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CENTERPIECE | BLUEGRASS

Fiddlin' Around

Long a musical mainstay here, 'true country' suddenly is spreading like a weed and cropping up all over.

October 29, 1998|JUDY RAPHAEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's autumn, and the fiddles, mandolins and banjos are breaking out and gearing up for a season of bluegrass. The hills and valleys are alive with the sound of music.

Bluegrass in the San Fernando Valley? Trendy enclave of metal, rock, blues and line-dance discos?

Well, yeah.

Actually, the oft-called "redneck blues," that harmonious interplay of instruments as formulated by Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, has a long tradition here. In the '60s, the Dillards played the Palomino, as did Chris Hillman, in his pre-Byrds days, with the Hillmen. Through the '70s and '80s, California native and now-Nashville superstar Vince Gill was often seen pickin' and singin' bluegrass onstage there.

Later, the music crept into hiding, confined largely to bluegrass mainstays like the annual Topanga Canyon Banjo and Fiddle Contest.

Suddenly, though, bluegrass seems to be popping up everywhere, from a Newhall pizza parlor to a Burbank Mexican restaurant, a library and even a church, as well as a Ventura Boulevard blues club.

The last would be Smokin' Johnnie's, which has started the "Sunday Mostly Bluegrass Showcase" in conjunction with Traditional Music, a nearby instrument shop. It started out by alternating Irish, folk and other acoustic music, but it quickly became apparent that bluegrass was what turned the crowds on," said club manager Bobby Cottonwood.

Respected L.A country veteran Herb Pedersen, who recently went back to his roots to form a bluegrass band, the Laurel Canyon Ramblers, may know why.

"I find in bluegrass a sincerity that doesn't exist anywhere else in music today," said Pedersen, whose producing and playing credits include Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and even Diana Ross, as well as founding the late Desert Rose Band with Chris Hillman.

"As country has moved toward the pop end of the spectrum, bluegrass is becoming the true country, a home-grown type of music," Frank Javorsek said.

Javorsek is co-owner, with his wife, Tammy, of the Blue Ridge Pickin' Parlor, a venerable bastion of bluegrass in Canoga Park, and he's the longtime host of "Bluegrass Express," a Saturday morning show on KCSN-FM. Javorsek thinks bluegrass is on the rise.

"There was a time when they wouldn't play a record on mainstream radio if it had a banjo on it," Javorsek said. "But with the advent of artists like the Dixie Chicks, Ricky Skaggs and Alison Kraus bringing a more contemporary sound to it, it's breaking down. If you watched the CMA [Country Music Assn.] Awards, you even saw Vince Gill and Randy Scruggs (son of Earl), open with 'Soldier's Joy' ."

Back at the "Pickin" Parlor," Javorsek has kept bluegrass alive for 17 years, selling and fixing stringed instruments and providing a teaching staff of ace players such as guitarist Howard Yearwood and banjo expert Bill Knopf. And Javorsek offers an array of concerts, workshops and Saturday night jams.

"Some of the greatest players on the West Coast have evolved from those jams," he said, adding that the beginners' early jam is really a workshop on ensemble playing, followed by the "Big Dog jam" with the "hotshots."

The shop also hosts teaching workshops, such as one Sunday with Nashville mandolin maven Butch Baldessari, who has a CD called "Bluegrass Classics for the Mandolin."

Five years ago, in order to spread the gospel about bluegrass music, Javorsek and friends formed the Bluegrass Assn. of Southern California.

"We wanted to do something more for the music than just get together and play," said BASC President Marshall Andrews. "We felt we had a mission to protect and preserve bluegrass as one of the country's indigenous musics, and, in fact, an original American art form that is still viable."

One feat accomplished by BASC was to bring bluegrass to an amphitheater setting. The most recent was August's night of "Bluegrass at the Ford," headlined by the Laurel Canyon Ramblers and featuring two other nationally touring bands.

A couple of weeks ago, BASC and the Blue Ridge Pickin' Parlor presented the first "bluegrass festival" at the Mid-Valley Regional Library. "We had about eight players who performed the various styles of bluegrass and talked about its history," Javorsek said.

Most popular, perhaps, is the monthly Tuesday "BASC Bluegrass Night" at Baker's Square Restaurant in Granada Hills, a standing-room-only showcase of regional touring bands. The last concert, last week, featured the Witcher Brothers, a group that represents a growing trend toward a more contemporary bluegrass sound.

"We try to break from tradition, without totally abandoning it," said lead singer and mandolinist Dennis Witcher, who formed the band in 1986 with fiddler son Gabe, who was then only 6.

He described the band sound as a blend of western swing, blues, country, and original and traditional bluegrass.

"Bluegrass has grown more sophisticated, and we want some spontaneity--an edge," he said.

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