39 Years on KSON!

KSON poster 1980s

A KSON poster from the 1980’s

KSON’s Bluegrass Special went on the air for the first time on March 7, 1976 from 9 PM to midnight. The first few programs were aired on KSON-FM 97.3 which at that time was called “Country 97” and honestly had very few listeners. Most country music fans listened to KSON-AM 1240. AM radio was still king 39 years ago.

But after a few months, station owner Dan McKinnon decided the Bluegrass Special deserved a bigger listening audience, so the show was moved to KSON-AM from 4 to 7 PM. At that time, the KSON studios were located in College Grove Center, one of San Diego’s original shopping malls—and the control room was visible to mall shoppers behind a big glass window at the bottom of the mall elevator. Back in those days, you did your radio program not only for listeners on the radio but for a live audience of spectators. I must say that I was happy when my show moved to back to my original slot, 9 PM to midnight, after the stores were closed for the day.

It took quite a few years for FM radio to catch on with the public but by 1989, AM radio was pretty much obsolete except for news and sports stations.  So KSON let all its AM staff go and began simulcasting its programming over both KSON FM 97.3 and AM 1240. I was among the staff let go at that time but it wouldn’t be for long. Within a few weeks, KSON’s program director found a spot for me on Sunday nights on the FM station, from 10 PM to to midnight. In his words, “Your fans have spoken and we got the message loud and clear!”

So Sunday nights at 10PM it has been ever since. For the last 25 years, it has followed three hours of country classics (oldies), first hosted by Bill Mackey, then Doc Holliday, now Rick Jackson, who is also our station’s GM and one of the nicest guys in the world.

It’s a testament to all the wonderful  people I’ve had a chance to work with at KSON that I’m still there after 39 years.  I’ve been very blessed to be accepted as part of the KSON family even though bluegrass music is generally not accepted by country radio. Of course KSON isn’t your typical country music station.  It’s San Diego’s country music station and that makes all the difference in the world.

So this coming Sunday night (March 8) is my 2019th radio show, the Bluegrass Special’s 39th anniversary. I still love doing it each week and I’m thankful that I now benefit from technology that allows me to pre-record the show a day or two earlier and listen to it myself on Sunday nights. Of course I still enjoy doing the show live on Sunday nights when I can do it that way. I also love having bands come into the studio and play live on the air, mistakes and all. In my opinion, that’s good radio and I’m so thankful to KSON for letting me do it here in San Diego for so long. I’m also very grateful  to the bluegrass music fans who listen faithfully every week. That’s really why I’m still on the air.

So here we go, pushing on to our 40th anniversary celebration next year! Same time, same station!

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Robert Earl Keen Records Bluegrassy “Happy Prisoner”

robert-earl-keen-2You may or not be familiar with Texan Robert Earl Keen as he has never been a mainstream country or pop artist, preferring instead to stay on the fringes and record his own brand of folk, roots, blues, protest, outlaw, alt-country (Americana) music. And like bluegrass, Americana generally gets marginalized by the major record labels and promotors who can’t see a way to take such a niche market to the bank. So Keen has been content to build his audience by prolifically recording dozens of very interesting albums of original songs on a variety of labels and unorthodox distribution channels. So far, so good and today he is one of the most popular and well-known Americana artists working today. His songs have been recorded by everyone from George Strait to the Dixie Chicks.

I rarely played his stuff on my radio show because he never claimed to be a bluegrass artist … UNTIL NOW! I just received a copy of his new album Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions and immediately checked to see who the backing musicians were on the album. After all, that’s what makes a bluegrass album a bluegrass album, right? You’ve got to have the right pickers who can give you that bluegrass sound. Lots of country or pop artists have cut bluegrass albums—recent examples being Alan Jackson , Dolly Parton, Dierks Bentley and John Driskoll Hopkins of the Zack Brown Band. In each case, these artists employed some of the Nashville A-list studio musicians who are able to take any song, whether it had bluegrass content or not and turn it into a bluegrass hit. There are some amazing bluegrass musicians in Nashville who can make almost anybody’s record a great bluegrass record.

