Category Archives: Bluegrass
I have a special fondness for family bluegrass bands, I suppose because it combines two of my passions — family ministry and bluegrass music. I work with families at my church and do my best to help parents stay connected to their kids so that they can pass on their faith and values, which is what I call the “First Commission” (Deuteronomy 6:4-6) of the Bible. The “Great Commission” came later (Matthew 28) when Jesus told his disciples to take the Gospel to the whole world. Our first priority is to tell our kids.
Being so involved with bluegrass music as I am, I constantly hear about families like the Harris Family (The Trinity River Band) of Callahan, Florida, who play and sing together so well, and while I don’t know their whole story, they also seem to have a strong faith connection with their kids as well. They perform a lot in churches and have recorded some wonderful gospel songs. I got their new CD just this week and will be playing their new single on my radio show this week. They have a very impressive sound.
Here’s a video from a recent TV appearance.
Obviously there’s a lot of musical talent which the Harris parents have been able to encourage in their kids. I know we can’t just issue every family a bunch of musical instruments and tell them to start practicing but I do think there are some principles here that we can take away. One is that when parents are passionate about something, kids are very likely to pick up on that and want it for themselves. Most kids see their parents as role models. Another principle is that parents must be very intentional about passing their passions on to their kids. They won’t be passed on simply because you all live in the same house. The Harris parents taught their kids to play, got them the instruments they needed, and were very intentional about achieving their family goals. They are well on their way to realizing them, I think. Trinity River Band, you have a fan in San Diego!
Today my old friend Dan McKinnon was laid to rest at Miramar National Cemetery after a very Christ-centered funeral service at Clairemont Emmanual Baptist Church. He died on Thanksgiving Day, having lived a fruitful life of 78 years. You can read an article about Dan’s life in the UT newspaper by clicking here.
Before he died, Dan meticulously planned his own funeral service, which is exactly what took place today. Congressman Duncan Hunter and his former pastor Tim LaHaye spoke, as did several other friends and relatives. Dan asked for specific songs to be sung: I Saw the Light, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Daddy Sang Bass, Angel Band and the old spiritual Amen. It was my honor to play banjo and sing those songs for Dan today along with my old Brush Arbor band mates Ken Munds and Dave Rose.
I first met Dan around 1966 when he was serving on the board of San Diego Youth For Christ. He was a young man, in his early 30′s as I recall and he owned a radio station in town, KSON. A few years later KSON sponsored a talent competition called “Country Star” (an early version of “American Idol”) and by that time I had formed a band called Brush Arbor. We decided to enter the contest. There were more than 100 entries and we managed to make the cut to the finals, a show that was broadcast live on the radio. Contest judges included a producer from Capitol Records, a Billboard magazine executive, and several other people who I don’t remember. We won the contest that night and the producer from Capitol (Steve Stone) asked us if we would be interested in a record deal with Capitol. Needless to say, we were very happy to sign a record contract that would put us on the same label with Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and the Beatles.
After we were signed by Capitol, Dan offered to be our manager, and so we entered into an agreement with him which turned out to be very beneficial to us. Not only did he own KSON, but he had connections with the Grand Ole Opry, the Country Music Association and many other country music industry leaders. With Dan as our manager, our very brief career as country music stars really took off. We got Nudie Suits, started playing Vegas, making appearances on the Opry, touring with Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, the Everly Brothers, Marty Robbins, Waylon Jennings and the list goes on and on. I stayed on with the band for a couple of years before departing to continue my calling in youth ministry.
About the time I left Brush Arbor in 1974, we won the Academy of Country Music Award for Vocal Group of the Year. We received a nice trophy (presented to us by Kenny Rogers) and so we gave it to Dan to keep in his trophy case. Thirty years later, Dan organized a reunion of the band at his Wildcat Canyon Ranch where he presented each one of us with our own Academy of Country Music Award which he made possible. Mine is prominently displayed in my home.
In 1975 I had a conversation with Dan regarding bluegrass music. I mentioned that there were quite a few bluegrass music fans living in San Diego (me, for one) and I suggested that it might be a good idea to feature some bluegrass now and then on his radio station. He thought it was a great idea and he asked me if I would like to do it. I was completely surprised by the offer because I had no radio experience at all. (I thought radios worked because there were little tiny people inside.) Dan just grinned and said “Oh, anybody can be a DJ. We’ll show you how.” Ha. I have since learned that professional radio personalities are incredibly talented people. I still haven’t got the hang of it and I’ve been doing a weekly show on KSON now for almost four decades.
