Orange County is famous for a lot of things--oranges, John Wayne, Disneyland--but it's definitely not known as one of the bluegrass music capitals of the world.
That didn't stop promoters of the new "Bluegrass & Traditional Music Expo '86" from choosing the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa as the site for the three-day event that opens today.
The idea, organizers said, is to provide a convenient meeting ground for the Southern California bluegrass contingent of musicians, fans and equipment manufacturers.
"This is the first time that music is being combined with an equipment show," said Gary Osko, who organized the show with Steve Baker, both longtime bluegrass fans. "There aren't very many places around Southern California that could have an event like this."
The Bluegrass Expo is a hybrid of two types of events: industry-oriented music conventions that are generally closed to the public, and music festivals that are mostly restricted to live performances.
Among the key performers who will appear are banjo artists Bill Keith, an innovator who has created his own banjo method; David Holt, host of the Nashville Network's "Fire on the Mountain" show; and "World Champion Banjo Picker" Mike Snider.
Also performing will be the Country Gazette bluegrass band, banjo player and former Flying Burrito Brothers member Al Munde, singer-mandolinist Roland Whiterm, and Lillies of the West, an Orange County all-woman bluegrass band.
Jill Spence, guitarist for Lillies of the West, says the four women consider themselves a novelty in the male-dominated music world, but added that in bluegrass, "I think it (a person's sex) doesn't matter. I have a sneaking suspicion that it only becomes an issue when it comes to traveling together."
Spence said that because performance opportunities are infrequent, "an all-woman band couldn't make a living at performing. But it's the best hobby anyone could have."
The numerous instrument and equipment manufacturers that will be displaying products range from nationally known companies such as Gibson to smaller firms like Mission Viejo's Shade Tree Stringed Instruments. For them, the Expo brings a rare chance to meet directly with the public.
"People who live in Orange County and the L.A. Basin hardly know we exist," said Chester Lizak, chairman of Original Musical Instrument Co., the Huntington Beach firm that makes internationally renowned Dobro guitars. (Lizak said, however, that the family-run business is still reaping the benefits of massive publicity generated last year when a Dobro guitar was pictured on the cover of Dire Straits' multimillion-selling album "Brothers in Arms.")
"In the rest of the world, we are very well known," Lizak said. "So we are going to go over (to the Expo) and get some more local exposure for our products."
Osko, in addition to his behind-the-scenes role as one of the Expo's organizers, is also a bluegrass enthusiast who is looking forward to the Expo as a member of one of the performing groups--Country Connection--and as a collector of vintage bluegrass instruments who will put them on display.
Osko said demand for acoustic instruments is on the upswing again after losing ground in recent years to the high-tech appeal of electronic keyboards and programmable synthesizers. In addition, the "new traditionalist" movement in country music--spearheaded by artists such as Reba McEntire, Ricky Skaggs, the Judds and others--has also helped give traditional acoustic instruments higher visibility.
Another attraction that the Expo offers to both fans and musicians is the informal jam sessions that Baker says will be plentiful. There will also be picking contests, clogging exhibitions and a host of seminars and workshops, in addition to the ongoing musical performances in the fairgrounds' Arlington Theater.
When the show ends Sunday, the participants--many of whom have few performance outlets in Southern California--are hoping that local interest in bluegrass music won't end with it.
"There are not really a lot of opportunities to play in Southern California," Osko said. But he was more interested in anticipating the Expo than predicting any long-range effects.
When asked whom he personally was most eager to see, Osko said, "I know pretty much everybody who's going to be here. But I really want to see Country Gazette, which is one of the premier bluegrass bands. And Al Munde. And John Hickman and Bill Keith. . . ."
Tickets are $10 per day or $26 for all three days. The Expo will run from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
CLUB CHANGES: Former operators of the Golden Bear apparently have ended their attempt to resurrect the Bear at Kono Hawaii restaurant in Santa Ana. After producing a handful of shows in recent weeks featuring Golden Bear favorites such as Dave Mason, Cecilio & Kapono and Tower of Power, Golden Bear operators Richard and Charles Babiracki have stopped advertising shows at the site.