Talking with Dan Lehman, founder of this weekend’s Mammoth Bluegrass Festival in the Village at Mammoth, it’s hard to determine whether he found bluegrass music or it found him. From the sound of it, they’ve been circling each other most of his life.
“When I was 15, I saw the Kingston Trio in San Diego, and that sold me on the banjo,” Lehman reminisced. “After high school, in the 1960s I worked at Disneyland on the Jungle Cruise and one of my coworkers was a kid named Steve Martin, who played the banjo in our break room. I’m sort of the Forrest Gump of bluegrass; we keep bumping into each other.”
Another new entry in this year’s festival scene, Lehman said he’s wanted to do a bluegrass festival here since 1974. “We moved to Mammoth in 1973, and I occasionally flew on Sierra Pacific Air, which was owned by Dave McCoy at the time,” he recalled. “Gary McCoy, who ran the airline, and I talked about doing a festival back then.”
A few years later, in 1977, Lehman staged a concert at what was then Warming Hut 2 (now Canyon Lodge) starring Bo Diddley, followed by Joe Sample and the Crusaders the next year, and one with Jerry Lee Lewis at the Tri-County Fairgrounds in Bishop.
After a lengthy hiatus, Lehman finally decided this was the year to string up the banjos and tune up the fiddles. Using Mammoth Rocks’ basic structure as a template, he enlisted help coordinating the event from Mark Deeds, who co-founded Rocks and was one of the organizers who helped make this year’s first Margarita Festival a hit.
“I wanted to bring in some Southern California bands, a couple from Northern California and one from out of state,” he explained. A couple of the groups on this year’s bill were recommended from San Diego, Chris Stuart & Backcountry and Gone Tomorrow. From the Bay Area, High Country and Bill Evans’ Banjo in America one-man show. Jeff Scroggins is coming in from Denver, Colo. His son, Tristan, is a much-lauded mandolin player, with several competition wins on the instrument.
Bluegrass, is inspired by the folk music of Appalachia in the Blue Ridge Mountains, especially Kentucky, derived from Scottish, Irish and English traditional music. Like jazz, bluegrass relies heavily on improvisation. Reels and ballads are played with fiddles in the lead, while the faster breakdowns (bluesgrass’s contribution to speed metal) tend to feature guitars and banjos.
In 1948, bluegrass emerged as a genre within post-war country/western music. The term “bluegrass” is believed to have been coined in the late 1950s, taken from the name of the Blue Grass Boys band formed in 1939 by Bill Monroe, widely considered the “father of bluegrass.”
Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt popularized the music starting in the late ‘40s, and bluegrass had a distinct effect on skiffle music popular in England during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Impacting the sound of a young, upstart band known as the Beatles, Monroe and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott were two major bluegrass influences on Beatle Paul McCartney.
In the 1970s, Roy Clark (banjo) and Buck Owens (guitar) did a regular segment on the syndicated TV show “Hee Haw” called “Pickin’ & Grinnin.’” Steve Martin went on to find fame first as a comedian, using his bluegrass banjo picking talent as part of his standup set, later going on to make more straightforward recordings with Allison Krauss and other country-bluegrass artists.
Bluegrass played a minor character of sorts in the Coen Brothers film, “O Brother Where Art Thou,” yielding a hit version of the folk standard “I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow” for the fictitious Soggy Bottom Boys.
Bluegrass seems to be a natural for mountain towns, he suggested. “Look at Telluride,” he pointed out. “Their festival in June swells the population from 2,000 to 10,000 in a weekend. And that’s not even in ski season, and they’re in the middle of nowhere and at a dead end when you get there.”
Most bluegrass songs aren’t written on formal musical charts for the most part, but Lehman is quick to point out the musical acumen of the players. “It can be pretty complex and there’s a lot of dexterity involved. The four-part harmony is just amazing to hear,” he said. He also thinks that given some of the challenges in the economy and in Mammoth in particular, the music would be a much-needed feel-good shot in the arm. “It appeals to everyone, from kids to folks in their 80s. It’s all-around great American music.”