Friday, October 12, 2012

The Smokey Grass Boys (1966-67)

A poster for the Smokey Grass Boys at 40 Cedar Alley in San Francisco, December 29-31, 1966. Poster by and courtesy of Rick Shubb
Old And In The Way only played a few dozen shows in 1973, and they only released an album 18 months after their last show, and yet they loom large in the history of modern bluegrass. The principal reason for Old And In The Way's prominence was their banjo player, Jerry Garcia. With a legitimate rock star in the band, thousands of rock fans--this writer included--first paid attention to bluegrass with open ears. Old And In The Way was steeped in the bluegrass tradition, and yet they modernized it as well, with jazzy improvised interludes and covers of contemporary rock songs. To new listeners like me, bluegrass seemed vital and exciting, instead of staid and out-of-date. In fact, aside from Old And In The Way, there were similar moves towards progressive bluegrass all over the country at this time. Artists like John Hartford and New Grass Revival were carving out similar territory, and all sorts of younger, long-haired bluegrass groups were covering Bob Dylan songs and the like. Old And In The Way got more attention because of Garcia, but they were hardly alone in their approach to bluegrass.

In another way, however, a very dated way, Old And In The Way was distinctly different than other progressive bluegrass contemporaries. The world was a different place in 1973, and Old And In The Way didn't just have long hair, they sang songs about smoking pot. Back in '73, even popular rock bands were uneasy about actually recording songs about weed, for fear of not getting radio airplay. For example, Lowell George's widely covered 1970 trucker's anthem "Willin" ("Just give me weeds, whites and wine/And show me a sign") was daring indeed for the time, too daring even for most FM radio stations. I first heard Old And In The Way on a 10-watt college radio broadcast in 1973 (July 24, 1973 on KZSU-fm, 90.7 out of Stanford). I knew Garcia was in the band; that's why I was listening. As a 10th grade suburban California, I knew nothing about bluegrass. When I heard "Panama Red," not to mention "Lonesome LA Cowboy," I instantly decided that these guys were cool (hey, I was in the 10th grade). But with songs about weed, I was going to give the music a chance.

Looking backwards, many young bluegrass bands were marking the territory that Old And In The Way inhabited. However, few, if any, of those bands had the potent combination of the instrumental firepower of Vassar Clements and David Grisman and the quality songs of Peter Rowan, but none of them were singing songs about dope with an icon of psychedelia in the band. "Panama Red" plus Jerry Garcia put the group irrevocably on the side of long haired hippies, and that was what attracted attention to their music. Subsequent listening, by me and thousands of others, revealed the intricate beauty of bluegrass and the musical depth of Old And In The Way. However, it was Old And In The Way's mixture of weed and bluegrass that initially set them apart, putting a very 70s spin on the concept of pickin' and grinnin'.

Old And In The Way did have a predecessor of sorts, however, in the juxtaposition of bluegrass and vegetative recreation. If you look carefully at old rock posters and Bay Area club billings, you will find an obscure bluegrass band called The Smokey Grass Boys. The Smokey Grass Boys played in the Bay Area in late 1966 and early 1967. Despite their intentionally provocative name, as far as I know the band had no songs about weed, nor would that have been prudent at the time, but there is no question that the name was an intentional joke. The connection to Garcia and Old And In The Way isn't distant either: the group featured David Grisman on mandolin, Herb Petersen on guitar and Rick Shubb on banjo (scroll down for a 1967 photo). Just to be clear about this, that meant that the Smokey Grass Boys had a future member of Old And In The Way along with two other early 60s friends of Garcia's. Garcia had been friends with Herb Pedersen as early as 1962, and had met Shubb and Grisman subsequently. Shubb had even been Garcia's roommate when the Warlocks were formed in late 1965.

The Bluegrass Boys
Bluegrass is different than most musical sub-genres, since its genesis was the conscious product of one person, Bill Monroe. In the 1940s, many farmers from rural Appalachia ended up working in Midwestern factories, and found themselves missing what they had left behind, for all its privations. At a time when popular country music was becoming more modern and electric, Monroe chose to focus on acoustic music with traditional harmonies, yet played with a sophistication that approached contemporary music like be-bop. He called it bluegrass, and his band was Bill Monroe and The Bluegrass boys, a conscious evocation of the Kentucky bluegrass country.