Well, I’m happy to report that Robert Earl Keen did not go that route. Instead, he used his own band (which includes some notable non-bluegrass elements like keyboards, drums and electric guitar) and added some bluegrass authority in Sara Watkins (Nickel Creek) on fiddle, Danny Barnes (the Bad Livers) on banjo, and Kym Warner (Greencards) on mandolin. Singing with Keen is Lyle Lovett, Peter Rowan and Natalie Maines (Dixie Chicks). And rather than trying to turn Keen’s original songs into bluegrass standards, Keen chooses to turn a dozen or so bluegrass standards into Robert Earl Keen songs while using these great musicians to pay homage to their bluegrass roots. It’s clear from listening to each cut that the musicians find a good groove for each song and have a blast improvising and trying to do something truly unique.  I’m reminded of when Steve Earle recorded his bluegrass album with the Del McCoury Band a few years ago, or when Bob Dylan cut the Stanley Brothers’ classic “Lonesome River” on Ralph Stanley’s “Clinch Mountain Country” album. Robert Earl Keen gets to do what he does best on Happy Prisoner while all the backing musicians are left to improvise and create something truly unique. Yes, it’s a bluegrass album featuring real bluegrass songs but it’s nothing like you’ve ever heard before. That makes it a perfect fit for KSON’s Bluegrass Special. Be listening!

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On Not Using “R” Word

not using the R word“So how do you like being retired?”

Having resigned my staff position at College Avenue Baptist Church last month, that’s the question I keep hearing from well-meaning folks who assume I’ve stopped working and have all kinds of free time on my hands.

“I’m not really retired,” I insist. “I’m busy. I don’t have time to play golf, go on a cruise or whatever it is that retired people are supposed to do. I have plenty of work to do right now and I’m going to keep right on doing it.”

I even pull my personal mission statement out of my wallet (thank you Steven Covey for making me write it some 25 years ago) and show it to them. “Look, read the last line: I WILL NEVER RETIRE.”

But I get that knowing smile and a little joke to go with it: “True, your not retired. My grandfather always said he wasn’t retired … just tired. And then the next day he was tired all over again. Get it? Re-tired, ha ha”

OK, I get it. Sorry to be so defensive. I’m not sure why I am so against the idea of retirement. This isn’t a point of view that I have come to hastily. I have never had a desire to retire. In fact, as long as I can remember, I’ve held the view that retirement isn’t an option for Christians at all. It’s not biblical. While there is a passage in the book of Numbers (8:23-26) about “retiring” Levite priests over the age of 50, this is clearly not a rule for all people. The vast majority of people in the Bible either get crucified, stoned, taken up, or just drop dead serving God. Joshua was 110 years old when he uttered those famous words “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15). Age doesn’t seem to matter in the Bible. Paul encouraged Timothy, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young” (1 Tim. 4:12) and I have a feeling he would have said to Timothy 50 years later, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are old, either.” Just keep serving God and being a good example no matter how old you are. My life verse is Psalms 71:18 “Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me O my God, til I declare your power to the next generation, your mighty deeds to all who are to come.” That verse doesn’t seem to have a time limit on it.

Now I know that most working people eventually retire from their jobs. They have to, either because they can’t do the work they used to do or they just need a rest.  Most jobs can only be done for so long. When a brain surgeon’s hands no longer hold steady, it’s time for him or her to retire. I realized quite a few years ago that I wasn’t going to be a youth worker forever. It has become physically impossible for me to do the things that one must do to be effective with junior high kids. So I have transitioned to other ministries that I am still fully capable of doing. For the past five years, I served as Pastor to Generations at College Avenue Baptist Church and I’m grateful for all that God allowed me to accomplish there.

But now, God has called me to a new job, even if it doesn’t have a title and a regular paycheck to go with it. My job is to serve him every day, doing whatever it is that he wants me to do.  I know that God will continue to provide for me opportunities to write, speak, consult, mentor and otherwise put my experience to good use.  I still have a passion for youth, family and intergenerational ministry and want to help my local church as well as the global church be effective at strengthening marriages and helping families pass faith on from one generation to the next.

