Since opening three years ago, the Green Music Center at Sonoma State University has hosted many compelling concerts in its acoustically immaculate Weill Hall. This weekend, the center kicks of its ambitious Summer Performance Series, with international headliners and legendary performers.
The center’s new director of programming is Peter Williams. The former artistic director at Yoshi’s jazz clubs in San Francisco and Oakland, Williams joined the Green Music Center last February. He likens Weill Hall, with its retractable back wall that opens out onto a massive lawn, to the famous Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles.
“I love the set-up for the summer shows,” says Williams. “Sitting outside seeing a show, I think, is a great way to spend a summer evening.”
Weill Hall opens July 4 for the first concert in the series, and it’s a doozy. Broadway star Megan Hilty, best known for her work in the hit musical Wicked and for roles on television shows like Smash, is backed by the Santa Rosa Symphony for an all-American program followed by fireworks, to end the night with a bang.
Other highlights of the season include country star Martina McBride, actor-turned-crooner Kevin Spacey, Natalie Cole, Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club, Chris Isaak, Steve Martin with the Steep Canyon Rangers, Dwight Yoakam, Kristin Chenoweth and Smokey Robinson.
The show that Williams is most looking forward to is the center’s inaugural Dawg Day Afternoon Bluegrass Festival on Sunday,
July 12, featuring the David Grisman Sextet, the Del McCoury Band and Jerry Douglas presenting the Earls of Leicester. Named after Grisman’s nickname “Dawg,” the festival is soon to become a staple of the center’s concert series, and Del McCoury couldn’t be more pleased.
“I like it there, it’s such a unique part of the country, a lot of great musicians there,” says McCoury in an interview from his home in Nashville. McCoury’s connection to the Bay Area goes back to his earliest days, when he played in Berkeley with Bill Monroe and briefly appeared in the Golden State Boys in the 1960s.
A veteran of festivals like Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in San Francisco, McCoury is enthusiastic to share the stage with old friends.
“Jerry [Douglas] produced several albums for me,” says McCoury, “and I got to know David Grisman when he was just a teenager. I’ve known those guys forever. I’m looking forward to coming.”
See the full lineup at gmc.sonoma.edu/Summer2015. To read the extended interview with Del McCoury, continue on to the next page.
It feels like bluegrass is more popular now than ever. Are you seeing that?
It’s been steadily growing, you know. In fact, it’s healthier now than it’s ever been. When we formed the International Bluegrass Music Association, it boosted the music because it was a time when we started having awards shows, and all the bands and managers could get together. Long story short, we got organized, you know. And it’s been growing ever since.
There’re so many bands these days, and so many young people. And that’s the livelihood of any music, I think: that young people get interested in it, and play it and listen to it and buy records. There are so many great young musicians, more so than I ever remember. There really is.
That must be good to see.
It really is. It’s such a great art form. Us old guys, when we started to play, there was only Bill Monroe and Flatts & Scruggs to listen to. Now, young people can go anywhere and hear bluegrass music.
Back when I was starting to play—of course I was a banjo player—I heard Earl Scruggs and it just ruined me for life. I was about 11, I think. By the time I got to high school, Elvis Presley was whom all the kids my age were listening to, but I still liked Earl better. (laughs)
I just wasn’t into that rock and roll singing. Later in life I realized that Elvis was a phenomenon, a great artist, probably one of he greatest we ever had. But when it came to rock and roll, I liked Jerry Lee [Lewis] better, because he was such a great musician. Plus, he would’ve made a great bluegrass singer. He could just do anything.
I gotta tell you a little story. I used to open shows for Jerry Lee back when he came out with some country songs, in the ’60s there. Well, they had a tribute to Jerry Lee [in 2007] there at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Jerry Lee called me to come play that. And it surprised me that he remembered me after all those years. So I went up there, and I did a couple of his songs. And after the show, he got in his airplane and went straight back to Memphis, but they had a party and his guitar player, Kenny Lovelace, who’d been with him since almost the start, came up and said to me, “You know, Jerry Lee and me used to sing them songs.” And I said, ‘Oh, what songs is that?’ And he starts singing one of those old Lester Flatt, Bill Monroe duets:
Tonight I’m alone without you my dear / It seems there’s a longing for you still / All I have to do now is sit alone and cry / In our little cabin home on the hill
He said, “We used to do that stuff. When we were teenagers, we’d go to the Grand Ole Opry, and Bill Monroe was the hottest thing going.” And a lot of those early rock and rollers, you know, they listened to Monroe.
I’ll tell ya another guy who learned a lot of his technique from Monroe was, Chuck [Berry]. He’d come to the Grand Ole Opry, and because he was black, they wouldn’t let him in. So he’d sit on the back steps of the Opry, and he could hear the music, and he was listening to Monroe play that mandolin. Isn’t that something? So Bill Monroe was early rock and roll, before they tagged him bluegrass. (laughs)
With this upcoming Dawg Day Bluegrass Festival, you’re playing along with David Grisman and Jerry Douglas.
Jerry produced several albums for me, back when I was still on Rounder [Records]. I have known Jerry since he was playing with JD Crowe. And I got to know David Grisman when he was just a teenager, through my younger brothers, and recorded a record with him, called Early Dawg [Grisman’s debut solo album]. I’ve known those guys forever.
What are you impressions of the North Bay?
I play quite often there in Northern California, probably more than Southern California. I like it there. You got San Francisco, that’s a pretty town. It’s so hilly, and it’s very unusual. Bu I like that part of California, I like that part of the country really.
I’ve been coming there since—well, let’s see. I played Berkeley with Bill Monroe in ’63 for Chris Strachwitz, he’s got Arhoolie Records. And then what happened, after I quit Bill Monroe, Chris called me and wanted me to record on his label. He liked my singing. And so my first record [I Wonder Where You Are Tonight] was on Arhoolie, based out of Berkeley, California.
I’m looking forward to coming, you can tell the folks there that we’re old friends, and we just might get up and play something together.