Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Hangtown’s musical roots — Placerville’s first families of music


THE HAPPY Hayseeds were created by Ivan Laam, standing with fiddle, and his brother Fred Laam, seated with banjo. Fred’s son Logan, standing with guitar, ran the band in the 1940s and 1950s. Steve Olivas is seated at right. This photo was likely taken around 1930, when the band recorded several string band classics for Victor Records. Photo courtesy of Steve Laam

From page B6 | September 11, 2013 | Leave Comment

This is the prologue in a series about music in the foothills.

Two prominent Placerville families share a musical lineage that goes back to the roaring 20s. But you’re more likely to find fiddles than flappers in the Laam and Park families. These people played country music. Yessir. The real deal.

The Laams and Parks came together in Stockton during the 1950s. Talented branches of the Laam family tree arrived in Placerville in the 1930s, attracting the Park family like bees to begonias in the 1960s and 1970s.

The Park family’s musical roots were planted during the Great Depression in the Arkansas hills. They bounced between Arkansas and Stockton through the 1930s and finally stuck in California in the late 1940s.

The Laam’s recent history dates to the 1920s and earlier, when brothers Ivan and Fred Laam brought their country string band, the Happy Hayseeds, from John Day Oregon to Stockton.

The Hayseeds toured the west coast and even played in Placerville during the 1920s, according to a notice in an old issue of the Mountain Democrat.


Getting together in the ’50s

The two families conjoined in the early 1950s when a hot fiddler from Arkansas named Ray Park joined the Happy Hayseeds and eloped with the bandleader’s niece, Marlene Laam, who lived with her family in Placerville.

Park was a versatile and talented musician with a tremendous stage presence, a hard-working, forceful personality and a loving family man who smiled easily. Bad timing and misfortune at critical junctures in his career would limit his commercial success.

In the early days of television Park had his own local variety show in Stockton and also inked a recording contract. He was poised to become a honky-tonk hero until a hip-shaking juggernaut named Elvis pulled the rug out from under country music.

Undeterred, he partnered with fellow Arkansas ex-pat Vern Williams and formed northern California’s first bluegrass band in 1959, playing the music they grew up with.

But bluegrass had yet to reach a national audience.

“Vern and Ray” were ahead of their time. They suffered the depravations of pioneers until the folk revival discovered them late in the duo’s high-impact 15-year span.


Traditional influences

Through it all, they stayed true to their music and ultimately influenced a new generation of traditionalists, as well as a legion of country rockers.

Ray and Marlene Park’s sons Larry and Cary inherited the Park and Laam musical proclivities, and enjoyed rich music careers, charting country rock hits in the 1990s and continuing to perform and record today.

The Hangtown musical roots series will mine their music careers and those of other family members. The series will look at how their music reflected and in some cases influenced the dramatic changes in mid-20th century popular music.

The first episode will recall some of the local bands and venues that wove themselves into the history and fabric of the community and examine the role of music in rural communities like Placerville in the post-war era.

Stay tuned.


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