Moments in Bluegrass: BG75 #10 – Mike Kear learns to love bluegrass in New Zealand

Following an invitation that the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) extended to its members that they share a memory from “75 years of bluegrass,” we thought that we would collect a few to share with you.

The exact moment when I became a bluegrass fan…

Mike Kear, from Palmerston North, New Zealand, moved to Australia about 40 years ago. Shortly afterwards he joined the Bluegrass & Traditional Country Music Society of Australia (BTCMSA). 

As a youngster he had some piano lessons before, at the age of 15, he got his first guitar and he started learning to play folk songs. Soon after joining the BTCMSA he formed his own band – initially called Foggy Hollow, though subsequently known as Flintlock. In typically humorous fashion, he says, “We are working steadily to get ourselves up to the standard of mediocre.”

Kear began working in radio in 1997, initially presenting a one-hour show during alternate Sunday mornings for the inner-city Sydney station, 2SER-FM. In 1998 an opportunity arose at Hawkesbury Radio 89.9FM at the same time as his show at 2SER was being cancelled, and Kear has been producing and presenting his five-hour show, Music from Foggy Hollow, there ever since. 

In 2000 he was invited to do a show for WAMU’s Bluegrass Country family – for three weeks, a proposal upgraded to three months – and that relationship continued through to 2017, and to this day as the Bluegrass Country Foundation took over the broadcast and internet operations of Bluegrass Country.

Kear is a contributing DJ to the Bluegrass Unlimited National Bluegrass Survey and the Bluegrass Today Airplay Charts. 

He is a nominee for the 2020 IBMA Broadcaster of the Year award.  

A web designer by profession, Kear built and hosts the Hawaiian Traditional and Bluegrass Music Society’s website.  

“I’ve lived in Australia more than half my life – since 1981 in fact. But I grew up in New Zealand – this was long before Lord Of The Rings. In the 1960s, when the folk craze was at its height, I was ending high school, and in 1969 I started at university in Wellington – the capital city. I’d been given a guitar when I was 15, and I joined in the folk craze. When I got to University some friends and I formed a folk trio called Amberly Grove, and I spent some of my spare time singing those dreary and earnest protest songs in coffee houses in and around Wellington. This was the time that the Hamilton County Bluegrass Band was stomping the boards in New Zealand. In fact, they were making such an impact in the nation; at the time the term “country music” conjured up images of banjos, fiddles, high harmonies etc. It was quite some time later that New Zealanders came to know this music as ‘bluegrass.’

In early 1970s the Woodstock movie came to our land and made a gigantic impact on New Zealanders, as it did everywhere else it appeared. I went to that movie too, just as everyone else I knew did. To a young university student with a full ration of hormones raging through his system; it all looked a lot of fun – the rolling about in the mud and skinny dipping in the river and all. 

Just a week or so after I’d seen the Woodstock movie, my house mate Keith came in and said “Hey guess what? There’s a banjo pickers music festival in Hamilton this Easter. Let’s go!” Hamilton is a day’s drive north of Wellington – not a big step for a young university student with plenty of hormones in his blood. I knew what kind of girls went to those music festivals, after all I’d seen the Woodstock movie!!  

So, on the Thursday before Easter 1970, Keith and I had our tents and sleeping bags packed into my car, and we were heading north to a great fun weekend. Neither of us was really concerned about the music we were hoping to spend the long weekend partying. Forget your spring break, this was a MUSIC FESTIVAL!!!!  

Keith and I both had pretty fanciful ideas of what this festival was going to be like for us. We weren’t basing anything on reality, but we had a mind’s eye vision of what we were going to find in Hamilton. As we pitched our tents and unpacked our stuff, we both had eyes gazing around looking for happenings somewhere or other around the campsite. In particular, for some of these accommodating, very friendly girls that our dumbass imaginations had assured us would be there in large numbers.

By late morning on Friday, it was pretty clear that in terms of our objective, the weekend was going to be a total failure. It turned out that the girls at the Banjo PIckers Convention weren’t any more accommodating than the girls we knew in Wellington. In fact, they were all girls my mother would call “thoroughly nice girls,” which for the two of us was something of a disappointment. 

Keith and I soon came to realise that our hormones had better calm down and we would just have to listen to the music and maybe learn some new songs and see if we could find someone to play with. (That proved to be the easiest thing in the world to achieve). 

Right after lunch, the afternoon program began with the Hamilton Country Bluegrass Band doing a set with the guest of honour from the USA, Bill Clifton. The Hamilton County Bluegrass Band were the local stars of the show, and a mainstay of the music for the weekend. At the time they were the only professional bluegrass band outside the USA, and two years later they would distinguish themselves by being called on stage at Bill Monroe’s Bean Blossom, by the Father of Bluegrass himself. I have listeners who still remember them after nearly 50 years, doing a set and playing with the Blue Grass Boys’ instruments because they didn’t have their own with them.     

The second song they did with Bill Clifton that sunny Good Friday afternoon in 1970, was Little Whitewashed Chimney. The Hamilton County Bluegrass Band kicked the song off with Paul Trenwith on the banjo, and during the few measures of that introduction and up until the end of the first chorus, I had an epiphany no less impactful on me than Saint Paul did on the road to Damascus. I turned to Keith and said, “This music is much better than that dreary stuff we’re doing now. I want to do some of this stuff instead of all those protest songs!” 

In the following few hours, I forgot all about the original objective of our travel to Hamilton. Easter, 1970 turned out to be a dismal failure in terms of a romantic romp with accommodating girls in our tents. Instead we both acquired something far more long-lasting and valuable – a taste for high energy, all acoustic, “Country music” with high, whiny singing and tight 3-part harmonies. What we now call bluegrass.  

A postscript: Soon after the festival was over, the organizers brought out a vinyl album of the highlights of the festival, and there,  track 4 side 2, is the recording of the exact moment where I had my epiphany. Little Whitewashed Chimney – Bill Clifton with the Hamilton County Bluegrass Band. And on the front of the jacket, at the bottom left, is a picture taken from almost where Keith and I were sitting. And that’s Bill Clifton and the Hamilton County Bluegrass Band on stage at the time. I often wonder if anyone else in that group of guys and “thoroughly nice girls” were having an epiphany at the same time?”

Here is an audio clip of that recording … 

The National Banjo Pickers’ Convention, Claudelands, Hamilton, North Island, New Zealand, Easter 1970 (Kiwi ‎SLC-91, released 1970).  

The Feltex Award-winning video documentary on the 1970 National Banjo Pickers’ Convention can be found at the Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision website …. 


The first National Banjo Pickers’ Convention took place in 1967.

OK, readers, does this story trigger any thoughts of bluegrass music in days gone by? What related event would you like remembered? Please share in comments. Thanks. 

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.