By Dan Mazer with Julie Horner
The 27th Annual Brookdale Bluegrass Festival was scheduled for the weekend of April 17th-19th, 2020, but it was one of the first events to be cancelled due to the pandemic. As one of the scheduled performers, it hurt my heart to miss one of my favorite events, which used to take place at the Brookdale Lodge and has lately been held at San Benito County Historical Park in Tres Pinos.
I’m a professional bluegrass/folk musician. In the late 1990s, I lived in San Diego and was the banjo player in a group called “The Jackstraws.” We were a costumed entertainment act, combining folk music and comedy, performing at venues ranging from SeaWorld to the world-famous San Diego Zoo, and festivals all around California. After a painful divorce, I moved back to my old hometown of Washington, DC to recover near family and friends.
In early 2001, The Jackstraws’ band leader convinced me to return to San Diego for one more summer with the band, so I began making plans for a cross-country tour to bring me back to California. One of the events I contacted was the Brookdale Bluegrass Festival. Eric Burman, the festival director, told me that although he didn’t usually book solo acts, he’d take a chance on me, and that was how I got my first-ever gig in Santa Cruz County.
My tour began in mid-February, quite an adventure, driving across the country in late winter. I had shows in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin; Pierre, South Dakota; Gillette, Wyoming; Bozeman, Montana; and Sandpoint, Idaho, on my way to “The Big Gig” of the tour, which was the Wintergrass Festival in Tacoma, WA. I have a vivid memory of driving into a fog bank on the way to Bozeman. The fog was so thick that I had to follow dangerously close to a truck just so I could see its rear lights. I was afraid that if I lost sight of those little red lights, I’d drive right off the road!
After the weekend at Wintergrass, the tour continued with gigs in Portland and Eugene, Oregon; a recording session in Ashland; and in California I had shows in Arcata and Eureka on the way to Brookdale. The festival was held inside the Brookdale Lodge, and when I arrived I was immediately impressed with the beautiful old hotel, especially the natural stream running right through the middle of the dining room. Eric Burman greeted me when I arrived, and made me feel right at home.
The 2001 Brookdale Bluegrass Festival featured Frank Solivan Sr. and Jr., Sidesaddle, Harmony Grits, Regina Bartlett, and Eric’s band, The Birchlake Ramblers. There was also an “underwater banjo contest,” which I missed, unfortunately. I remember in particular enjoying the Solivans’ show, but I have no clear memory of my own performance. That’s OK, because Eric assured me that the audience enjoyed it a lot.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of bluegrass music is the jamming. Bluegrass relies on the interplay between guitar, mandolin, banjo, fiddle, and bass with every instrument playing a support role in between solos. Just as in a jazz “cutting session,” each instrumentalist is given a turn to play lead on a given tune. So, when all the performances were over for the evening, Eric led me to “the green room” where the jam session was taking place. The air was filled with the sound of hot pickin’ and redolent with the sweet smell of high-quality cannabis.
At the jam session I met Frank Solivan II, who’s a truly amazing mandolin player and singer, and Santa Cruz’s own Pete Hicks, who’s also a very talented singer and multi-instrumentalist. It was an insanely fun jam, made even more fun by Frank and Pete’s enthusiasm and broad knowledge of Bluegrass. Pete told me that he happened to have a recording session scheduled the next day, and asked if I’d like to be on it. Since I had a couple of days off before the next gig, I eagerly accepted.
The next morning I accompanied Pete to Jim Lewin’s place. I didn’t know Jim, but he’s another Santa Cruz County fixture. He’s a great guitarist and singer, and is a member of at least two fine bands, “Edge of the West” and “Great American Taxi.” Jim was the engineer on the session, and he blew me away with his guitar playing!
That session was eventually released as Pete Hicks’ “Upstairs Jam” CD, and it remains one of my favorite projects that I’ve ever recorded.
Eric Burman booked me for the Brookdale Bluegrass Festival in 2012. He eventually made me an ad hoc member of his own Brookdale Bluegrass Band, and I’ve been delighted to join him at the Brookdale Bluegrass Festival, the Good Old Fashioned Bluegrass Festival (both held at the San Benito County Historical Park), and the Pick & Gather Festival in Livingston. The connection to Eric has given me the opportunity to visit Santa Cruz County many times now, and I’m grateful to him for his kindness and generosity.
The Brookdale Bluegrass Festival takes place at its new home at the San Benito County Historic Park in Tres Pinos, CA over the weekend of August 13-15. Laurie Lewis and Peter Rowan headline, with David Holodiloff, Eric Burman’s Brookdale Bluegrass Band with BanjerDan, and many more. Tickets and information: brookdalebluegrass.com
“BanjerDan” Mazer performs Americana and bluegrass music and teaches 5-string banjo in the Santa Cruz Mountains. banjerdan.net
Featured photo: Banjo workshop at The Parkfield Bluegrass Festival BanjerDan, Greg Cahill, and Julio Boysenberry
Photos contributed by Dan Mazer