Ramona Howe and Eric Burman. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Ramona Howe and Eric Burman. Photo by Robert Eliason.

The 29th Annual Old Fashioned Bluegrass Festival has come to the San Benito County Historical Park, filling the campground with performers and nearly non-stop music on four stages and in tents throughout the venue. Musicians from all over California and bluegrass fans from around the country have gathered for the four-day celebration as much for the experience as for the music.

“We always say that at the bluegrass festival, everybody’s a friend that you just haven’t met yet,” said festival organizer Michael Hall. “There’s always bands playing onstage, but people who are not on stage right then will get together and play music in the camp. It goes on all day, often until two or three in the morning.”

The festival, which runs through Aug. 13, is a benefit for the Northern California Bluegrass Society. Founder Eric Burman says he has always loved the way people come together as a little village to explore their mutual interest in this type of traditional American music. 

“You can’t play really good bluegrass music by yourself,” he said. You really need to have a place to play your music and share it. People have come here year after year and we now have a third generation of children playing who are superstars.”

Burman, 72, began playing bluegrass music when he was 13 years old and founded the festival in part as a promise to his mother.

“As she was dying,” he said, “she gave me some money and said, ‘I want you to throw a party,’ and I said, ‘Mom, I will throw a party that will never end.’’

Traditional bluegrass music is played on acoustic instruments including standard guitars, banjos, mandolins, standard fiddles, bass fiddles and dobro guitars. 

“It is a very soulful kind of music,” Burman said. “And, for many, many people, it’s accessible to play. It’s not necessarily easy to play really well, but you can get really good at doing it. About 60% of the people here in the bands and the audience this weekend can play and own instrument.”

The festival opened at 8 p.m. on Aug. 10, on the Lantern Stage, whose name derives from campers who bring lanterns to help illuminate the otherwise unlit stage. 

Triad and True. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Triad and True. Photo by Robert Eliason.

Suzanne Cornelius, Yvonne Walbroehl and Gail Reese performed as “Triad and True,” a group formed only four months ago after they had been playing in the same bands occasionally on and off for 20 years.

“We were at the Santa Clara Valley Java Jam,” said Cornelius. “We realized at that event how much we loved singing and playing with each other but had never played as a trio. We got together and it was so much fun that when Michael asked us to come, we said okay.”

Cornelius said that the group specializes in the music that lends itself well to three-part harmony.

“It’s the music that we can all sing together,” Reese said. “I think that’s what the magic is for me. it’s very heartfelt music, it’s improvised for the most part, and it is super fun.”

Walbroehl said that performing on stage is secondary to her—she just likes playing music.
“I like the interactive nature of bluegrass,” she said. “Because it’s all acoustic, you don’t have to be somewhere where you can plug into electricity. You can get four or five people together anywhere—out here in the parking lot all night long, if you want.”

Berman said that once people realize how pleasant and simple the music is, they naturally gravitate toward it.

“There’s gospel songs and murder songs and protest songs,” he said. “You can sing about the most horrible things but you would be smiling and stomping your foot to it. And there are also having-a-good time-and-dancing-around songs as well. I think bluegrass music is the music of life and it is an honor to share it.”

The festival is being held at 8300 Airline Hwy in Tres Pinos. Tickets are available at the gate and may be purchased by cash or check. A two-day ticket is $105, a Saturday ticket (10 a.m.-11 p.m.) is $70, and a Sunday ticket (10 a.m.-3 p.m.) is $45. There are discounts for seniors and youth (13-17) and children under 12 are admitted free of charge. 

Event schedule. Courtesy of Michael Hall.
Event schedule. Courtesy of Michael Hall.
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