The Father’s Day Festival is a bluegrass festival hosted by the California Bluegrass Association. It takes place in Grass Valley CA, at the Nevada County Fairgrounds. It’s a beautiful space for music, nestled amongst the pine trees in the Sierra Nevada mountains. I made my first trip this year and I was blown away by the amount of musical talent I saw. The headliners were Dom Flemons, Michael Cleveland with Flamekeeper, and Della Mae, all of whom I had a chance to talk with about their music and what it’s like to play this festival.
The first show I saw was with Dom Flemons on the main stage on Thursday. Dom calls himself the “American Songster” and this is a reference to old-time musicians who used to have repertoires that are different than many artists today. His wide array of musical influences covers styles from Ragtime and Bluegrass to Calypso and the Blues.
Dom plays at least a dozen different instruments and he works many of them into his performances. With his band, Carolina Chocolate Drops he was instrumental in bringing attention to the fact that the banjo is rooted in African American history, and started its life in the US being played by slaves. As Dom performs he weaves history into the music and puts on a show that is not just musically entertaining, but informative as well.
One of the songs he performed, Steel Pony Blues is from his album titled Black Cowboys. The song tells the story of the historic figure Nat Love and his impact on the American West. He was born into slavery, then made his way out west where he was a Cowboy for a time. After he ended his career as a cowboy he began working as a Pullman Porter on a railcar.
Introducing the song Dom said a few words about Nat Love. Dom said, “he (Nate Love) was one of the few Black Cowboys to write his own autobiography. I found it so amazing for a guy who was born into slavery in Davidson County (Tennessee), after Emancipation, to make his way out to become a cowboy. I thought it was such an interesting notion that someone just as familiar with the horse and buggy to become familiar with the modern technology of the day, the train.”
Dom’s knowledge of American music history blended with his talent to perform is astounding to watch. I’ve seen him perform a number of times now, and one of the things that stands out is hearing people in the crowd talk in between songs about how much they are learning in this performance. The stories he tells makes you want to dive in and start doing your own research on these figures.
Michael Cleveland is a fiddle player who has been turning heads for the last decade. His band, Flamekeeper, is made up of stalwart players who are familiar with the bluegrass scene. In 2019 Michael released a Grammy-winning album called Tall Fiddler which was recorded with an impressive array of musicians. Del McCoury, Bela Fleck, and Tommy Emmanuel are some of the legendary artists he recorded with.
I chatted with Michael about the recording of the album and what it was like to work with these highly respected musicians. One of the songs, Tarnation, was recorded with banjo player Bela Fleck. It’s an interesting instrumental tune that is musically complex. Talking about the song Michael said, “I just asked him hey man would you like to write something for this record. He had a start of something I really liked and we sent that back and forth a little bit. Then he said why don’t you come over to the house this week and we’ll work on it. So here I was at Bela Fleck’s house writing a tune.”
Michael and his band played twice over the weekend. His band is tight and focused, which creates a musical space for Michael’s fiddling. His distinct style is easily recognizable. When he gets going on a jam it’s as if he’s tearing into his fiddle and ripping out notes. It’s exciting to listen to, eliciting cheers and clapping from the audience when he finishes a solo.
When his band played Friday night, I stood in a field under the stars surrounded by pine trees listening to the notes of his fiddle bounce off the trees in awe. His fiddle tone reminds me of a distorted tube amp with a ripping electric guitar. It can be ferocious, but also warm and gentle. Bringing out the emotion in more somber tunes like Wayfaring Stranger. It is quite the experience.
Della Mae is a Grammy-nominated all-women string band. Their music spans a range of styles from folky ballads, to the blues, to straightforward bluegrass. One of the things that stands out to me about the band is their emphasis on social justice in their lyrics. One of their songs Boston Town weaves labor history into their music seamlessly. The song tells the story of a strike led by factory girls in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1836 that protested wage cuts.