So while I am not keeping regular office hours at a ministry organization, school or church anymore as I once did, I am far from retired.  I am transitioning to a new phase of ministry to and with my family, my church, and the world. If I can ever be of service to you, as a speaker, writer, consultant, banjo player or whatever, please get in touch. I’ve got all kinds of free time on my hands!

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Speed Mentoring

cabc_pv_15 imageThis past weekend, our church held its third annual all-church retreat at a conference center in the mountains near San Diego. CABC@PineValley, as the retreat is known, is designed to bring all ages of the church together for a weekend immersion experience in community-building. About half of our church attended this year and by all accounts, everybody had a blast.

Along with several large group meetings, there were numerous optional activities that people could sign up for. On Saturday afternoon, I led one of them called “Cross-Generational Connect,” an opportunity for young people and older people to intentionally connect with each other. About 20 people showed up between the ages of 17 and 75—a good turnout considering that there were plenty of other fun things to do at the same time.

Essentially, what we did was a modified version of speed dating. I began by asking everyone to line up by age—from youngest to oldest. I gave the older folks permission to lie about their age if they considered themselves younger than they actually were. After they were lined up, I divided the group in half so that we had two groups: the youngsters and the oldsters. We then formed two concentric circles in chairs facing each other, with the youngsters on the inside circle and the oldsters on the outside circle.

I gave each person a list of suggested questions and told them they had five minutes to introduce themselves to the person they were seated across from and find out some things about them that they didn’t know. After five to seven minutes, the conversations would stop and the inner circle (the youngsters) would rotate one seat to the right. This was repeated for about an hour, which allowed everyone a chance to talk to each other.

I later heard from several who said this was their favorite part of the whole weekend. They came hoping to meet someone new and this little activity made it happen. As a participant myself, I joined in and talked with several young people (yes, I was an oldster). In one of my conversations, I asked a student, “What do old people like me need to know most about young people like you?” Her answer: “I wish older people knew that we really do want you to be around us, to mentor us and teach us what they know about God and about life in general. You have so much experience that we don’t have.”

I don’t know why her answer surprised me, but it did. It reminded me of a quote from the late H. Stephen Glenn that I often cited back when I was teaching “Understanding Your Teenager” seminars:

“Left to their own devices, teenagers will always gravitate to the oldest person they can find who will take them seriously and treat them with dignity and respect.”

This was true generations ago and it’s even more true today.

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Where is Your Keilah?

keilahA few months ago I attended a conference for aging baby-boomers called “Recalculate.” I had a chance to reconnect with some good friends from my YFC and Forest Home days, Bob and Carol Kraning, their son Kent and his wife Robin.

The Kranings (both the elder and younger Kranings) were the featured conference speakers and they did a marvelous job sharing their personal stories in a very transparent and helpful way. They spoke about unexpected and often unwanted transitions in life and were able to address this topic with the authority of their own experience.

At one of the sessions, Kent taught a lesson from 1 Samuel 23:1-14, a story about David and a town in Judah called Keilah. Quite honestly, I had no recollection of a town called Keilah. Somehow this town didn’t make much of an impression on me in my reading of the Old Testament.

But Kent’s teaching about Keilah helped me make a decision I was mulling over at the time–whether or not to resign from the staff at College Avenue Baptist Church.

To summarize the 1 Samuel passage, it’s a story about David during the time he was being hunted down by King Saul. David and his army of 600 men are on the run. But while he is fleeing Saul’s armies, he hears that the town of Keilah is being attacked by Philistines. David asks God, “Should I try to save Keilah or stay on the run?” God answers, “Go save Keilah. I’ll help you defeat the Philistines.” So David does what God tells him to do and wins an impressive victory over the Philistines.

But the story doesn’t end there. David stays in Keilah, no doubt enjoying the spoils of victory. Saul hears about all this—that David is hiding out in Keilah, and so he begins planning a massive attack on the town in order to catch David. David prays again and this time God tells him that he is in danger. It’s time to hightail it out of Keilah. David does, Saul calls off his attack, the town is saved once more and David avoids getting killed by Saul.