By 1945, with World War 2 filling Midwestern factories with formerly rural residents of West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky and elsewhere, bluegrass was a popular style of country music. Other bluegrass bands adopted similar names like The Clinch Mountain Boys (with Ralph and Carter Stanley) and the Blue Sky Boys (with Bill and Earl Bollick) and many others. Even if no one knew where Clinch Mountain was, it reminded fans of "back home," as did blue skies, which were probably in short supply in industrial Detroit. Ever since, a band with the appendix "Boys" was likely to be a bluegrass band. Younger, suburban bluegrass fans have been having fun with it ever since, with band names like Cambridge's Charles River Valley Boys (who did  bluegrass Beatles covers) and Jerry Garcia's own 1964 Asphalt Jungle Mountain Boys, with Eric Thompson and Jody Stecher (my personal favorite was the female Berkeley bluegrass band in the 90s called The All Girl Boys).

Thus, a 60s bluegrass band called The Smokey Grass Boys sounded very plausible to straight America, evoking both the Great Smoky Mountains and Kentucky bluegrass, encompassing the heartland of bluegrass music. Younger, hipper fans would of course instantly giggle at the name--particularly if they were stoned--but squares and grownups would not have noticed. Hiding in plain sight like this was common enough in the mid-60s. There was a Hollywood rock band called The Leaves, who had a modest hit with "Hey Joe," among other things, and their first album prominently featured a marijuana leaf on the cover. The album (a pretty good one, by the way) was on Pat Boone's label, but no one thought to find out why they had chosen that leaf. So illegal as marijuana was in the 60s, the Smokey Grass Boys had a convincing cover story for the squares, and a private joke for their friends. It's easy to laugh at what rubes the squares were back in the 60s, but of course as an old hippie, I had no idea what the references were on the covers of rap albums in the 80s and 90s, so what goes around, comes around.

Ralph Gleason's Dec 23 '66 SF Chronicle column mentions the Smokey Grass Boys
The Smokey Grass Boys
The Smokey Grass Boys were a bluegrass band, and bluegrass had few financial rewards, as all the jokes about banjo players attest ("What's the definition of optimism? A banjo player with a pager." "What's the most commonly used phrase by banjo players at work? 'Would you like fries with that?'"). Bluegrass in California in the 60s was a labor of love, not rewards, and Jerry Garcia and David Nelson, for their parts, had basically given it up, forming a jug band and then their own electric blues bands instead. Yet their few bluegrass peers were still sticking with it, forming The Smoky Grass Boys and playing what gigs they could find in the folk clubs, pizza parlors and coffee shops.

It's a bit murky when The Smokey Grass Boys actually began. David Grisman was out in California in late 1965, and it seems certain that was where he met Pedersen and Shubb, if he had not already met them on the bluegrass festival circuit, since the community of young bluegrass players was small and well-connected. As Garcia was living in a house with Rick Shubb on Waverley Street in Palo Alto at the time, I'm sure Garcia told Grisman where the best young banjo picker in the Bay Area--Jerry aside--could be found. The Smokey Grass Boys seem to have come about a year later, in late 1966. There were four members of The Smokey Grass Boys.

David Grisman came from suburban Hackensack, NJ, and had learned about bluegrass mandolin from his neighbor Ralph Rinzler. The talented Grisman picked up mandolin rapidly and got in on the Greenwich Village folk scene as a teenager. Grisman had met Garcia at a bluegrass festival in Sunset Park, Pennsylvania in the Summer of 1964.  Grisman, too, had been in a jug band, with John Sebastian, Maria D'Amato (later Muldaur) and others. The Even Dozen Jug Band album had been released on Elektra in 1964 to modest acclaim. At the end of 1965, Grisman visitied the West Coast. Grisman wrote the first published review of the Warlocks, praising their performances in the folk magazine Sing Out in late 1965.

Grisman had already recorded some bluegrass in 1966, although I don't think the material was released until somewhat later. Grisman also toured with Red Allen and the Kentuckains in 1966, filling the role of the great Frank Wakefield, pretty remarkable for someone from Hackensack. However, by the end of 1966 Grisman seems to have migrated back to California, apparently basing himself in Berkeley.