Another song off their most recent release is The Way it was Before. The song explores three different characters and the struggles they have in modern America. From worker’s rights, to gun violence, to police brutality, it explores the issue of injustice and how it affects different groups in America. In the wake of the COVID pandemic, and calls for racial justice many people talk about how they wish we could go back to the way things were before all this.
Della Mae asks us to analyze ourselves, and question whether things were all that great before 2020. The hook in the chorus says “We all know it’s broken won’t’ get back by wishing and hoping. We can’t go back to the way it was before.” Driving home this idea that idealizing the past gets us nowhere.
One of the most impressive things to me about the bluegrass community as a whole is how many young artists are making a name for themselves in music today. Musicians like Sarah Jarosz, Sierra Hull, and Molly Tuttle are a few examples. This is no accident. Festivals around the country take the time each year to teach inspiring young artists the skills they need to perform on stage and make a career in music.
Kids on Bluegrass is a program that has been a part of the Father’s Day Festival for decades. The idea of the program is simple, to train up the next generation of bluegrass players. I spoke with Helen Foley the current director of the program about its history and her work with it.
Helen said, “Frank Sullivan Sr. was the director of the program before me, it started about thirty-five years ago. He started it because his son, Frank Sullivan Jr, who is a Grammy-nominated artist and now a professional performing artist, was raised in the bluegrass community. Frank Sullivan Jr. was hoping to find other young pickers to play with and so his dad founded this program. It was sort of a breeding ground for bands really.”
Molly Tuttle is a modern bluegrass artist who traces her musical lineage to this festival. She participated in the Kids on Bluegrass program and recently wrote about it on her album Crooked Tree. The last song on that album is called Grass Valley. The song is about the first year her dad brought her to the festival at the age of ten. It’s a touching tune that gets to the core of why programs like this are so impressive. She reflects on her memories of that first festival and nods to the future of bluegrass. A line from the last verse says, “A shy kid with a mandolin I can see her on the sidelines staring at me. She looks just like I did the first time that I came to Grass Valley.”
I asked her father, Jack Tuttle, about the song and what it means to him for the festival to be immortalized like that. He told me, “I remember taking Molly when she was 10 and I brought her to be my backup guitar assistant for my fiddle class because this festival starts with a camp. And so that was her entrance into this big bluegrass world of Grass Valley so that I could have a guitar backing up my fiddle class. As the song says it was a life-changing thing. She was working on bluegrass, listening to bluegrass and she knew bluegrass but until you go to a festival like this and have it all around and see other kids doing the same thing… the song reflects how she felt that impacted her.”
In the years following this trip Jack, along with his kids, Molly and Sully, eventually joined up with another young picker named AJ Lee. They called the group “The Tuttles with AJ Lee” and they performed for a number of years under that name. The group AJ Lee and Blue Summit continues on the tradition with AJ, and Sully Tuttle as its founding members. Both AJ and Sully are products of the Kids on Bluegrass program as well.
This festival is a real gem. I was pleasantly surprised at how welcoming and open the organizers were. The musical lineup was incredible, and the setting couldn’t be better. It’s been going on for fifty years, and I hope it keeps going for fifty more.
Will Houk covers the music scene for The Ally. He is the host of the radio show and podcast “Roots, Rednecks, and Radicals.” The weekly radio show airs weekly on KNVC 95.1 FM Carson City Community Radio and features the best of Americana, folk, and roots music. His podcast takes a deep dive into modern roots music featuring in-depth interviews with recording artists. A lover of music and the outdoors, Will was raised in Northern Nevada. He now calls Carson City home with his wife Jes, and son William. He’s a teacher at Carson High School where he has taught Social Studies for 18 years. Here’s a link to his podcast – “Roots, Rednecks, and Radicals” Podcast and Radio Show Take a moment and support Will’s work for the Ally here.
Founded in 2020, the Sierra Nevada Ally is a self-reliant 501c3 nonprofit publication with no paywall, a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News, offering unique, differentiated reporting, factual news, and explanatory journalism on the environment, conservation, and public policy, while giving voice to writers, filmmakers, visual artists, and performers. We rely on the generosity of our readers and aligned partners.