Kent’s point—at least the way I heard it—was simply this: God sometimes calls us to a place for a reason and a season—and then he calls us out when he knows it’s time for us to go. Kent’s question to us was “Where is your Keilah?”

I immediately thought of College Avenue Baptist Church. I know God called me there for a reason (if not for a season). I didn’t slay any Philistines, but I know I did what God called me there to do. But for some time now, I have heard God calling me to move on.

So after much prayer and discussion with my wife, I resigned my position as Pastor to Generations effective January 1, 2015. I’m not moving on in the sense of leaving the church. Marci and I have invested five years of our lives in the people who make up our CABC family and we really don’t want to walk away from the relationships that we have made there. Unlike David, no one is trying to kill us, at least no one that we know of.

I am a free agent once more and will now serve God in other ways. No, I am not retiring (I will write more about this later). I want to spend more time with the Lord. I want to spend more time with my wife. I want to spend more time with my grandkids. I want to do more writing, speaking, banjo playing. I want to surrender completely to my God and allow him to use me any way he can. I am very excited about what God has for us next.

Where is your Keilah, past or present?

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Another Banner Year for Bluegrass Music

earlsOnce again I had a tough time choosing the top bluegrass albums of the year. There were simply too many good ones to choose from. But I made my choices, based primarily on what gets played the most on my radio show.

So here’s my list of the top 40 albums of 2014. My apologies to all the great albums and artists who didn’t the cut:

  1. The Earls of Leicester “The Earls of Leicester” (Rounder)
  2. Hot Rize “When I’m Free” (Ten in Hand Records)
  3. Bryan Sutton “Into My Own” (Sugar Hill)
  4. The Special Consensus “Country Boy: A Tribute to John Denver” (Compass)
  5. Blue Highway “The Game” (Rounder)
  6. The Osborne Brothers “Nashville” (Pinecastle)
  7. The Seldom Scene “Long Time … Seldom Scene” (Smithsonian Folkways)
  8. Larry Cordle “All Star Duets” (Mightycord)
  9. Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers featuring Edie Brickell “Live” (Rounder)
  10. Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen “Cold Spell” (Compass)
  11. Dolly Parton “Blue Smoke” (Dolly Records)
  12. Lonesome River Band “Turn on a Dime” (Mountain Home)
  13. The Darrell Webb Band “Dream Big: A 20 Year Celebration” (Mountain Fever)
  14. Balsam Range “Five” (Mountain Home)
  15. Rhonda Vincent “Only Me” (Upper Management)
  16. Joe Mullins and The Radio Ramblers “Another Day from Life” (Rebel)
  17. Darren Nicholson “Things Left Undone” (Bearded Baby)
  18. Tim Stafford “Just to Hear the Whistle Blow” (Hedge Drive)
  19. Volume 5 “The Day We Learn to Fly” (Mountain Fever)
  20. Flatt Lonesome “Too” (Mountain Home)
  21. Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper “On Down the Line” (Compass)
  22. Irene Kelley “Pennsylvania Coal” (Patio Records)
  23. Mike Scott and Friends “The Old Country Church” (Rural Rhythm)
  24. Phil Leadbetter “The Next Move” (Pinecastle)
  25. Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver “Open Carefully: Message Inside” (Mountain Home)
  26. Larry Sparks “Lonesome and Then Some” (Rebel)
  27. Front Country “Sake of the Sound” (Front Country)
  28. Rob McCoury “5 String Flame Thrower” (McCoury Music)
  29. Dave Adkins “Nothing to Lose” (Mountain Fever)
  30. Detour “Going Nowhere Fast” (Mountain Fever)
  31. Mike Auldridge, Jerry Douglas, Rob Ickes “Three Bells” (Rounder)
  32. Shawn Lane “Mountain Songs” (Cat Town)
  33. Crowe, Lawson and Williams “Standing Tall and Tough” (Mountain Home)
  34. The Roys “The View” (Rural Rhythm)
  35. Ralph Stanley and Ralph Stanley II “Side by Side” (Rebel)
  36. Kathy Kallick “Cut to the Chase” (Live Oak)
  37. Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice “Trouble Follows Me” (Rebel)
  38. Jon Weisberger “I’ve Been Mostly Awake” (Wise Kings)
  39. Becky Buller “Tween Earth and Sky” (no label)
  40. Wayne Taylor “Movin’ On” (Raincoe)

