Monthly Archives: May 2015

Track Three: How Shared Space Makes Great Music Possible

The following is the third of nine tracks on an annotated mix-tape exploring the Bluegrass Scene of my home, San Diego County. Click the link and read along.

“Shady Grove”

-The Scottsville Squirrel Barkers (1963)

            Of the many talented and successful San Diego bluegrass musicians to arise, Chris Hillman stands as one of the most influential outside of the region itself. Following his sister’s return from the musically rich Berkeley area, Hillman was introduced to the world of folk and country music. At the age of 15, he began his musical studies on the guitar, before switching to his signature instrument, the mandolin, after listening to bluegrass recordings by Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs. After an influential meeting with The Kentucky Colonels, a popular Los Angeles based bluegrass group, Hillman found himself on a train to Berkeley, where the group’s mandolinist, Scott Hambly, agreed to teach him.

Scottsville squirrel barkers

(The Scottsville Squirrel Barkers, early 1960’s. )

Back in San Diego, Hillman found himself in the company of the Blue Guitar, an important venue in San Diego’s musical history. Started as an alternative to meeting at Frank Emig’s Furniture, the place downtown to buy imported Mexican guitars, the Blue Guitar quickly became the hangout of choice for young musicians in the area. Founders Yuris Zeltins, Ed Douglas, and Larry Murray opened their doors in 1961, and created the opportunity for musicians of all genres to congregate and jam.

By 1962, the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers had formed. Named after Douglas’ hometown of Scottsville, Kentucky, the line up consisted of Ed Douglas (bass), Larry Murray (Dobro), Kenny Wertz (guitar), Gary Carr (banjo), and a 16-year-old Chris Hillman (mandolin). Before long, the Squirrel Barkers became the official house band of the Blue Guitar and soon began playing gigs across Southern California. When the group felt ready, they headed to Los Angeles to record their first album, a 10 track, 18-minute gem called Blue Grass Favorites that sold well in local grocery stores and shops. After a too-brief lifespan of two years, the group split up. Though the group initially had little impact outside of San Diego, it served as a starting point for many careers, with members going on to found bands like The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and The Eagles.

What makes The Scottsville Squirrel Barkers the quintessential San Diegan bluegrass group has a lot to do with their origins. Their story illustrates the critical roles of common space and transplants in the development of the San Diego bluegrass scene. Hillman, a third generation Californian, group up on a ranch in Encinitas. Wertz arrived in San Diego from Maryland when his father relocated with the US Navy. Murray also arrived in San Diego through the military, though only after serving there for a while. Douglas, an ex-police officer, hailed from Kentucky. Gary Carr was a San Diego native, associated with the Air Force base in Miramar. Through their shared musical interest and the space offered by the Blue Guitar, these five men brought the high lonesome to San Diego.


For more on the Scotsville Squirrel Barkers, check out Mike Fleming’s fantastic write up over at the North Georgia Bluegrass Chronicle.

Track Two: Radio and Migration

 The following is the second of nine tracks on an annotated mix-tape exploring the Bluegrass Scene of my home, San Diego County. Click the link and read along.

“Just When I Needed You”

-Maddox Brothers and Rose (Late 1940’s)

This recording, made just across the border at XERB radio station in Rosarito Beach, Baja, marks an interesting point in the career of the Maddox Brothers and Rose. Since 1937, the siblings (Cal, Cliff, Don, and their sister Rose) had been flooding the airways with their genre blending radio shows. By the time of this recording, the group had found a regular recording gig with the already infamous 4-Star Records in Los Angeles. It was through 4-Star that the group found themselves broadcasting on the AM border blaster throughout the entire western half of the United States.

maddox brothers and rose

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Their high energy performances and distinctive style earned them the titles of “California’s Best Hillbilly Band” and “America’s Most Colorful Hillbilly Band” from the 30’s through the 50’s. The latter name can be attributed either to the group’s colorful wardrobe designed by Hollywood designer Nathan Turk (think Roy Rodgers and Gene Autry) or to their raucous stage shows that often featured lewd jokes, suggestive lyrics, and plenty of dancing. It was this last element that prompted a somewhat bitter, up and coming Patsy Cline to remark after Rose was asked to follow Cline’s performance in Oceanside:


“If I got up and shook like she does, why I’d be as popular as she is!”

-Patsy Cline


But their energy paid off in a big way. It was precisely their “color,” along with their unique proto-rockabilly (Fred Maddox is often credited with originating the slap bass technique back in 1937) that has since sparked some interesting comparisons with Elvis Presley and other early rock musicians.

This style may have worked for the band out west, but it clashed uncomfortably with many eastern audiences, notably the Grand Ole Opry, which was shocked by Rose’s exposed midriff in their first performance in 1949. After a brief stint in Nashville, the group ultimately felt unwelcome. They left the Opry and were never asked to return.

But what does any of this have to do with San Diego? The Maddox Brothers and Rose, like many Californian families, are not “originally” from California. Rose and her family hitchhiked from Boaz, Alabama (part of Appalachia according to the ARC!) to Los Angeles, California to escape a life of sharecropping. After a few years of working odd jobs and following the crops up and down the Great Central Valley from Sacramento to Yuma, 18-year-old brother Fred Maddox arranged for the siblings to play a daily hour-long radio slot out of Modesto. San Diego Troubadour writer Lyle Duplessie tells it best:


“As the story goes, he went into Rice’s Furniture Store looking for a prospective sponsor. The owner, Jim Rice, was willing to give the band a chance, but only if they had a girl singer and if Fred did all the ads. Fast-talking Fred assured him that they had the best girl singer around, while withholding the fact that this girl singer was none other than 11-year-old sister Rose… Not one to quit while ahead, Fred made a deal to purchase a new bass fiddle from Mr. Rice at $10 down and $10 a month that very same morning. Apparently it didn’t seem odd to Mr. Rice that at least one of the band members didn’t own his own instrument.”

-Lyle Duplessie


The rest is history.

Theirs was the sound San Diego was bathed in during the 40’s and 50’s, the soundtrack to a gradually urbanizing series of beach towns between Tijuana and Camp Pendleton. Rose Maddox and her brothers rode the airways and toured the state, entertaining audiences and inspiring the next generation of musicians throughout the west.

Their story serves as a fine example of the classic California musician. Leaving home in search of a better life, geographically fluid, full of energy and clashing with the status quo, The Maddox Brothers and Rose represent a particular type commonly found in San Diego: the migrant musician. Whether it was the Dust Bowl, the military, or educational opportunities, San Diego has long been rife with people “from” somewhere else. This melting pot of traditions and backgrounds would lead to the creation of the bluegrass scene in the region as we know it today.



For more on the fascinating story of Rose Maddox, check out Lyle Duplessie’s three-part masterpiece, “Queen of Hillbilly Swing: Rose Maddox”, which served as the inspiration for this piece.

For more on this track, and many, MANY more, check out the Lou Curtiss Sound Library project, or follow Curtiss on Facebook.