This is the eighth part in a series about music in the foothills.
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Northern California bluegrass pioneers Ray Park and Vern Williams had teamed up with Herb Pedersen and were hitting on all cylinders when they relocated to Nashville in 1967, hoping to land a record deal and finally realize their potential.
Once again, Vern and Ray were the victims of bad timing.
Rock and roll was rapidly becoming the dominant force in the music business. Vern and Ray encountered a battered Nashville country music industry with little interest in bluegrass, battling a new wave of competition from the British invasion and a growing folk revival, while casting off the vestiges of rural honky-tonk.
The industry’s response became known as the “Nashville Sound,” featuring lush productions with crooning lead vocals, string sections and choral backgrounds; the polar opposite of Vern and Ray’s gritty sound.
They nonetheless found session work in Nashville and played regularly on Eddie Hill’s Country Junction, a popular morning live news and entertainment TV show where Dolly Parton got her start two years earlier.
Ray also started a vending machine business and dabbled in real estate, according to his son Larry, who was 11 at the time, and recalls loving Nashville. He played in his first band, Boothill Express, and attended the Grand Ole Opry with his dad.
“They ushered us right back stage … Dad knew everyone … I got to meet Stringbean, Dolly, Del Reeves and Porter Wagner.”
Larry Park would return to the Opry as a performer a decade later, accompanied by his father, who would once again be treated like country music royalty. That story and others are in the final episode of Hangtown’s Musical Roots.
Vern and Ray failed to land a record deal in Nashville.
Pedersen explained, “It wasn’t like they didn’t like what we were doing… but they had Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, Jim and Jessie, all these guys already running around town … they really didn’t think they needed any more bluegrass.”
“It might have worked if we’d stuck to it but I got an offer from the Dillards, and I took it,” he recalled.
The Dillards were coming off a recurring role on the Andy Griffith show. They played the slow-witted but quick-picking Darling Brothers, who, along with the Beverly Hillbillies, exposed a generation of American families to bluegrass music, along with some of its worst stereotypes.
Ray and Larry Park would later record and tour with The Dillards.
Back to the Golden State
The Park family eventually returned to California, settling in Placerville, where Ray’s wife Marlene’s family lived. Ray repaired appliances and started another vending machine business. They bought a house on Morrene Drive off Mosquito Road.
The Williams family returned first to Arkansas, then to the Stockton area, and soon reconnected with Park.
By the late 1960s the folk revival was in full swing. Vern and Ray quickly found a receptive audience for their music. An epic 1968 recording with Pedersen at the San Francisco Folk Festival captures them at their peak.
Ray was active in the Old Time Fiddlers’ Association as a judge and a contestant. He encouraged Larry, by then an accomplished guitar player and drummer, to join him. The younger Park picked up the fiddle one day and four months later won the junior division in Coloma. Ray was named state champion in 1973.
While on his vending route in 1970, Ray spotted a skinny 14-year old lugging a banjo case across the Ponderosa High School parking lot. He rolled down his window and demanded “how many strings on that thing?”
Traditional bluegrass is played on a five-string banjo.
“Can you pick it?” asked Park, who then thought to introduce himself.
The skinny kid was Keith Little, the only traditional bluegrass aficionado at Ponderosa at the time, per his own recollection.
“I not only knew his stuff, I worshiped it,” Little said. “It was like meeting Moses.”
Little became a regular at the Park dinner table and fast friends with both Larry Park and Del Williams. The boys, including little brother Cary, spent many evenings in either the Park or Williams home soaking up the sounds.
Vern and Ray recorded and performed regularly through 1974, ending their formal relationship shortly after recording the seminal “Sounds of the Ozarks.”
Vern and his son Del formed the Vern Williams band and played together for the following decade. Both Vern and Ray played the first Father’s Day Bluegrass Festival in 1976, but as separate acts.
But they worked together sporadically for the next decade, including a CD and tour with Rose Maddux. They also played numerous reunions and received the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Distinguished Achievement Award in 1997.
Their final performance together was at the Wolf Mountain Bluegrass Festival in 1999.
Ray Park died of leukemia in 2002. Vern Williams continued to play professionally until his death at age 76 in 2006.
Ray’s wife, Marlene lives near a sister and daughter in Garnerville, Nev.
Both Larry Park and Keith Little have returned to El Dorado County after successful music careers, and still perform locally.
Little remains a sought-after sideman for big names in Americana music, including the David Grisman Bluegrass Experience troubadour Peter Rowan’s band. His most recent project is the LittleBand, a bluegrass/country/gospel quintet which plays at the Cozmic Café on Oct. 25.
Larry Park plays in the high-energy jazz-rock band Aftershock and also fills in with Hickory Wind, the Tri Tones and the Parrotheads.
His most recent project is The Random Strangers, which plays country, western, bluegrass and Cajun music. He also hosts the Wednesday night open mic at Powell’s Steamer Co. and Pub with his longtime friend and collaborator Val Pease.
Cary Park became a successful music producer, session player and touring musician in Southern California.
Bluegrass purists still celebrate Vern and Ray’s pioneering dedication to traditional bluegrass in the lean years before the music gained a broad audience. Musicians who played at their side cite their influence.
“Every time I open my mouth to sing, the experience of working with these great people comes to mind,” said Pedersen. “They were a huge influence in my music, and in my life.”
“Vern and Ray sealed my fate,” said Little. “Music was their joy, a natural extension of their lives.”
Park called Williams “the best mountain harmony singer in the world,” in his autobiography and said they played not for the money, “but for the love of the music … for the fun of playing it.”
With characteristic humor he added “but the more money we made the funner it was.”