Dan sold KSON back in the eighties to Jefferson-Pilot Communications, who then sold the station to Lincoln Financial Media. I’ve had lots of bosses and program directors at KSON over the past four decades. But each year on the anniversary of my show, I like to give credit to Dan for its success and longevity. He made it all possible. In 2001, on our 25th anniversary extravaganza at the East County Performing Arts Center in El Cajon, I honored Dan by presenting him with a commemorative Deering Banjo. He always wanted to learn how to play one but I don’t think he ever found the time to work on his banjo licks.
So goodbye old friend, and thank you. Thank you for believing in me and providing me with some of the most memorable and significant moments of my life. You will always be remembered with great fondness and respect.
After being assured that receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award doesn’t necessarily mean your lifetime is over, I was pleased to accept a LAW from Youth Specialties at their recent San Diego National Youth Workers Convention. From what I hear, this was the first of many that will be given to individuals who have contributed in some significant way to field of youth ministry. In my case, I co-founded the organization giving out the award, so I suppose that’s the secret to getting the first one! Regardless, it was a very special night for me and I am very grateful to the staff of Youth Specialties and all who contributed to making it happen. The presentation was captured on video and posted by Youth Specialties on YouTube as well as their web site.
After the presentation, several people said they were surprised to hear that I gave up a promising career in music to pursue youth ministry. Actually, that’s not quite true. I tried to explain it in the interview but I’m not sure I explained it very well. So let me explain it a little better here.
First, I was in youth ministry before I ever started playing music. In fact, it was youth ministry that prompted me to take up music in the first place. As a Youth for Christ staff member in the 60′s, I was trying to figure out how to reach kids for Christ. Folk music was pretty popular at the time, so several of us learned to play guitars and banjos and we formed folk groups. Our YFC rallies became “hootenannies” and believe it or not, they were pretty cool.
My first group was a folk trio with my wife Marci and another YFC staff member Dave Sheffel called “The Accidents.” That was in 1966. I played bass. Later, I learned banjo and formed a bluegrass group with my brothers and wife Marci called The Rice Kryspies. We recorded a couple of albums and played for churches, youth groups and two summers at Forest Home Christian camp. I really got into bluegrass music and my obsession with the banjo kept growing, but it was a hobby, a part-time thing while I was working for YFC and doing youth ministry in my church.
I was still playing with the Rice Kryspies AND doing youth ministry when Mike Yaconelli and I started Youth Specialties in 1968.
Then, in 1972, my wife Marci contracted pregnancy and she had to quit playing bass with The Rice Kryspies. My brothers and I continued along with two new members of the band, Ken Munds and Dave Rose. We changed the name of the band to Brush Arbor. After winning a local radio station talent contest, we were signed by Capitol Records and before long we were hearing our music played on country radio stations. One thing led to another and we ended up on the Grand Ole Opry, doing some network TV shows, touring with people like Johnny Cash and Marty Robbins (my favorite) and then winning a couple of country music awards including Vocal Group of the Year (Academy of Country Music). We had a manager by then and a booking agent, both of whom were expecting us to become the next big thing in country music. Capitol Records called us “The Voice of the New Country.”
All this happened very quickly and I have to admit, it was a whole lot of fun. But in December of ’73, while taping an NBC TV Special with Johnny Cash at Rockefeller Plaza in New York (on the same stage that later became the home of Saturday Night Live), I realized that I just couldn’t keep on playing with Brush Arbor. Our booking agent was telling us that he was going to put us on the road for over 300 dates per year. Youth Specialties was just getting some traction. My son Nathan was two years old and needed a daddy at home. I was torn between too many things and putting too much stress on my wife and partners in ministry. So I quit the band in New York. Our manager told us (while we were in New York) that he had booked us on the Hee Haw TV show and wanted us to fly to Nashville immediately to tape three shows. But I just couldn’t go. I had already made plans to go from New York to Atlanta to meet up with Mike Yaconelli and Denny Rydberg for a YS event.
So, I told the band I didn’t want to hold them back and they would need to replace me, which they eventually did. I played out a string of dates in Las Vegas in early 1974 but that was the end of my music career. Brush Arbor ended up going through a few more personnel changes after I left and while they never became the next big thing in country music, they had a good run and ended up being a top Christian country band. My brother Jim kept it going for quite a few years and they made some really good records.
