Tag Archives: San Diego County

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 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:

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.





The Dept. of Religion and Culture’s Undergraduate Research Day

Undergraduate Research Day

(Sam Winter, Paul Wotring, Chris Youngs, Molly Hilt, and our fearless leader, Jordan Laney)


This weekend, four students from our class had the privilege of presenting our research at the Virginia Tech’s Department of Religion and Culture Undergraduate Research Day! With food, speakers, and excellent presentations all around (check out the lineup below), the event was a great opportunity to share our work and get feedback on our research from the community.

Undergraduate Research Day Schedule

(Wow, I feel so official!)

After the keynote and a brief break, Ms. Laney introduced us and we were off! Four quick presentations (Chris, Paul, and Molly knocked it out of the park!) followed by a Q&A session that covered everything from authenticity and bluegrass in other languages to geographically rooted music and the desire to claim ownership of a sound.

Below is my presentation (A.K.A. a brief overview of the reason I haven’t posted anything on this blog for several weeks). Enjoy, and look out for the first few sections of my Annotated Mix-tape in the following days!


Thanks, Chris. Hello, I’m Sam, and thank you all for coming out here today.

Traditionally speaking, to become a bluegrass musician, you need inspiration and influences. A big part of bluegrass culture is this idea of roots and the acknowledgement of one’s musical lineage. Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass, had Arnold Shultz and, of course, his Uncle Pen in the dance hall circuit of rural Kentucky. Earl Scruggs, pioneer of the now standard Scruggs-style banjo technique, had Bill Monroe, and the music-loving community of Flint-Hill where he grew up. So sure, you need musicians and mentors to emulate and learn from, but there also has to be a surrounding culture that exists to nurture and support musicians as they grow into their musical maturity. To make it big as a musician, there has to be an audience, and when you are starting off, that audience often takes the form of your hometown.

Arnold Shultz

(The bold text represents slide transitions. I’ll include some pictures and captions here. This one is the only known photo of Arnold Shultz, Bill Monroe’s mentor and friend.)


So when I started looking into a path of research within bluegrass music, I immediately went back to my own roots, back to my hometown, which, fortunately for me, has an incredibly rich and diverse bluegrass history. I’m speaking, of course, of Southern California. More specifically, San Diego County.

San Diego Map

(I was going for the shock value here. “Just LOOK how far away San Diego is from Kentucky!”)


Yep, San Diego. With it’s white beaches and surfer culture, its yoga studios and urban sprawl, it’s about as far away from the rural hills of Appalachia, the locale most commonly associated with bluegrass music, as you can get.

And yet…

swami's beach

(My hometown: Encinitas, CA. “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home…”)


What’s great about the studies conducted in the department of religion and culture, is that they encourage the mapping of commonly held conceptions and stereotypes before turning right around and tearing them down to get a little closer to the real story. Here, in the first bluegrass class to run in the history of Virginia Tech, we do this sort of thing everyday. So far, I’ve learned that bluegrass music started outside the boundaries of the Appalachian Mountains, that it has more in common with contemporary jazz than it does with contemporary country, and that the “High Lonesome Sound,” the primeval music of the Scotch-Irish settlers, is in fact younger than Mick Jagger.

commercial bluegreass

(Roy Acuff, Grand Ole Opry, 1939. Bluegrass was commercial from the start.)



(I may have made some enemies with this Florida Georgia Line jab, but it was worth it !  >:D  )


So what does San Diego have to offer in terms of bluegrass? Well for starters, it’s had a thriving bluegrass community since the late 1950’s (right around the time people started using the word bluegrass to describe the sound), and been home to a broad range of country and folk venues as well as festivals. It has not one, but two bluegrass associations in the county, and has giving rise to the likes of bluegrass legend and pioneer of the country rock genre Chris Hillman, and more recently, the members of the Grammy Award winning Nickel Creek. The fact that so many bluegrass artists have come out of San Diego and the surrounding areas is testament that such a culture exists.

Scottsville squirrel barkers

(Chris Hillman and the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers, San Diego, CA)


This semester, I’ve researched this culture to put together an annotated mixtape that explores the key components that made a bluegrass scene possible. Briefly (because you’ll soon be able to read and listen to the whole mixtape on my section of the class blog), those components involve a steady stream of immigrants (Okies, Navy families, college students, etc), the existence of public musical spaces, and the success of local musicians.

encinitas ranch hands

(The Encinitas Ranch Hands, 1930. Photo Courtesy of the San Dieguito Heritage Museum)


So what do you gain when you look for bluegrass, and find it, in a place you’d least expect? Well when you start looking at a place, when you really start digging, it’s amazing what begins to emerge. What you find is a more complicated and nuanced picture of what that place really is. I found such a picture coming here to the mountains of Southwest Virginia, through this class, through Appalachian Studies, and through my own experiences in the region. Out west, I found a story of displaced people that all wound up in California for one reason or another. It’s story of people connecting over a music that brings them closer to home, dipping into feelings of longing and nostalgia, loss and loneliness. I found stories of underground scenes and hole-in-the-wall venues that played host to a wealth of local artists and even the likes of Bill Monroe himself. Talented musicians and festival organizers, basement newsletter publicists, record store owners and folk record collectors. All these people, and more, working to build a community around a music that somehow manages to find an audience no matter where it travels.

 pizza jam

(NCBFC Today’s Pizza Jam, Encinitas, California)


I would like to leave you all with a quote by San Diego Troubadour columnist, Dwight Worden:

“If bluegrass grows on your heart, then this is a great time to be in San Diego. In my humble opinion, we are living in the “golden age of bluegrass” right here in San Diego.”

Thank you.