Most bluegrass fans with even a passing knowledge of California bluegrass know about the California Bluegrass Association (CBA) Father’s Day Festival, and maybe some have gotten wind of the winter weekend hotel getaway in Bakersfield known as the Great 48 Jam, but I bet you don’t know about the campouts. It turns out there is a long history of the CBA putting on a couple of week-long campout events every year in the Central Valley, where people set up camp and uh, well, just pick. There’s no pressure to get off your buns and head down to the main stage to see real bluegrass or take your shift at your volunteer station. It also turns out that people also enjoy sittin’ around camp and just talking, no pickin’ or nothin’, just talkin’ and, well, some food, there’s always food involved. Speaking of food, there is a great crew of guys mostly named Mike or Jim or Carl or Greg who mainly just cook, smoke meat, and provide food for the masses. Their Kamp Konfusion is legendary at the campouts and festivals.
But there’s more, much more. The campouts are a perfect opportunity for the CBA Board to get a quorum for a board meeting to strategize and plan future events. The meeting is open to all, and occasionally people wander in to see what they really do, unless they happen to be in closed session where the real important stuff is discussed.
This spring, campout was in the town of Lodi, known for its Zinfandel grapes and Tesla factory just down the road in Stockton. You thought I was gonna say the Creedence Clearwater Revival song, but no, they put that in the rear view mirror a long time ago. It was a seven-day affair, from April 8-14 at the Lodi Grape Festival and Event Center which hosts many events including the Reptile Breeders Show that we shared the grounds with.
In the spirit of saving the best for last, this was the first time CBA shared a campout, and it was with the 53rd Annual California State Old Time Open Fiddle & Picking Championships, or CSOTFA for short. You can wander over to their website at csotfa.org for more details of the competition, and a full list of the categories and winners. It was great to have yet another distraction from campground picking, to watch the kids of all ages compete for prizes, and the prestige of being a state champion. I have to say the Anything Goes category provided the most fun for my ears, with the winning team of Miles Quale, Andrew Osborn, Teo Quale, and John Gooding doing a bang-up version of Gospel Plow featuring Andrew on trombone. Alex Sharps of San Francisco won the Open category apparently with room to spare, as he was penalized for going over his time limit. He played Tom and Jerry, Golden Fiddle Waltz, and Hotfoot and was backed on guitars by Jim French and Bob Garner.
There were many other events including the Friday night contra dance with an open band, the Ida Winfree Campout Allstars playing for the Saturday night dinner crowd, raffle drawings, and Sunday Gospel Hour. There was also a meeting of the CBA regional VP’s, and there easily could have been a dog show as there were some cute pups pestering pickers to throw their balls. Have I mentioned jamming? There were continuous jams and other such frivolous activities going on throughout the camps day and night, creating something of a three-ring circus atmosphere. It was more than a little surprising that an event focusing on traditional music would open its arms to triple fiddles with trombones or steel guitars.
I was lucky to get some folks to share their thoughts on the week.
Jim French – competition guitar accompanist extraordinaire
“Having the Fiddlers and bluegrassers together was a hit! Great idea for jamming and increasing our contest audience. Let’s do it again, again!”
Aaron Zorndorf – new San Mateo County/Coastside Regional VP
“The unique thing about this year’s CBA campout at Lodi was the merging of the California Old Time Fiddler competition into the event. There were abundant fiddlers of all skill levels and age groups sitting in. Only us bluegrassers enjoy playing fiddle tunes as much as fiddle players. Once we showed them how to pass the melody around to ALL the players, everyone had fun.”
Geoffrey Sargent – CBA Chairman of the Board, Executive Committee
“The campouts were where I first got the courage to start playing out and jamming! They are a wonderful place to get together with players that are less skilled and get a chance to play with the hot pickers. The atmosphere is more laid back than at festivals, where it can be more competitive and just plain overwhelming from the amount of music going on. I love them not only because of all that, but their smaller size makes it easier to move between different groups, camps, and cliques of players… it just all seems more manageable, open, and accepting.”
Deb Livermore – Campout and Fathers Day Festival volunteer coordinator
“I’ve attended every one since 2007, and both the spring and fall now happen at Lodi. I love the campouts. It’s a smaller group of people that are all about playing music and getting to hang out with friends or meet new people. With the only scheduled event being Saturday night’s dinner, there is no pressure to see a show…and no guilt about not going to the stage. It’s wonderful to stroll around the grounds and listen to the different jams. And because the overhead is low, the camping prices are reasonable, not ‘Festival’ prices.”
Mark Hogan – Board Member, Executive Committee and campout historian
“The campouts began in the late 1980s. They have been held in various locations. Colusa, Turlock, Sonora, Stockton, and one at the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds in Petaluma in 1990. The membership wanted some other activities to attend back when the only CBA event was the Father’s Day Festival. We stopped the Fall festival due to the worst rain ever (worse than Mudfest) that caused a significant financial loss.
Over the years we have added the Old-time Music Campout, the Sonoma County Bluegrass & Folk Festival, the short lived Woodland Bluegrass Festival run by Bob Thomas, the bluegrass at the Grange in Morgan Hill, and a myriad of Area VP concerts. However, the campouts have endured. This year the CSOTFA state fiddle and picking championships became an added feature to the 2019 Lodi event.
Back before we formalized the process we gave out awards such as the Lifetime Membership Award. Butch Waller got his at the Stockton campout in 1990. It really was about the jamming. It was my introduction to the bluegrass fan in the 1980’s who would rather hang out in camp with their friends and pick and socialize than go to the stage and watch bands. The event was driven partially by this realization. People would really like to hang out with their friends. Cool!”
In addition to all of these great stories, one memory that will stay with me is when we were all packing up to leave on Sunday, my friend, IBMA mentor, campout picker mate and her lovely dog Alfie were saying our goodbyes when CBA original founding member Carl Pagter drove up. He parked and opened his trunk to reveal a treasure of memories, CDs, LPs, and audiotapes to share with Lucy for her radio show American Pastimes on KZFR out of Chico, California. He shared great stories about his Virginia farm, Deering banjoes, Chubby Wise and many more. As we said our goodbyes and I was driving off, I saw Carl get in his car, drive about fifty feet, get out, open his trunk and start chatting up the next group of happy campers. I guess it’s kind of true what the song says, the road goes on forever and the party never ends.
Photographs and video by Dave Berry except for the trombone late night jam by Mariaelena Quale. Copy editing by Debbie Benrubi.