I never felt like I gave up anything to do youth ministry because (1) youth ministry was what I had been called to do all along and (2) I was a very mediocre banjo player. I knew I would never make it as a professional musician. I would have starved to death.
But the time I spent with Brush Arbor (and since then, playing with other bands and doing my radio show) has been wonderful. I’m very blessed and thankful to God for all the opportunities that he has given me to do what I love to do.
Last week I made my annual pilgrimage to Nashville for the IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) “World of Bluegrass” trade show, awards show and FanFest. I had a wonderful time there meeting up with old friends, listening to music, shopping in the exhibit hall, re-living old memories of the Nashville I remember from my old Brush Arbor days and in general just having fun. Listening to the best musicians on the planet has a way of putting me in a very good place emotionally AND spiritually. I’ve always considered my passion for bluegrass music a gift from God. Whenever I am enjoying it fully I am engaged in a form of worship. A great musical performance draws me immediately to God who is the Creator of all good music and has given us the capacity to appreciate it.
As I laid awake in my hotel room bed after a particularly wonderful night of music on Friday evening, I thought about how incredibly blessed I was to be able to come to Nashville and immerse myself so completely in this odd world of bluegrass music. My thoughts also turned to other passions in my life. Jesus. My wife. Do I also take time to immerse myself in them—like I do bluegrass? I was starting to feel a bit guilty.
And then it struck me that yes, I think I do. A few weeks ago, my wife and I were blessed to spend a week on the island of Cozumel, off the eastern coast of Mexico. We stayed at a beautiful resort and did nothing but just enjoy each other’s company for a whole week. What a wonderful time we had together, just being together and enjoying each other without any of the distractions of my normal life. No banjos. Whenever Marci and I are able to do something like this, we are drawn together in a very intense and beautiful way. We try to do this every year.
And this summer, I had the chance to take a group to Mexico to serve Jesus in Mexico on two separate mission trips. Whenever I have a chance to go and immerse myself in serving those whom Jesus identified with the most, the poor and the needy, I am drawn so much closer to Him. I always come home from those kind of mission trips with a renewed sense of passion and love for my Savior and what He has done for me. I’ve also been considering a spiritual retreat sometime soon, just a few days to get away and spend some alone time with Jesus—not working for him but just spending time with him.
I’m thankful that God has given me these passions and that I can take time to immerse myself in them from time to time. What are your passions?
I’ve been playing the banjo now for … let’s see, that would be 46 years … the same number of years I’ve been married. Yep, I bought my first banjo on my honeymoon. It was a Harmony banjo, made of plastic, which I bought at a pawn shop in L.A. We were on our way to Palm Springs (from Ventura County, where we were living at the time) and as I recall, Marci was OK with me buying the banjo with some of the money we were given at our wedding. We both were singing in a folk trio at the time called the Accidents (patterned somewhat after Peter, Paul and Mary) and we figured a banjo would be a nice addition if I could learn to play it.
And I did for the most part. Like most banjo players, I learned to play by listening to Earl Scruggs. There were other banjo players (Doug Dillard was one of my favorites) but as I soon found out, they all learned from Earl.
Earl passed away last week at the age of 88 and he was still making music well into his ninth decade of life. He won a Grammy award for best country instrumental performance at age 78.
HIs memorial service was held last Sunday afternoon at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, home of the Grand Ole Opry for so many years. I listened to a broadcast of it on the web and it was very moving. It’s amazing how many people were there to pay tribute.
If you would like to listen to my radio show honoring Earl Scuggs, you can listen online at www.kson.com/bluegrass.
Slacker Radio also asked me to program an Earl Scruggs tribute station and it is now available for listening at http://www.slacker.com/station/earl-scruggs-tribute.
I have a confession to make. Last week I bought a $35 guitar pick. Yes, that’s right … a guitar pick. I don’t think I have ever paid more than 35 cents for a guitar pick in the past. In fact most guitar picks, I get for free.
How did this happen? Why would I spend $35 on a guitar pick? I have no other way to explain this except to say that it was peer pressure, pure and simple. Here’s how it happened: I walked up to a booth in the exhibit hall of the IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) last week in Nashville. The booth was “Blue Chip Picks,” a company based in Knoxville, Tennessee which makes picks primarily for professional guitar and mandolin players. Several bluegrass “stars” endorse Blue Chip picks and probably get them for free in exchange for their endorsements. I have wondered for some time what all the fuss was about.
