On This Day #56 – Sawtooth Mountain Boys

On this day ..

On September 4 and 5, 1993, the Sawtooth Mountain Boys played at Wolf Mountain Bluegrass Festival, Grass Valley, California. 

A traditional bluegrass band established in 1964, the Sawtooth Mountain Boys consisted of Mike Eisler (fiddle), Steve Waller (mandolin, lead vocals), John Van Brocklin (banjo), Rollie Champe (bass, vocals), and Hal Spence (guitar, tenor vocals). 

The 12 numbers include a couple of songs from Earl Taylor’s repertoire, one each from Flatt & Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, and the Carter Family; a Carter Stanley song; a Sid Campbell song; a Buck Owens song; and two Mike Eisler tunes. 

Track listing – 

Cute Thing; I’ll Take the Blame; I’ll Break Out Tonight; Darlin’ Little Joe; Long Road Home; (For You) I Could Change My Mind; Our Last Goodbye; Callin’ Your Name; Cascade Blues; Sweet Rosie Jones; This Morning at Nine; and Don’t Chain My Heart. 

Three of these recordings, that of Don’t Chain My Heart, I Could Change My Mind and I’ll Take the Blame are included on the CD Live at Grass Valley, Wolf Mountain Bluegrass Festival ’93 (Wolf Mountain Music WMM 302), released in 1994. 

Three of the surviving members share their recollection. 

Hal Spence speaks fondly of the environment and the attentive audience …. 

“Wow, 25 years ago, September 4th and 5th, 1993. I recall the Nevada County Fairgrounds in Grass Valley, California, was always one of my favorite places to play. It was home to the famous Grass Valley Festival that’s still going on today. It’s a beautiful park, within a forest of huge Ponderosa Pines. It was a very ‘educated’ audience, that knew bluegrass. I recall the feeling of walking out on stage in the evening show and seeing literally thousands of people sitting in their lawn chairs, and it would be silent just before we played as people were actually there to hear the music! What a feeling though, to be able to play your best and have the audience erupt in appreciation! I recall Dave Baker, the promoter, really wanting the ‘original’ sound, like the pioneers of bluegrass. The Sawtooth Mountain Boys were really on a mission to preserve the original first-generation sounds. At that time Sawtooth, Mike and Steve, had been together since 1964, Rollie and I (Hal) joined in 1971, so we had 22 years in, and John on banjo had been with us for seven years by then, so we were a pretty tight group, and it was FUN! I loved the harmonies and blend we were achieving then and Mike, Steve and John were tops on fiddle, mandolin and banjo respectively! We had already been on tour in Europe and Great Britain a few times by then and traveled the western US quite a bit also. The 1990s was probably the best sound ever for Sawtooth. What fun times.   

One memory I have of the festival was that I stumbled over some words on a couple songs that I sang lead on, and of course those were a couple of the songs that made it on the live Wolf Mountain recording, preserved for ever! Humbling moments! Oh well!

Mike, John and Rollie along with Rollie’s son Brett now play in a group called Fern Hill. I’m playing in a couple of bands, one called the Ladd Canyon Ramblers, which is a group I was in in college in the 1970s (also called EOCene) and now in a new group, called Youngberg Hill, with my son Andrew on banjo. What a kick it is to play and sing with one’s son and passing it on!” 

Mike Eisler remembers the passion that there was for the integrity of first generation bluegrass, and the desire to foster it …. 

“We don’t want to reminisce too intently, or folks will think we’re getting old! But for you, I will try to conjure up some recollections.  

The first thing I remember is how enthusiastic Dave Baker was about his festival. He had a very clear vision about the roots of bluegrass, and his desire to present that brand to the general public was unwavering. This is sort of off the subject, but I remember renting a car to drive to Grass Valley one year to save the depreciation of my own vehicle. When I arrived at the festival, I realized the oil hadn’t been changed in a long time on this rental car, had it changed and deducted the cost from my rental bill. After that I was careful never to buy a ‘program car’ as a used vehicle because I realized rental companies view their fleet as a disposable commodity, and buying one would be the exact opposite of buying a ‘one owner’ used vehicle that was well taken care of.

Well, back to the subject at hand. Back in that era of the music, far more musicians were highly influenced by the first-generation players. Creativity was encouraged but so was an unwritten respect for what the originators had created. As such, most musicians spoke a common musical language. This worked very well for extemporaneous jam sessions, not only at Grass Valley, but nationwide for that matter. A person could travel thousands of miles from home and play music with total strangers (they were only strangers until the first tune ended), and feel like you had been playing bluegrass with them for a decade. I recall some wonderful jam sessions at Grass Valley with members of bands like High Country, the Vern Williams Band, and Lost Highway. The weather was generally warm all night, and it was not uncommon for the music to go on until five in the morning. No one complained about not getting any sleep, and viewed the sound of bluegrass as a lullaby in their tents. It was a long drive back home on Sunday and work on Monday morning rolled around before you knew it. Thinking back to the intense fun you had that weekend kept you going all week. Current students of mine seem daunted by the amount of repetition that is required to achieve an automated approach to playing. They do not realize how many repetitions the musicians experienced back then in an all-night jam. I played banjo so many hours back then that once I almost fell asleep in the middle of a tune standing up. That’s how intense our love of the music was. Being young didn’t hurt anything either.”

John Van Brocklin remembers how tight-knit the Sawtooth Mountain Boys were at the time …

“So, I remember Dave Baker being the guy putting it on (the festival), and talking about how a lot of musicians tried to improve upon the formula of how to play bluegrass but then never did, and how the pioneers had it right. I also remember that we played well and had a ‘band’ sound. Some of my fondest memories and best music I ever played was as a Sawtooth Mountain Boy with Hal, Steve, Mike, Rollie and myself.”

Rollie Champe has some health problems at the moment. 

Steve Waller passed away on June 26, 2015. 

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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.