass band a few years back with Lloyd Foote on banjo (8th Avenue String Band), Mark Wilpolt on mandolin, and Bernard Glansbeek on bass. Before that, I had an all-girl band called Wing & A Prayer for 6 years.

DB: What other events do you promote or organize?

LS. For about 20+ years, I ran jams in the Chico area — at various local restaurants. We had a knack for having our restaurants go out of business. I’d like to think it WASN’T the bluegrass! I was involved in the Butte Folk Music Society for years. Darla Novak wrote a monthly newsletter, informing the members about concerts in the area. I took it over, skewing it toward bluegrass, about the time that John Senior — the 1st CBA Area Activities VP in Chico — passed that position on to me. So as CBA Area Activities VP, I was writing the newsletter and running monthly jams. 

DB: You also do promotional work as well don’t you?

LS: About 10 years ago, I took on the added task of promoting touring bluegrass bands in the area. We’ve had Nu Blu, Laurie Lewis, Kathy Kallick, John Reischman & the Jaybirds, Dale Ann Bradley and Steve Gulley, Barwick & Siegfried, Steve Spurgin, and the CA Banjo Extravaganza over the years. With the fabulous venue of the Sierra Nevada Big Room, which was booked by Bob Littell until last year, we’ve had names such as the Infamous Stringdusters, Sam Bush, Tim O’Brien, Front Country, Clare Lynch, Della Mae, and the Kruger Brothers, among others. Pretty good for a small town!

DB: What classic artists do you keep going back to?

LS: Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Osborne Brothers, Jim & Jesse. It’s really good to listen to the harmonies, the phrasing, the interplay of the instruments. But as a woman, I haven’t found many of the song subjects of early bluegrass relatable. For that, give me the Carter Family, Hazel & Alice, Laurie Lewis, Kathy Kallick, Louisa Branscomb, Della Mae, Sister Sadie, Melody Walker, Molly Tuttle.

DB: What young bands do you have your eye on?

LS: My oh my! These young bands blow my socks off! Start with the CBA’s own Blue J’s, Crying Uncle, North Country Blue. This year alone at IBMA, I’d include the Trailblazers, Carolina Blue, Lonely Heartstring Band, Wood & Wire, Amanda Cook, and the amazing Mile Twelve…among others!

DB: How did you first get involved with CBA at IBMA ?

LS: Ah, now that’s recent history. Larry Kuhn ran the CBA Suite at IBMA for the 12 years before I did, and was always looking for host team members, asking me for a couple of years to sign on. So I decided to go, as a civilian, the last year it was in Nashville. The next year, when it moved to Raleigh, I went as a team member. I got there a day early by accident, so I followed Larry and Caroline around the day before, learning about the Marriott, Sierra Nevada beer donations, setting up the Suite, etc. etc. So the next year, when Larry passed it on, I felt that need to contribute as a volunteer. And what a ride it’s been!!

DB: What has changed there since you started?

LS: Overall, IBMA has gotten much bigger! I think the IBMA figures would back me up on that one. The suggestions and contributing ideas from Host Team members for the CBA Suite over the years have truly improved the way we do things. We’re better at crowd control and safety at our showcases. Having people come back to work in the Suite, year after year, has kept the flow and the quality consistent. So my sincere thanks to Lani Way, Dave Swartz, Jokey Michel, and Frank Solivan Sr! Also, thanks to all the Host team members over the years. Because of them, the face of CBA at this world-wide bluegrass event is so positive and welcoming. I get compliments every year on this, from record company execs, musicians, fans, event promoters, etc.! 

DB: What have been the biggest challenges running that event?

LS:  Getting enough rest and keeping our sanity. After that, every year has its specific challenges, from the first year when Regina Bartlett passed away on our first night, to this last year when the Marriott remodel threatened to end our performance showcases. We have a job to do there, to present the CBA as a welcoming, forward-thinking bluegrass organization, and to present some of the best bluegrass bands, new and old, to fans and music business folks. And every year, we get ‘er done with flying colors!

DB: … and the biggest rewards?

LS:  Oh my….countless! Seeing how CBA’s Kids on Bluegrass has become a nation-wide model, and how CBA’s Bluegrass Pride and the Handsome Ladies are taking root in other states and bluegrass communities. Being able to book 36 bands in the CBA showcase every year! Meeting bluegrass people from all over the country, all over the world. Making long-lasting friendships. Hearing the most incredible musicians, and getting to jam with them. It’s a bluegrass festival on steroids!

DB: I’m sure you’ve got a ton of stories from that experience, are any publicly shareable?

LS: Singing harmony with Peter Rowan & Marianne See on I’m Gonna Love You Like There’s No Tomorrow. Awesome! Getting to know — and to sing with — Wayne Taylor, and Chris Jones. Having Eddie Gill (Big Country Bluegrass) come up to the Suite chat and to join the jam each year. Forging friendships with Red Wine (Italy), the Davidson Brothers (Australia), Mikey Ponser and Flats & Sharps (England), Jens Koch and Erik Inglestrom (Sweden), and my Canadian friends from Lonesome Ace Stringband and Slocan Ramblers. Getting to know so many mighty fine people… too many to list! Getting all the CBA folks into the pre-Awards Show Reception! Meeting and chatting with Mark O’connor and his family in the Expo. Having Darin and Brooke Aldridge come up to the CBA Suite to jam, 5 years ago. Becky Buller was in the band at that time. She walked up to host team member John Hettinger, and said “What do you know on that fiddle?” And one more: Seeing Molly Tuttle win IBMA Guitar Player of the Year, last year AND this!

DB: What do you recommend for bands who want to play the IBMA CBA showcase?

LS: If a California band is serious & dedicated enough to come to IBMA, they showcase in the CBA Suite. Period. Other bands need to contact the person who is booking the Suite, right around June. That person will be named after confirmation from the CBA Board next month. It helps to submit an application to be selected as an IBMA Showcase Band as well, which would give them additional showcases at various venues in Raleigh. Information for that will be on the IBMA website.

DB: What plans do you have with your sudden extra time?

LS: My direction is to become a programmer on our local community radio station KZFR, and run the 2-hour Wednesday program, American Pastimes. I can continue to share this awesome music, introduce bands new and old, and hopefully, continue to bring bluegrass bands to the North State through KZFR’s concert series.

DB: Finally, thank you Lucy for all you have done regarding the fire survivors in your area. How are things progressing for recovery and survivors?

LS: Thanks so much for asking, Dave! The answer is…..VERY VERY slowly! I am experiencing (vicariously) my friends’ journey, from the many steps to claiming the total loss of their home to simply finding pants that fit. And they are lucky… they have a place to stay with me and others. We have many CBA members in our area who have lost homes AND instruments. CBA has a GoFundMe page to help replace lost instruments, and anyone who would like to help with this, please know how much it would be appreciated!

DB: Is there any thing else you would like to say?

LS: I’d like to mention how bluegrass has changed over the years, since I started playing and listening in 1971. In addition to expanding WHAT bluegrass is, I’ve been delighted with the direction of inclusivity. As a young woman banjo player in the ’70s, I often was simply and deliberately closed out from the all male jams at Grass Valley. Now, almost every jam at our CA festivals includes both men and women, young and old, and it doesn’t really matter who you love. Amen!

DB: Thank you Lucy from all of us for your many years of service.

LS: Thank YOU, Dave, for the opportunity to share!

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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.