The sunny seaside community of Dana Point is more than 2,000 miles from the impoverished Appalachian mountain region of Kentucky where bluegrass music was born half a century ago.
But this quiet south Orange County beach town--known more for sand, surfing and seafood than guitars, fiddles and mandolins--in recent weeks has become the unexpected center of a thriving bluegrass music series.
What began in January as a six-week experiment at the Old Dana Point Cafe and Wine Bar has been so successful that "now it's just rolling along by itself," said Chip DeSon, organizer of the weekly "Bluegrass Jam Night" featured there on Tuesday nights indefinitely.
"I think we stumbled onto something," said DeSon, 34, a bluegrass enthusiast and amateur performer who persuaded cafe owner Alex McGeary to give bluegrass music a try.
With the help of Greg and Margie Mirken, owners of Shade Tree Stringed Instruments in Mission Viejo, DeSon assembled a mailing list of about 800 bluegrass musicians and fans in and around Orange County.
"The reason it flies is that there is nothing like it in the area," said DeSon, who works by day as branch manager for a computer leasing company in Costa Mesa. "I don't think any of the merchants believed it was a marketable product. But Alex took the chance. To be honest, we didn't know if there would be enough interest to sustain it more than a few weeks. But we've only had a couple of what I would call off-nights. Most have been real strong."
In establishing a format for the series, DeSon said he tried to strike a balance between providing an open forum for local bluegrass musicians and giving the customers an entertaining show. So, rather than having impromptu, unstructured jams--as the name might suggest--DeSon said solo performers and established groups take turns in individual sets throughout the evening. It has become so popular that musicians now call DeSon ((714) 240-7552) to reserve performance times to avoid confusion on show nights. Performances begin around 8 p.m. and run until 11:30 or "as long as someone wants to play."
The players are restricted to the acoustic instruments traditionally used in bluegrass: guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle and an occasional stand-up bass. Because bluegrass is similar to some Irish folk music, DeSon said, some performers bring hammer dulcimers and harps for Irish songs.
But those guidelines don't exclude all spontaneity, he emphasized.
"Sometimes people come in just to play together in front of an audience and they haven't worked anything up," DeSon said. "They are usually pretty good. They'll just go out in the parking lot for 15 minutes and work up 15 minutes' worth of music. To be honest, that's some of the most fun--when nothing is rehearsed, nothing is planned, but they just get on stage and the sparks of magic fly.
"One of my biggest fears was keeping the caliber of talent up," he said of having an open-mike format. "At the same time, I didn't want to deny anybody the chance to play. But we've never had to pull anybody off," he said. "I think the presence of the stage and the sound system are enough of an intimidation. Generally, people aren't big on going up and embarrassing themselves.
"The scariest thing about the cafe is looking up and seeing that these people are \o7 listening\f7 to us. It's not like playing in a club where there's so much noise you can't hear the music."
There is no cover charge for the shows, so the performers rarely get any financial rewards. "They divvy up tips, but it ain't much," DeSon said.
"People do it because they genuinely love the music. There is no side motivation."