Legends, historic events — even job outsourcing — make it into bluegrass songs. David Davis didn't even think of the song...
Legends, historic events — even job outsourcing — make it into bluegrass songs.
David Davis didn’t even think of the song as being topical when Tommy Freeman, a former band member, wrote “Today’s the Day I Get My Gold Watch and Chain.”
It’s about a laid-off factory worker.
“It’s about this guy — the plant closes where he worked at for 25 years. It goes out of the country,” said Davis.
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“It was newsworthy; it was historic.”
But when Davis and the Warrior River Boys recorded it, it quickly became one of the top-10 bluegrass songs in 2005 and remained on the charts for 10 months.
But that’s the nature of bluegrass, a uniquely American music that gains fans every year for its story songs and bright, energetic music, performed by masters of mandolin, guitar, fiddle, banjo and other acoustic instruments.
Davis and the Warrior River Boys join Rhonda Vincent and the Rage to headline the 31st annual Darrington Bluegrass Festival that runs Friday through Sunday at the Darrington Bluegrass Music Park.
Several other bluegrass bands take the stage of the old piney cabin on this 40-acre wooded setting. They include the U.S. Navy band Country Current, bands from Texas and Oregon, and local favorites such as Country Grass (Darrington), Three Generations (Brier) and The Combinations (Darrington and Snohomish).
The audience brings lawn chairs and blankets and either sits on the grass or on broad, Greek-style amphitheater risers that face the stage. At night, campers and RVers hold impromptu jam sessions.
A branch of the Stillaguamish River runs through the property, and performers face the craggy face of Whitehorse Mountain.
Anyone musically inclined may also bring an instrument and play bluegrass at 9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday by signing up backstage for open mics.
Many performers, like Davis and Rhonda Vincent, grew up with the music.
The Grammy-nominated Vincent toured with her family’s band as a child, and Davis said he grew up with music on both sides of the family.
“My mom’s dad was a Baptist preacher,” he said. “He loved old-time music. He was very proficient at old-time fiddle and claw-hammer banjo. He played for dances to make his money to buy his schoolbooks. He always loved the music, and I grew up listening to him play.”
His dad’s older brother Cleo led the way in the profession, answering an ad in a newspaper in 1938 and became the first member of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys.
Davis first met Monroe in 1974. “I was going into the sixth grade. It was like Mount Rushmore. I had always heard about him. It was really awesome.”
Davis’ band takes its name from the Black Warrior River that runs between Birmingham and Cullman, Ala., where Davis lives.
They hit the stage for their 45-minute sets Saturday and Sunday with a fast instrumental, then the audience can expect trios, solos, duets, fiddle songs, mandolin tunes, “brother tunes” with two to three people, gospel quartet songs and even a comedy skit or two.
For encores, they’ll do audience requests like “Rawhide,” “Orange Blossom Special” and “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” songs made famous by bluegrass legends.
Davis plays mandolin and sings lead tenor, Adam Duke plays guitar and sings lead harmony, Marty Hays plays bass fiddle, Owen Saunders plays fiddle and Wes Vanderpool plays banjo.
A lot of the tunes are original, written by various artists and popularized on the band’s various labels — Rounder Records, Rebel Records and Wango Records. The band recorded 150 songs with Ray Davis of Wango, a legendary radio personality who started in the 1960s recording bluegrass artists like the Stanley Brothers, James King, Danny Paisley and Monroe’s brother Charlie. These years of “basement recordings” have a cult following all their own. Like other festival artists, the band will bring CDs to sign after each set.
Davis believes the music appeals to the young because of its energy and strength.
“Listen to what Ricky Skaggs is doing, Rhonda is doing,” he says. “Young people know what real is and what is not real.”
Though now there are about 30 vendors, including food vendors, two music shops and a CD store, the festival has kept its grassroots feel since it started in the home of Ernestine and Grover Jones.
“My husband [Grover] wanted to learn to play the guitar, so he had his cousin, Earl Jones, come and give him some pointers,” said Ernestine Jones. “It’s no fun just playing by yourself, so he called in Roy Morgan, and it led to more and more and more. I have seen 53 people in my home playing music.”
“We outgrew our home,” she continues, “so we started renting the school, and from there, someone said, ‘Why don’t we just start a festival?’ And it started with three of the guys putting down $5 each — a $15 budget.”
Planning goes on year-round, and the Festival also hosts all-year jam sessions, open to the public, with dinner by donation, every second Sunday at the Darrington Community Center, going from 1 p.m. “to whatever,” Jones said.
Diane Wright: 425-745-7815 or firstname.lastname@example.org