Friday, October 5, 2007
A Bluegrass Revolution
Another treat for Southwestern festival goers was the lilting bluegrass sound of Vern and Ray, with Herb Pedersen on banjo. Originally from Newton County, Arkansas, Vern Williams and Ray Park headed up the very first bluegrass band in northern California, "Vern and Ray and the Carroll County Country Boys", as early as 1959. In 1966, after teaming up with Pedersen, Vern and Ray packed up their families and moved across the country to try to peddle their beautiful hill country sound to the Nashville music world. Unfortunately, they only lasted 18 months, they were just a little ahead of Nashville's eventual infatuation with bluegrass. As a result, however, little Winfield, Kansas, got perhaps their first real jolt of the music that would eventually sweep throughout the Walnut Valley.
Sam Ontjes remembers going with his friends to the Ozark Folk Festival to recruit Jimmie Driftwood and Doc Watson, and being mesmerized by the harmonies coming from one of the back stages. Their budgets were already strained to their limits, but the students really wanted to bring that high lonesome sound back to Winfield. They offered Vern and Ray $100, which was all they had, and to their amazement, these early bluegrass wizards accepted. Of course, this was before the days of putting entertainers up in hotels and letting them eat restaurant food.
Kansas bluegrass pioneers, Jack Theobald and his son, Mike, who played the '71 Southwestern festival and many Walnut Valley festivals in the 70's and 80's, surely were at that show with Vern and Ray, and perhaps were inspired by their tightly rolled sound. Surely they were encouraged to have in their midsts such fine representatives of the music they loved. Some of the other traditions still hang on at the Walnut Valley Festival: the old time folk music, the story-telling, the old country blues and the songwriters who craft their tunes around the older instruments and stylings, but by far the main sound oozing out of the Walnut Valley stages and hanging over the campgrounds like a fog bank on an Appalachian morning are the sweet echoes of Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, and folks like Vern and Ray.
Vern Williams and Ray Park returned to California and continued to leave an indelible mark on the bluegrass world. In 1997, the duo received the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Distinguished Achievement Award. Vern Williams continues to perform with the Vern Williams Band. Ray Park died in 2002.
Bluegrass ain't going anywhere anytime soon.