If you would like to purchase any of these albums, do me a favor and order them from my other website BluegrassBios.com. Here’s the link: http://bluegrassbios.com/another-banner-year-for-bluegrass/

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

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A Christmas Party for All Ages

christmas_extravaganza_12_12_14Over the past several years, my wife and I have been invited to attend many of the Christmas parties hosted each year by various groups at College Avenue Baptist Church. Word got around that I was good for some cheap (free) entertainment, being a member of the church staff. And it’s true: I know dozens of fun Christmas games and I can play Jingle Bells on the banjo. I’m happy to share this spiritual gift with anybody for a free meal or a chunk of Christmas fudge.

A couple of years ago after attending several of these parties and doing the same schtick at each one of them (and wearing the same ugly Christmas sweater) I thought to myself, “Hey wait a minute. Why don’t all these groups just get together and have one big Christmas party instead of a whole bunch of little ones. I’m Pastor to Generations at this church and one of my goals is to bring the various age groups together … so why not at Christmas? Why does everybody have to have their own Christmas party?”

I tried to make it happen last year but the idea was met with a big bah humbug from most everybody.  Apparently, people like having their own parties. Sunday school classes, small groups, old people, young people, the board of elders, the missionary society, the college group, the choir, the deacons, the children’s ministry team, the youth ministry team, etc. all have a tradition of doing their own parties.

Still, why not do an all-church Christmas party that would bring all the generations together?  That wouldn’t necessarily prevent any of the groups from having their own Christmas parties at some other time. They could still go ahead and have their own party in addition to the all-church one. I thought that might make a good compromise.

So I brought it up again this year and lo and behold, the church staff agreed to give it a shot. It’s going to happen! College Avenue Baptist Church is having an all-church Christmas party on Friday night, December 12 called “A Christmas Extravaganza.” It warmed my heart to see the promotional piece for the worship folder with the headline “A Christmas Celebration for All Generations.” Some (but not all) of the groups at our church have cancelled their Christmas parties in lieu of this event. Everyone is helping make it happen. The children are singing. The youth are planning a Christmas film festival after the event. The college students are helping to lead the games. The old folks are helping serve and they are all going to have a blast. There will be good food and games and yes, I will be playing Jingle Bells on the banjo.

May your family (and your church family too) have a wonderful Christmas celebration this year!

UPDATE:

The Christmas Party was a big hit. Over 550 people attended and everything went better than expected. The food was great, the games were fun and everybody had a wonderful time. I heard many comments from older folks about how wonderful it was to see all the “young people” having such a good time. That’s a win in my book.

Here are a few pictures.

Our grandson Jack was a big winner at the party. He guessed the correct number of items in the jar and got to take it home!

Our grandson Jack was a big winner at the party. He guessed the correct number of items in the jar and got to take it home!

Dueling Christmas Carols 2014

Here I am leading a game called “Dueling Christmas Carolers” up on the stage. Controlled chaos, but everybody enjoyed it.

Lighthouse at CABC Christmas Party

Me playing Jingle Bells with my band Lighthouse. We played a few other Christmas songs also.

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Christmas Time’s a Comin!

santa banjoHey everybody, I’ll be leading bluegrass-style Christmas carols for the San Diego Bluegrass Society at their regular 4th Tuesday of the month event (November 25) which is held at the Boll Weevil Restaurant, 9330 Clairemont Mesa Blvd. in San Diego. I’ll be opening for the Next Generation Bluegrass, the featured band who will perform at 8 PM. I’ll be playing guitar this time with some amazing musicians and good friends: Dennis Caplinger on banjo and fiddle, Tom Cunningham on mandolin and fiddle, and Pete Varhola on bass.