So I’m at the Blue Chip booth and ask the obvious question. So how much do these picks cost? “Well, the one you’re holding there is $35.00.” I quickly put the pick down. Wow. I had no idea a pick could cost that much. Of course the man behind the table went on to explain to me all the desirable qualities of a guitar pick, how they are shaped, what kind of material they are made of, and how these picks never wear out but if they do, they can be returned for a new one. My problem of course is that my picks never have a chance to wear out. I lose them right away. They magically disappear after each use. Or somebody borrows my pick and that’s the last I see of it. So I’m standing there watching other musicians casually laying down some serious money for these picks. “I’ll take three,” says one. I do the math in my head: that’s $105 for three guitar picks. Holy smokes.
“You can’t beat these picks,” says Bull Harmon, a flat-pick guitar champion from Missouri. “Just like a tortoise shell pick.” Of course, I’ve never played guitar with a tortoise shell pick, since they are illegal and also very expensive if you know where to get one illegally. I’m not sure what makes a tortoise shell pick so much better than a plastic pick. I’ve actually made guitar picks out of old credit cards.
Several other musicians are there at the booth just raving about these picks. Before long, I’m starting to want one. I try out a couple of thicknesses. They even have picks that have been shaped a certain way depending on whether or not you are left- or right-handed. I finally settle on the TD-40 (which sounds pretty impressive for a pick — it’s pictured above). I hand the man behind the table my credit card and say, “I’ll try this one out and if I like it, I’ll order more.” I think I said that to make him believe that I did this all the time, and that $35 really didn’t seem all that outrageous to me. I get my receipt along with the pick, which is in a little plastic zip lock bag. It doesn’t come in a fancy case or anything. Just a guitar pick in a plastic bag. I put it in my pocket, hoping I won’t lose it before I get out of the building.
On the way out of the IBMA exhibit hall I stopped at the Martin Guitar booth. They had free guitar picks on the table. “Take all you want,” the man said. But not to be greedy, I took two and put them in my pocket, right next to my $35 guitar pick.
As I was walking back to my hotel room a few blocks from the Nashville convention center, I suddenly came to the realization that I had just spent $35 for a bleeping guitar pick! What in the world made me do that?
All I can say is that it is the exact same kind of peer pressure that we warn our kids and grandkids about. While I was standing in that booth, with all those other musicians encouraging me to “try it, you’ll like it,” I did. I couldn’t just walk away. When I got home, it took me two full days to confess to my wife what I had done. She wasn’t too upset as she admitted that she had been a little extravagant herself while I was away and bought a new purse.
So, next time you hear me playing my guitar, I know you’ll be impressed because I will be using a $35 Blue Chip TD-40 pick. If I don’t lose it first.
In case you aren’t familiar with Bill Monroe, you are most certainly familiar with the music he created. He was a singer and mandolin player from Kentucky who in 1939 formed an ensemble called the Blue Grass Boys (named to honor his home state) and after experimenting with various combinations of instruments and vocal styles, he found success with his legendary 1945 combo which included Lester Flatt on guitar, Earl Scruggs on the banjo, Chubby Wise on fiddle and Cedric Rainwater playing bass. The early recordings and performances by that band took the world of country music by storm and spawned dozens, then hundreds, and today thousands of bluegrass bands all over the world.
Bill Monroe wrote hundreds of songs and instrumentals which form the canon of bluegrass music today. He single-handedly established the mandolin as a solo instrument in American popular music. He was one of the early inductees into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He was the first inductee into the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame, and he was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Many of the early rockabilly stars of the 1950’s like Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley were huge Bill Monroe fans. Presley’s first single was Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”
Well, I could go on and on about Bill Monroe (“On and On” is the title of a Monroe song, by the way), but I’ll let you look him up on Wikipedia or something. I’m just honored that I had a chance to meet him and work with him on a few occasions. One of my prized possessions is a photo of him that he signed for me which hangs on my wall at home.
When I was in the band Brush Arbor, I’ll never forget the night in 1973 when we opened for Monroe at the world famous Palomino Club in North Hollywood. The room was packed with celebrities and many of my musical heroes at the time who had come to hear Monroe, not us. I remember seeing Clarence White of the Byrds sitting up close and Carl Jackson, who was playing banjo with Glen Campbell at the time. Backstage I chatted with Del Shannon who had hit songs like “Runaway” and “Hats Off to Larry.” Of course, the biggest thrill was hanging out with Big Mon himself, who was bluegrass music royalty. I remember just how kind he was to us despite the fact that we had drums and steel guitar in the band (a no-no to most bluegrass fans). He gave us an open invitation to play at any of his bluegrass festivals around the country. We did get to play at one of them.