Herb Pedersen was from Berkeley. He had formed the Westport Singers with his friend, mandolinist Butch Waller. Pesersen and Jerry Garcia were the two of the hot young banjo pickers in the Bay Area, and while there is a gunslinger element to bluegrass, they were friends as well as rivals. According to writer John Einarson, Pedersen went with Garcia and many others to see Buck Owens and The Buckaroos at Forester Hall in Redwood City, in 1964, so Herb and Jerry went way back.

The Westport Singers evolved into the Pine Valley Boys in late 1962. The Pine Valley Boys made a real effort to make a living on the folk circuit, playing in Los Angeles and actually touring around some. When they played Southern California, they were joined by classically-trained-violinist-turned-fiddler Richard Greene. During the 1964 period, David Nelson joined Pedersen and Waller in the PVB. However, by mid-1966, the Pine Valley Boys had kind of ground to a halt.

Rick Shubb was from California, but he had moved to Palo Alto because he wanted to be where the folk scene was happening. Shubb was another hot young banjo picker, as well as an accomplished artist, and he rapidly became friends with the few other bohemian bluegrassers. In late 1965 Shubb took a lease on a big Edwardian house on Waverley Street in Palo Alto, a purple house with turrets, and many of his friends filled up the various rooms in the house. Among his co-tenants were Jerry and Sarah Garcia and future Magic Theater artist Gayle Curtis. David Nelson and other co-conspirators lived a few blocks away, in a house on Channing Avenue.

Jil Haber was the bass player, but I don't know that much about her. OK, I do know that she married David Grisman and guitarist Monroe Grisman is their son, so it's not hard to guess the connection, but I'm not sure where she was from nor how she ended up as a girl Smokey Grass Boy. I'm not even certain I have spelled her name correctly--hopefully someone who knows can sort this out.

Bay Area Bluegrass Music, Fall 1966
In the early 1960s, folk music was popular. Serious young musicians like Jerry Garcia or Jorma Kaukonen focused on the more serious forms of folk, like bluegrass or finger-style blues guitar, leaving the sing-alongs to would be members of the Kingston Trio. Still, there at least seemed like there was a chance to make it as a folk musician, and not to be reduced to getting a "real job." By 1965, a few critical events had changed everybody's perspective:
  • In August, 1964, The Beatles movie A Hard Day's Night was released. Up until then, rock music had been trivial music for kids, but something changed. A future member of The Byrds said "I felt my hair growing longer in the theater." Garcia and the other future members of The Warlocks felt the same thing. A Hard Day's Night was a mass phenomenon only comparable to the Harry Potter books today. I saw A Hard Day's Night in the theater when it came out, and here I am writing a blog about music many decades later. Draw your own conclusions.
  • In March, 1965, Bob Dylan released his Bringing It All Back Home album, with the electric and electrifying opening track, "Subterranean Homesick Blues." This was followed a few months later by the lengthy and even more electric "Like A Rolling Stone" single. The leading folk musician was unquestionably on board with the Beatles.
  • Meanwhile, more and more people were hearing about something called LSD-25, and by late 1965, if you were hip enough or lucky enough, you could go to a party where everybody was taking the then legal drug, and certain doors of perception were opened very wide. 
In June, 1965, a Los Angeles group called The Byrds released an electric version of Bob Dylan's song "Mr. Tambourine Man," and folk-rock was born. By the end of 1965, folk music in California had largely dissolved in a cloud of funny-colored smoke. In San Francisco and Los Angeles, as well as the rest of the country, folk musicians plugged in, found a drummer, converted someone to bass and turned up the amplifier. Outside of a few East Coast strongholds, folk clubs and coffee houses either closed or started booking rock bands. In many cases, of course, these rock bands featured the same people who had been playing folk music there a few months earlier.

