This is the seventh part in a series about music in the foothills.
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Bluegrass music is alive and well in Northern California, with dozens of festivals each summer, thanks in part to the pioneering efforts of Ray Park and his partner Vern Williams.
Vern and Ray were Northern California’s first bluegrass band. Hundreds have followed, none grittier or more authentic.
Bill Monroe’s musical creation, bluegrass, played a significant role in the birth of rock and roll. An uptempo version of Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” was on the B-side of Elvis Presley’s first single.
In Northern California, bluegrass was a major influence on country rock, and went on to spawn “progressive bluegrass,” “Dawg music” and most recently “jam music,” a highly rhythmic and improvisational variation played on acoustic instruments by Railroad Earth and many of the other 30-or-so bands playing at the third annual Hangtown Halloween Ball at the El Dorado County Fairgrounds on Thursday through Sunday, Oct 24-27.
It’s fitting that the most recent evolution of the music should be featured in Placerville, the place Ray Park and his wife Marlene called home.
Asked about the source of that authenticity, Park once said, “you’ve got to live in a log cabin … before you can sing about it.” By that standard Park and Williams were imminently qualified.
Both men grew up in rural Arkansas during the depths of the depression and learned music from their families with few outside influences.
A local Arkansas roadhouse proprietor let an underage Vern Williams play Bill Monroe songs on the juke box, but made him sit outside and listen through the window, according to his son Delbert.
The Grand Ole Opry, which aired every Saturday night, was also a source of inspiration. Williams listened on a crystal radio, powered by the radio waves themselves. Under the right atmospheric conditions, it brought glimpses of the outside world to the un-powered back-woods of rural Arkansas in the pre-electrical era.
The weak signal was dependent on a ground wire, which also served as the antennae. Vern Williams kept a bucket of water at the ready on Saturday night to “douse the ground rod,” which improved the weak signal, according to his son.
Vern and Ray’s bluegrass influences were talented and often fraternal tandems from the south and midwest: the Monroe Brothers, The Stanley Brothers, Flatt & Scruggs, The Louvin Brothers and The Osborne Brothers, all known for tight harmonies and fast pickin.’
Their songs reflected the duality of rural American life, the “constant sorrows” of lonesomeness, lost love and “memories of mother,” and also “the sunny side” of life: “preachin,’ prayin,’ singin,’” mountain dew — not the soft drink — and “rollin’ in my sweet baby’s arms.”
Vern and Ray were known for their adherence to tradition and their powerful harmonies, propelled by Williams’ penetrating “high lonesome” tenor, which, for the uninitiated, could take some getting used to.
Williams’ vocal technique took years to master. It was simultaneously intense, raw and melodic, a potent vehicle for his hallmark mountain harmonies.
On stage, Williams was often reserved, but Park’s folksy demeanor won over folk revivalist audiences. Their interpretations of the bluegrass catalogue influenced a generation of west coast musicians and fans in the 1960s and 1970s.
The two men walked remarkably similar paths in their early years, growing up near each other in rural Arkansas. They also trained at Camp Pendleton simultaneously in the early 1950s and both settled near Stockton.
The pair finally met around 1957 when Park set out to find and record other artists. A gifted multi-instrumentalist and harmonist with an easy-going personality, Park had recent experience in radio, television and the recording studio when he finally connected with Williams, who was working in a meat-packing plant and playing music with his brother on weekends.
In an unfinished autobiography titled “Almost nearly but not quite hardly,” Park recalled purchasing a state-of-the art Ampex tape recorder with the goal of finding and producing new artists. He got wind of the Williams brothers and loved their brother-duet material.
He tried to record them but, “but Vern’s brother Junior was real shy and was afraid he’d goof up,” said Park, who eventually took over on guitar.
The autobiography proclaims, “That was the day a new bluegrass duet was born.”
They spent the rest of the day singing the music they loved.
“Our voices blended like moonshine and spring water,” said Park.
He invited Williams to sit in on mandolin at his regular dance hall gig with the Happy Hayseeds. Banjo player Luther Riley also showed up sometimes, sparking complaints that the country string band hired to play dance music was slipping into something else entirely.
That something was dismissed as “hillbilly music” at the time but would soon come to be known as bluegrass, a couple of years later, named for Bill Monroe’s band, the Blue Grass Boys.
Vern and Ray first performed together as a duo on New Years Eve 1958 and decided to create a four-piece bluegrass band.
Bluegrass had a fledgling but underserved Northern California audience of dust bowl migrants who enjoyed a rare taste of back home music when one of the early Southern California bands ventured north.
The Dillards, The Country Gentlemen and The Country Boys, which later became The Kentucky Colonels, formed in the mid to late 1950s.
Vern and Ray broke that ground in Northern California, followed closely by Berkeley’s Redwood Canyon Ramblers. Mayne Smith and Neil Rosenberg formed the Ramblers after being exposed to bluegrass at Oberlin College in Ohio.
Riley and guitar-player Clyde Williamson joined at Vern and Ray’s coming out in 1959 at a cavernous Napa dance hall called the Dream Bowl. San Francisco Examiner columnist Phil Elwood later recalled the venue as “an oversized Quonset hut roadhouse-dancehall-brawl arena.”
The Ramblers was also on that bill and found great inspiration from its authentic counterparts.
Vern and Ray made their first recordings in 1961 as the “Carroll County Country Boys.”
The four-song 45-RPM holds up to modern listening. “Cabin on a Mountain,” written by Williamson, went on to become a bluegrass standard.
In hindsight, the timing of their launch was less than ideal. Bluegrass had only recently gained an identity distinct from country music and had yet to establish a national audience. Performance opportunities were limited.
Complicating matters, there were few bluegrass players around. Vern and Ray struggled to keep a band together.
A teenage Rick Shubb, best known today for his line of capos, played banjo with Vern and Ray in the mid-1960s, but the band never stabilized.
“Ray, as good a bluegrass fiddler as you could find, was never satisfied with any other guitar player to back them up,” according to a profile of Shubb by Northern California bluegrass player and writer Sandy Rothman.
The folk revival would create a mass audience and encourage a new generation of talented musicians a few years later. The movement had its roots on college campuses, including University of California, Berkeley, where a young banjo player named Herb Pedersen heard the Ramblers at coffee houses and folk festivals.
He followed Schubb, who didn’t sing, as Vern and Ray’s banjo player in 1966 and quickly demonstrated that he could not only handle their demanding harmonies, but contribute to the vocal arrangements.
In a recent phone interview Pedersen recalled being eager to learn from “two guys from Arkansas who grew up in the music.”
With characteristic humility, Pedersen downplayed his contributions as “adding a part above Vern or Ray,” but conceded “it seemed to work really well.”
Ray’s son, Larry Park, was more effusive.
“With Herb … their sound came together like magic,” he said. “Dad was more of a country singer. Vern was this powerful bluegrass tenor, and Herb could also sing high.”
Pedersen went on to work with the great folk-rockers of the 1970s: Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, Dan Fogelberg, James Taylor and many more.
In 1985 he and ex-Byrd Chris Hillman formed the Desert Rose Band, which later employed Larry Park on guitar.
Pedersen remains a close friend of the Park family, and is currently working with brothers Larry and Cary Park on an album of songs by Placerville native son Val Pease.
In 1967 Vern and Ray decided to test the commercial potential of the band. They moved their families to Nashville. Pedersen joined them.
In hindsight, the move appears to be another example of Ray Park putting the right people in the right place at the wrong time.