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Bluegrass Takes Root

Herb Pedersen, who will compete in the Topanga Banjo Fiddle Fest, says his niche is growing.


The Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest & Folk Festival has been the meeting place for countless bluegrass and country musicians since it started in 1961.

This year's lineup includes the Laurel Canyon Ramblers, the Iron Mountain String Band, folk singers Cathy Barton & Dave Para, Fred Sokolow singing Hank Williams' tunes, plus hundreds of individual banjo, fiddle and guitar players vying for cash awards and prizes at the daylong event.

Laurel Canyon Ramblers' founder Herb Pedersen has been a key player in Southern California country and bluegrass music since moving here in the late '60s from his hometown of Berkeley, following a short detour through Nashville.

A member of the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Desert Rose Band (both with Chris Hillman) as well as a session player for the likes of Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, Pedersen, 56, talks about the upcoming Topanga event, the evolution of bluegrass music and the state of the Southern California music scene. He was a judge of the Topanga festival's banjo competition in the late '70s, but the Ramblers' performance Sunday at 12:30 p.m. marks his first year as a participant.

Los Angeles Times Tuesday May 22, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 2 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Bluegrass musician--The headline for a story in Thursday's Calendar Weekend misstated bluegrass musician Herb Pedersen's role at the annual Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest & Folk Festival. Pedersen and his group, the Laurel Canyon Ramblers, were part of the headline entertainment at the event, held on Sunday.

Question: What distinguishes the Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest from other bluegrass festivals?

Answer: It's one of the few that is actually what it says it is: There is direct competition and a lot of people try out for it. There are beginning, advanced and professional-level players, and there's some pretty aggressive competition. I'm really looking forward to being a part of it.

Q: Is competition a good thing in music?

A: Sure. It gives kids something to strive for. It's a great place for young players to interact, and that's where you learn more technique on your instrument--listening to somebody else play.

Q: Going back to the very start of bluegrass music in the late 1930s, there have always been virtuosos like Earl Scruggs. How has bluegrass musicianship evolved over time?

A: In the beginning, there were only a very few who were really good. Banjo-wise, Earl Scruggs was at the top, and it went down from him. But there's a bumper crop of really good players now. . . . When Chris and I had Desert Rose Band [in the '80s,] we'd run into a bluegrass band every once in a while. Now it seems like every town has one, and one that's reasonably good. It's great for the music.

Q. What's your take on the old-time country music-filled soundtrack to "O Brother Where Art Thou?," which topped the country album chart?

A: I think it's a ripple in the stream of bluegrass consciousness. These things will hit every once in a while, like when "Deliverance" came out [in 1972] and a lot of people heard "Dueling Banjos" for the first time. . . . But I really think it has a lot more to do with what's happening in bluegrass music today. People are embracing more of the roots-type bluegrass, the bluesier-sounding stuff, and that's good. It's changing within itself.

Q: Do you hold out hope that bluegrass music can reach beyond the niche following it's always had to find a wider audience?

A: Like jazz, it's always going to have its fan base. I don't know how big it's going to get, but it's already gotten a lot bigger than I ever expected it would. . . . The way it's being passed down now, with younger and younger players who are getting better and better, the sky's the limit.

Q: Are you surprised at how much contemporary country music reflects the influence of Southern California country-rock of the '70s?

A: I sure hear a lot of it coming back at me, sounding just like what we did 25 to 30 years ago. It's gratifying, but someone said, "It's all been recorded, now we're just hearing a rehash."

Q: California has a long, rich tradition, especially in country and roots music. Do you think that tradition continues today?

A: There are certainly more places to play here now than there were in the '60s. I don't listen to a lot of new stuff that's going on out there. I just like what I like, but that's what we all do. But just pick up the paper and look through the listings--there are a thousand bands playing every night. I think it's as healthy as it ever was.


* The Laurel Canyon Ramblers play Sunday at 12:30 p.m. at the 41st Topanga Banjo Fiddle Contest & Folk Festival, Paramount Ranch, Cornell Road, Agoura. 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. $9, general; $5, ages 10-17 or over 65; free for under 10. (818) 382-4819. Web site: http://www.topangabanjo The Laurel Canyon Ramblers also plays Saturday at McCabe's, 3101 W. Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. 7:30 p.m. $17.50. (310) 828-4403.

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