Category Archives: San Diego Bluegrass: An Annotated Mixtape

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

( )

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.

Track One: Proto-grass and Encinitas

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

“Yes Sir”

-Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies (1936)

A few years ago, I stumbled across a fascinating photo while perusing the photos of the City of Encinitas Facebook page. While looking through their collection of old photos from the San Dieguito Heritage Museum (the organization that preserves and celebrates the local history of my home town) a photo of what appeared to be a seven-member string band in full cowboy garb (I’m talking Stetsons and lambskin chaps) happened to catch my eye. Under the photo, the caption read:

“Back in the 1930s, all the young folk in Encinitas would spend their summer nights at a carnival near the beach. Local ranch hands, including these photographed, would keep the party going.”

Fascinated, I saved the picture in my own collection of local historical photographs, and promptly forgot about it.

encinitas ranch hands

(The Encinitas Ranch Hands. Now where have I seen that before…?)

Fast forward to 2015, and I found myself in the first class on Bluegrass music to run in the history of Virginia Tech. Discussions of geographically rooted music sparked memories of my own experiences back in San Diego County, and that photograph became suddenly relevant. At a second viewing, with the defining characteristics of bluegrass fresh in my mind, I realized that the instrumentation featured in the photograph almost perfectly matched that of a traditional bluegrass group (minus the mandolin). But that couldn’t be right, because the caption listed the photo as being from the 30’s, the decade before bluegrass as we know it came to be. Something was wrong and I was bound and determined to figure out what it was.

So I did some digging. Thanks to an insightful source from a 2006 San Diego Union Tribune article, I was able to recognize the group not as some “local ranch hands” as the caption described, but as The Encinitas Ranch Hands, a collection of musicians with an instrumentation more complicated than I first thought. In addition to the more traditional fiddle, banjo, guitar, and upright bass first identified in the photograph, the band included the husband-and-wife duo of D.M. and Gertie MacFarland, who played saxophone and piano respectively. Further defining their own unique sound, the Encinitas Ranch Hands rounded off their group with the musical saw of Scottish immigrant and carpenter, Charles “Snuffy” Brass. Brass, who arrived in the area at the onset of the great depression, joined the group in performances at all kinds of local events, including weddings, festivals, and weekly dances organized by the community.

In many ways, The Encinitas Ranch Hands were part western swing and part jug band, incorporating the performativity and style of a Bob Wills with the eclectic sound of thrown-together family groups. With members bringing his or her own form of musical instrumentation, their performance must have been like nothing you can hear today. As you might imagine, I’ve had some difficulty tracking this sound down.

In the absence of any actual recordings by the group, this track by the Texas-based Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies, a pioneering western swing band from the 1930’s, features similar instrumentation and dance musicality as the Encinitas Ranch Hands. Though I have many reservations including a non-San Diegan band on this mix (as the first track, no less!) I’ve decided this recording is the best available approximation for what I am trying to convey. Important similarities to note are the use of piano, the call-and-answer vocals, and the use of musical breaks. Though not represented in this song, “westernized” versions of jazz standards, such as the 1919 hit, “Somebody Stole My Gal,” were performed for the audience right next to more “traditional” western songs, like “Home On the Range,” perhaps representing the more varied audiences found in the coastal cities.

As we move forward in this exploration of San Diego County Bluegrass, keep in mind the Encinitas Ranch Hands, the story of seven community members of different backgrounds arriving in the west to put together a sound of their own. Keep in mind the role of venues, their shared passion for music, and the local successes they shared together. Their story might just help us understand why there is a bluegrass scene in San Diego.

For more on the Encinitas Ranch Hands, check out the Union Tribune article here.

Musical Source:

SD Bluegrass: The Annotated Mix-Tape

The following presentation is an overview of the upcoming Annotated Mix-Tape that I have been working on as part of my final project. I am proud to present: San Diego Bluegrass. Enjoy!

Track One: Proto-Grass and Encinitas

“Yes Sir”

-Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies (1936)

  • Who were The Encinitas Ranch Hands?
  • What did they play?
  • Where did they play?
  • Where were they from?


Track Two: Migratory Music

“Just When I Needed You”

-Maddox Brothers and Rose (Late 1940’s)

rose and family

(Recording courtesy of the Lou Curtiss Sound Library)

  •  The Maddox Brothers and Rose (Boaz) arrive in California
  • Slap Bass, and other “color”
  • Their role in San Diego (and everywhere else out West)
  • Their sound as an example


Track Three: Bluegrass Erupts

“Shady Grove”

-The Scottsville Squirrel Barkers (1963)

scottsville squirrel barkers

  • Chris Hillman (Los Angeles) and The Blue Guitar
  • The Scottsville Squirrel Barkers:
    • Kentucky, Minnesota, etc
  • “Blue Grass Favorites” and beyond
  • How does shared space make great music possible?