When The Smokey Grass Boys started to play around The Bay Area in late 1966, they were among a relatively small number of players who had still not "gone electric." Actual gigs were few and far between, and I only know of two venues for certain where The Smokey Grass Boys actually played. Both of them were very hip, bohemian long haired places, and the band's name was partially intended as a clear indicator that although the music might have been traditional, its performers were up-to-date. Rick Shubb says there were performances at a few other venues, like pizza parlors (probably at the Straw Hat chain), but not that many. At this point, our knowledge of Smokey Grass Boys shows is confined to two hip little folk venues, both of them to close shortly afterwards, squeezed by the rock explosion.

Smokey Grass Boys Performance History
The first (and misspelled) listing of The Smokey Grass Boys, from issue 71 of the Berkeley Barb, December 1966
December 23-25, 1966  The Jabberwock, Berkeley: Smokey Grass Boys/Don Garrett
The Jabberwock, at 2901 Telegraph Avenue (at Russell), was Berkeley's leading folk venue from 1965 to 1967. The house band, The Instant Action Jug Band, who lived next door, evolved into Country Joe and The Fish. CJF rehearsed at the Jabberwock, although by Fall 1966 they were too successful to play there. The Jabberwock was a tiny place, but it was the center of Berkeley hip music.

December 29-31, 1966 40 Cedar Alley, San Francisco: The Smokey Grass Boys
40 Cedar Alley, the address as well the name of a San Francisco coffee house that presented music, was either ahead of or behind the times. 40 Cedar Alley is near the corner of Geary and Larkin, not far from the site of the Great American Music Hall. The little joint was connected to the Cedar Alley Cinema, which presented foreign and art films and the like. The Coffee House presented odd performers that would now be deemed 'World Music.' The little club missed the folk boom, and was too early for the diversity of musical styles that would follow some decades later. Nonetheless, some very interesting acts played there.

January 6-8, 1966 The Jabberwock, Berkeley: Smokey Grass Boys

January 19, 1966 The Jabberwock, Berkeley: Smokey Grass Boys

January 23, 1967 The Jabberwock, Berkeley: Smokey Grass Boys, The New Age, Larry Hanks and The Cleanliness and Godliness Skiffle Band Berkeley Free Press Benefit
All of the groups at this benefit were obscure, but they were all ahead of their time, in typical Berkeley fashion. Besides the Smokey Grass Boys, The New Age were pretty much the first to make 'New Age' music, whether or not the genre was named after them. The Cleanliness and Godliness Skiffle Band, besides being the other group formed out of the melange of the Instant Action Jug Band, ended up making the infamous Masked Marauders album in 1969.

January 25, 1967 40 Cedar Alley, San Francisco: Smokey Grass Boys

January 26, 1967 The Jabberwock, Berkeley: Smokey Grass Boys
Most of the Smoky Grass Boys shows at The Jabberwock were on weeknights, which for a folk club meant that many of the patrons were simply dropping by. Performers who had built up a following usually played on weekends, so it doesn't seem like The Smoky Grass Boys had really jumped over that hurdle.

January 27, 28 or 29, 1967 The Jabberwock, Berkeley: Smokey Grass Boys/dozens of others
The Jabberwock held a three day benefit for itself, with over a dozen acts. Who played which night remains uncertain. Besides The Smokey Grass Boys, performers included Sandy Rothman and 'Blind Ebbetts Field,' namely Barry Melton in his solo bluesman mode. As a mark of the times, there was a light show (by Head Lights).

February 9, 1967 The Jabberwock, Berkeley: Smokey Grass Boys

February 15, 1967 40 Cedar Alley, San Francisco: Smokey Grass Boys
The last trace of The Smokey Grass Boys was at 40 Cedar Alley, on a Wednesday. The exact demise of the Smokey Grass Boys remains obscure. Most likely, they simply stopped getting booked. All the members remained around the Bay Area for a while. David Grisman was in the East Bay at least as late as June, 1967, performing at the Jabberwock as a substitute member of The Charles River Valley Boys. Indeed, Rick Shubb played the last public notes at The Jabberwock, joining Doc Watson on July 8, 1967. By that time, however, with the Summer Of Love in full swing, bluegrass music seemed passe indeed.

From what little I know, it appears that the Smokey Grass Boys played traditional bluegrass material. Typically, young 60s bluegrass bands played standard bluegrass songs and a few original instrumentals, albeit ones based on various bluegrass classics. Despite their undoubtedly fine musicianship and hip name, The Smokey Grass Boys were a traditional bluegrass band. If they had concocted a song about weed, things might have been different, but that barrier would be breached by one Smokey Grass Boy and a few of their friends about six years later.

