|A poster for an August 27, 1960 show by The Redwood Canyon Ramblers. The poster was designed by Rambler bassist Tom Glass, aka Ned Lamont, who was later in The Jazz Mice|
Dennis McNally described Jerry Garcia’s cross-country bluegrass odyssey with Sandy Rothman in great detail (pp.70-73). In the early Summer of 1964, Jerry and Sandy drove in Jerry’s Corvair, traveling with the White Brothers to St. Louis, and then onwards to visit Neal Rosenberg in Indiana. For a break, they drove to Florida to visit their Berkeley friend Scott Hambly, a former member of Berkeley’s first bluegrass band, The Redwood Canyon Ramblers. Hambly was in the Air Force, but Rothman and the short-haired Garcia spent a few days in Florida picking with their old friend.
The Redwood Canyon Ramblers had been Berkeley's first indigenous bluegrass band, forming in 1958. Mayne Smith (guitar), Hambly (mandolin) and Rosenberg (banjo) had met in High School in Berkeley in the 50s. They had learned bluegrass from records and the occasional California visit from a bluegrass legend. Rosenberg went on to graduate school in June 1962, and the Ramblers went mostly dormant. However, as Berkeley and the Bay Area's first bluegrass band, the Ramblers were an inspiration to younger bluegrass musicians like Herb Pedersen, Eric Thompson, Rick Shubb, Butch Waller and Jerry Garcia.
Rosenberg went on to become a famous scholar of bluegrass music and a professional academic, as well as the manager of the Brown County Jamboree in Bean Blossom, Bill Monroe's bluegrass festival in Indiana. As the manager of the festival, Rosenberg was "Mr. Tapes" in the bluegrass world, the bluegrass equivalent of Marty Weinstein, Bob Menke or Dick Latvala. Garcia and Rothman went to Bean Blossom not only to hear the music but to collect tapes as well.
While the trip to the Air Force base was just one stop on a lengthy trip—Garcia subsequently went back to Bean Blossom, and then Pennsylvania, where he met David Grisman—it is generally unremarked that McNally identified Jerry Garcia’s first out-of-California gig. McNally writes
The three of them [Garcia, Rothman and Hambly] even played a show at the Noncommissioned Officers Club at Tyndall, but a few days of the vicious insect life of Florida drove Jerry and Sandy to Dothan, Alabama to hear the well-known players Jim and Jesse McReynoldsPresumably, Garcia played banjo, Hambly mandolin and Rothman played guitar. There were many Southerners in the Armed Services, and Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs had been Grand Ole Opry stars in the 1950s, so plenty of Airmen would have been at least generally familiar with bluegrass music. The trio of young Californians would probably have been fairly well received by whatever modest crowd was there.
Tyndall Air Force Base is just Southeast of Panama City, FL, on the Gulf Coast in the Florida Panhandle. Western Florida is nearer to Alabama than Miami, both culturally and geographically. Garcia had been in the Army, so he would have known what to expect on a military installation. Nonetheless, Western Florida is really the South in a way that Miami is not. The troops would have been quite receptive to bluegrass music, but in many ways Florida must have been a foreign country to the California-born Garcia.
Panama City is about 750 miles south from Indiana, and its a remarkable testament to youth that Garcia and Rothman drove to Indiana, and for a "break" drove 750 more miles to the Gulf. They then apparently returned to Bean Blossom, and then went home by way of Pennsylvania, which itself was in the wrong direction. Of course, this strange trip is not unlike the Grateful Dead's touring schedule in the late 60s, and however strange it may have been, it seems to have fulfilled a need in Garcia to be a traveling man, so that when the dust hit his shoes he knew it was time to move. Even the ambitious Garcia could hardly have imagined that a show at an Air Force Base club in Florida was just the first of thousands of shows outside of California.
(an earlier version of this post appeared here)