When we took the stage at the Palomino, we kicked off with our version of “Proud Mary” which is really really fast. I kicked it off on the banjo and about four bars into the song, my thumb pick just popped off my thumb and flew out somewhere in the audience. I was stunned. Everyone looked at me like “what are you going to do now?” and I really didn’t know. My brother Jim grabbed a thumb pick out of his stash on stage and I was back in business right away and the song went on. But I broke into a flop sweat that just soaked my rhinestone-covered Nudie suit. Sooo embarrassing. I never got my thumb pick back.
Happy birthday Bill Monroe! Thank you for the amazing music you created which absolutely swept me off my feet almost 50 years ago as a teenager and which continues to bless my life in so many ways today. I thank God for you and remember you with deep appreciation on your centennial year.
If you would like to hear my radio show which I did Sunday night (9/11) to celebrate Bill Monroe’s 100th birthday, go to www.kson.com/bluegrass. It will be there for about a month so if you are reading this after October 15, you probably won’t be able to hear it.
Each month I try to feature a live bluegrass band on my radio program–usually whoever is appearing at the local San Diego Bluegrass Society’s 4th Tuesday event at the Boll Weevil Restaurant. I heard that a group from Orange County called the Wimberly Bluegrass Band was going to be appearing at the June SDBS event, so I wasn’t real sure if they would be coming down to appear on my radio show or not. I wasn’t familiar with them and I hadn’t heard anything directly from them (or the SDBS) to confirm their appearance on my radio show. So when I arrived at the radio station Sunday night, I wasn’t absolutely sure if anyone was going to show up.
But there they were! What a surprise to find this young, good looking group at the front door of the radio station ready to play! The Wimberly’s are a family group, three brothers and a sister ranging in age from 13 to 19 who are self-taught and have already recorded two CD’s. Mom and Dad accompanied the group to the studio and unlike many “stage parents” I’ve been around, they were extremely calm and content to let the youngsters speak for themselves and do their own thing. I was very impressed with them and wasn’t surprised at all to hear that they were home schooled. That certainly explained why they were so articulate and comfortable around an old codger like me, and how they developed a fondness for bluegrass and country music rather than what’s being marketed to the teen population these days.
If you would like to hear them on my show, visit the kson.com/bluegrass web site … it will be there for a month. They will also be appearing at many Southern California bluegrass events, so keep an eye and ear out for them. This is a group with a lot of appeal and I think they will have lots of success coming their way.
Just returned from another Huck Finn’s Jubilee in Victorville which is how I have spent Father’s Day weekend for the past 20 years or so. I have been involved with this event either as a performer with my band Lighthouse or as the main stage emcee or both. I also serve as a consultant to the show’s producer (helping with talent selection) each year and I host the Sunday morning chapel service which is where my two worlds (ministry and bluegrass) collide in a big way.
The festival went great this year with a large turnout and great weather. The idea of going to Victorville in June sometimes scares people away because they think it’s going to be too hot. But we have had moderate temperatures and cool nights for several years in a row now. The music was wonderful with outstanding performances by the likes of Sierra Hull, Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, Rodney Dillard (of the Dillards), NewFound Road and Roy Clark. It was also great to spend the weekend with my wife, daughter Amber, and our three grandkids Nick, Maddie and Jack. They all had a good time.
I’m always amazed and a bit conflicted that I get to live in two completely different worlds. Throughout most of the year, I’m a pastor, serving on a church staff, doing rather mundane (yet significant I hope) ministry tasks. But on a weekend like the one I just had, I’m not a pastor but a bluegrass music insider, radio personality, stage announcer, friend and colleague to some of the most talented musicians on the planet. I’m amazed by it all and grateful to God that I get to do this.
But I got a quick return to reality when I got home Sunday night. The water supply to our home had been shut off by our neighbor because of a pipe break at the water meter on the street. I spent all day Monday getting it fixed and somehow strained a muscle in my back in the process. But the repair was made, the water is back on and except for the sore back, life is pretty much back to normal. See you next year, Mr. Twain.