David Grisman returned to the East Coast in mid-1967 and formed a psychedelic rock band in Cambridge, MA, like everyone else, with his friend Peter Rowan. Earth Opera recorded two albums on Elektra and were an interesting rock band, but they never made it. Grisman went into management, and returned to the West Coast about 1970. He went on to help found Old And In The Way with Peter Rowan and Jerry Garcia, revolutionizing bluegrass music. He then formed The Great American String Band, with some assistance from Garcia, which then evolved into the David Grisman Quintet, and they revolutionized American acoustic music. Plus he started his own label, and a million other things. When I saw Grisman and Rowan in Marin in 1997, Grisman mentioned The Smokey Grass Boys, and winked broadly at the crowd, just in case anyone thought the name referred to Kentucky.

I know a lot less about Jil Haber, but she does have a successful recording and performing career as Harmony Grisman. David Grisman had since remarried, but Monroe Grisman, the true progeny of the band, has had a notable musical career as well.

Herb Pedersen backed the great bluegrass duo Vern And Ray for a few years, and toured with them until about 1968. Pedersen then headed to Southern California, joining The Dillards. Pedersen also became a first call player in the LA session scene, recording with the likes of Linda Ronstadt and many others. Pedersen toured with Ronstadt as well. In 1987, Pedersen teamed up with ex-Byrd Chris Hillman and guitarist John Jorgensen in the Desert Rose Band, a very successful hybrid of bluegrass vocals and Buck Owens music. The Desert Rose Band's first hit in was the old bluegrass classic "Ashes Of Love," so in a manner of speaking Pedersen made it as a bluegrass musician after all. The Desert Rose Band had a successful run until 1994, when they parted amicably. They have had a few reunion shows in the 21st century. When Pedersen performs live these days, it's often with his bluegrass group, The Laurel Canyon Ramblers.

In 1996, when David Grisman reformed Old And In The Way, he invited Herb Pedersen to play the banjo as well as sing "Pig In A Pen" and "White Dove," Garcia's numbers with the band.  It was an appropriate choice, as Pedersen was a contemporary and friend of the band's first banjo player. Over the years, Pedersen has performed and recorded regularly with Peter Rowan, Grisman and others, as Old And In The Gray, finally singing the bluegrass songs about weed that The Smoky Grass Boys should have been singing in the first place.

Rick Shubb made the poster for the April 26-28, 1974 Golden State Bluegrass Festival
Rick Shubb, for all his friends and connections, never "went electric." He was definitely part of the 60s scene, making some great posters for the Carousel Ballroom, for example. With his friend Earl (Dr. Humbead) Crabb, Shubb drew the remarkable "Humbead's Map Of The World," which has to be seen full-size to be fully appreciated. Yet Shubb stuck to bluegrass and acoustic music. With his partner Bob Wilson, and his wife Markee Shubb, he put out some acoustic albums. He also continued to play bluegrass in a variety of bands.

Remarkably, however, defying every joke ever about banjo players, Shubb invented a capo for banjos, and has sold a million of them. Not a metaphorical million--an actual million. A capo is a fretting device, usually attached to a guitar, that allows a musician to play certain chords more easily (to quote Bob Weir "in common circles, it's called a 'cheater'"). For various reasons, there were technical and musical difficulties with capo for a banjo, but Shubb solved them. He had a machinist build his capo, and in 1979 Shubb sold the first one to his old roommate and friend Jerry Garcia, screwing it on Jerry's banjo himself. A million more followed. Shubb has had a remarkable career in many ways, too long to encapsulate here, but along with Garcia and Herb Pedersen, he showed that there was hope for banjo players after all.

The Smokey Grass Boys, whatever they exactly sounded like, were far ahead of their time. A few years later, when the music world was ready for hippie bluegrass, a band with that name might have gotten somewhere. As it was, they were confined to a few little Bay Area folk clubs and some distant, unclaimed memories. Apparently, a tape or two of the band does exist, not really of releasable quality, but at least the music is not fully lost.