Track Four: The Role of Venues

“You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone”

-Jim Ringer & Sweet Mills String Band (1970)

tom waits at the heritage

(Recording courtesy of the Lou Curtiss Sound Library)

  • The Sign of the Sun (1960-late 1960’s)
  • The Blue Guitar (1961-today)
  • The Heritage (1963-1972)
  • Folk Arts Rare Records (1967-today)
  • The Old Time Cafe (1979-1988)
  • Java Joe’s (1991-today)
  • Adam’s Avenue (more on that later)


Track Five: Lou Curtiss and the Collegiate Scene

“Coal Black Choo Choo”

-Alice Gerrard and Mike Seeger (1970)

san diego folk festival

(Recording and image courtesy of the Lou Curtiss Sound Library)

  • “Folk Music” in San Diego
  • San Diego State: A new kind of musical migrant
  • Sam Hinton (Tulsa) and the San Diego Folk Song Society
  • Lou Curtiss (Seattle) and Folk Arts Rare Records


Track Six: Geographically Rooted Music

“North County Breakdown”

-Squatter’s Last Rights (1977)

  • “North County Breakdown” and the Homegrown Albums (1973-1983)
  • What’s in a name?
    • The Encinitas Ranch Hands
    • Pacificly Bluegrass
    • San Diego Grass and Electric
    • Box Canyon
    • Hwy 52
    • Lighthouse
    • Old Town Road
    • Palomar Pickers
    • Faultline
  • Back to The Scottsville Squirrel Barkers and The Golden State Boys
  • San Diego as the “Home Place”
  • Outside Bluegrass: Tom Waits, J.J. Cale, Eric Clapton, Joe Walsh


Track Seven: Local Organizations and Institutions

“Highway 52”

-Hwy 52 (1998)

highway 52

  • A funny story (not quite 20 miles)
  • The San Diego Troubadour (since 2001)
    • Four friends and a crazy idea
    • local writers, local music
    • 16 neighborhoods, 170+ locations
  • San Diego Bluegrass Society (Rick Kirby of Pacificly Bluegrass)
  • North County Bluegrass and Folk Society (Summergrass, Jams and more)


Track Eight: The Nickel Creek Story

“Reasons Why”

-Nickel Creek (2000)

  • Beginnings: That Pizza Place
    • What’s with Bluegrass and Pizza?
  • Idyllwild
  • Local Success
  • Big Success
  • Alison Krauss
    • Reasons Why
  • Chris Thile and co. Today
    • Fiction Family
  • Lifestyle Diversity in San Diego


Track Nine: Adam's Avenue and Lou Curtis Today

“Prisoner’s Song”

-The Scottsville Squirrel Barkers (2004)

  • Adam’s Avenue
    • Street Music and Festivals
  • Lou Curtiss Today
    • San Diego Troubadour
    • Folk Arts Rare Records
    • The Lou Curtiss Sound Library


Track Ten: From Gospel to the Galapagos

“On the Road to Julian”

-Lighthouse (2007)

  • Wayne Rice (San Diego)
    • Brush Arbor
    • Lighthouse
    • Bluegrass Special (since 1977)
  • The Galapagos Mountain Boys and “Scientific Gospel”
    • Dr. Stephen Baird (Oklahoma)
    • Hallelujah! Evolution!
    • Water on Mars
    • Darwin, Darn It!


Bonus Track: Bluegrass and Me

“Backyard Jam”

-San Diego Bluegrass Society (2012)

  • My Bluegrass Story:
  • Country Radio
  • The Star of India
  • Summer Camp
  • Eli Turner
  • Contra Dancing
  • Today’s Pizza


Coming Soon!

San Diego Bluegrass:

The Annotated Mix-Tape


Soon, Soon…

As the semester draws to a close, so too must this blog…

But my adventures in Bluegrass are just beginning! No longer will this space serve as a catalog of my thoughts and experiences in the first ever “Bluegrass: Appalachian Roots and Influences” class to run at Virginia Tech, but, perhaps, it doesn’t have to go away entirely. Exciting opportunities await in the musical scene of my home, including festivals,  lots of Contra Dancing, and learning to play the Mandolin. Not to mention the rumors going around about a new folk and bluegrass music club bringing local (and otherwise) talent to campus in the coming years!

But I digress…

The true purpose of this post is to announce the fruit of my labors: the much awaited “Annotated Mix-Tape” that I’ve been researching off and on for two months.

It’s coming. Soon.

Each day leading up to May 6th (when this whole thing has to be done by) I’m going to post a single audio track along with a detailed analysis of  said track and it’s connection to my topic of Bluegrass Music in San Diego County. All together, it is my hope to create new knowledge about Bluegrass and what it means to have a musical “scene” by putting together research in a new, exciting way!

But before I begin posting the tracks, I actually have to use this blog in a presentation on my research. So though it will totally kill the anticipation and suspense, what follows (in my next post) is a complete track listing and a bit about what will later be discussed in longer, more detailed, blog posts.