Even though we are doing this two days before Thanksgiving, the Christmas season (or for some, the holiday season) has been well under way for a good while. There’s no admission charge, but attendees are invited (encouraged) to bring new unwrapped toys to donate to the Marine Corps Toys for Tots campaign. The SDBS is planning to make a donation to this venerable charity as well. It’s all for a good cause, so come on out and have some holiday fun with us, bluegrass-style!

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Jerry Douglas Talks About the Earls of Leicester

I was in Raleigh, North Carolina a couple weeks ago and heard more bluegrass music in five days than some people hear in a lifetime. I listened to new artist showcases, went to the IBMA Awards Show and caught most of the Wide Open Bluegrass Festival which boasted more than 70 bands on a dozen or so different stages. I came home on Sunday wiped out and completely full of bluegrass music which I let spill out on my radio show that evening.

No need for any more live bluegrass for a while, right?

earlsNot so fast, banjo breath. The following Wednesday night the Earls of Leicester appeared at the Belly Up Tavern and I had tickets complements of the venue. My wife Marci and I went with our friends Rick and Patty Kirby and had a blast. As Lester Flatt might say, “Goodness gracious, it was good!” The band is the brainchild of Jerry Douglas, who normally performs with “Alison Krauss and Union Station featuring Jerry Douglas.” But Jerry wanted to do a tribute album to the band that set his world on fire as a teenager, so he created the Earls of Leicester (pronounced “Lester”) with some of the top musicians in bluegrass music (Tim O’Brien, Shawn Camp, Barry Bales, Charlie Cushman and Johnny Warren, whose father played fiddle with Flatt and Scruggs.) They dress in period costumes and mimic the mannerisms and choreography of the Hall of Fame band.

The concert was packed with bluegrass fans and the Earls transported us back about 50 years with a near-perfect set of music that Lester and Earl and the rest of the Foggy Mountain Boys would have played were they still alive. I was in the audience when Flatt and Scruggs played Russ Auditorium in San Diego back in 1968, just a few months before they broke up for good. I was lucky to see them then and I was lucky to see the Earls of Leicester on Wednesday night. My understanding is that this band is a project band that is touring in support of the new album for a few months, and then it will be over. All of these musicians have successful careers of their own which they will resume once this tour is completed. According to O’Brien, they are booked through March of 2015 and will also play MerleFest in May.

I spent some time backstage with Jerry Douglas before the concert and asked him a few questions which he patiently and courteously answered into my digital recorder. I played that interview on my radio show Sunday night October 12. To hear Jerry talk about the Earls of Leicester as well as his newly released album with Rob Ickes and the late Mike Auldridge called “Three Three Bells,” click here.

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Gettin’ Ready for Raleigh!

ibma 2014For the past twenty-five years or so I’ve made my annual pilgrimage to the International Bluegrass Music Association’s “World of Bluegrass” trade show which started out in 1988 in Owensboro, Kentucky, then moved to Louisville, then to Nashville, and then last year moved to Raleigh, North Carolina where the whole city became the venue. Attendance numbers exploded for the weekend “Wide Open Bluegrass Festival” with some estimates topping 200,000. I have no idea how many people were there in reality but the crowds were definitely impressive. I could tell I wasn’t in San Diego anymore. It’s hard to attract 200 to a bluegrass event in San Diego …  although it happens from time to time.

I do miss the good old days of Owensboro when the conference was smaller and it was possible to hang out in the hotel lobby with people like Earl Scruggs, Jimmy Martin and Doc Watson. But the excitement of Raleigh and the chance to reconnect with so many bluegrass music friends always makes the trip worthwhile.

For seven years I co-produced the annual IBMA Awards Show which is held this year on Thursday night, October 2nd in Raleigh’s very impressive Performing Arts Center. I’m no longer involved in the production of the show but I look forward to it every year. This Sunday night on my radio program, I’ll be presenting music by all the nominees for awards (or at least as many as I can get into a two-hour show).

If you are a fan of bluegrass music, IBMA is definitely something to put on your bucket list. I’m grateful I still get to go after all these years!

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