With a rich diversity of musical tastes and talents in the Bay Area, it’s not surprising that there’s an impressive collection of local bluegrass bands and festivals. But what may be surprising is the number of nationally acclaimed, award-winning bluegrass bands in the southern portion of the Bay Area, particularly in Santa Cruz, the coastal community many argue isn’t part of the true South Bay. Yet, collectively with Santa Cruz, the South Bay is home to some of country’s best bluegrass bands and finest young, up-and-coming performers whose music interests are firmly rooted in the country-styled genre developed from Appalachia folk music. The following are five of the best bluegrass bands in the South Bay.
Brothers Luke and Kyle, along with Mason Hutchinson, form this award-winning bluegrass trio from Santa Cruz. Luke was a co-winner for the Best Banjo Player Award and a finalist for Best Male Vocalist at this year’s Northern California Bluegrass Awards in Redwood City. Luke has also performed with the legendary Frank Wakefield, as well as Grammy Award-winning, Bay Area bluegrass star Kathy Kallick. The band’s debut album from last summer, “Trifecta,” features classic country/bluegrass songs like Doc Watson’s “Columbus Stockade Blues,” Hank Williams’ ”Lovesick Blues” and Carlene Carter’s “Dixie Darlin’.”
Bean Creek was this year’s co-winner of the Best Band Award at the Northern California Bluegrass Awards and band member Billy Pitrone is a five-time winner of the Best Male Vocalist Award. This widely acclaimed Santa Cruz-based band performs regularly at Phil’s Fish Market and Eatery in Moss Landing, recently rated number one by the BBC on the World’s Best Beach Restaurants. In addition to Billy Pitrone on vocals and guitar, the quartet consists of Sara Eblen on vocals and bass, Pete Hicks (former winner of the Best Fiddler Award) on vocals, fiddle and mandolin and Rob Horgan on the banjo. Bean Creek regularly performs at local festivals like the Santa Cruz Bluegrass Festival and UCSC’s Farm and Garden’s Fall Harvest Festival. The band’s 2003 CD “Dirty Water” features originals songs like Pitrone’s “Dirty Water” and classic country songs like Carlene Carter’s “My Dixie Darlin’,” June Carter Cash’s “Losin’ You” and Bill Monroe’s “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome.” The group’s latest CD is “Nightbird.” Like its earlier release, it contains traditional bluegrass songs and originals.
A longtime Santa Cruz favorite, Harmony Grits has been performing bluegrass for more than 20 years and together as band members since 1985. The widely respected quartet consists of Mike McKinley on mandolin, Jim Lewin on guitar, Jeff Baldwin on dobro and Doug Marcus on bass. Harmony Grits has hosted the annual Santa Cruz Bluegrass Festival for the past 17 years and has appeared in many high-profile bluegrass festivals like the Strawberry Music Festival and the High Sierra Music Festival. In past years, Harmony Grits has performed as a back-up band to many legendary musicians, such as Neil Young, Ralph Stanley, Peter Rowan, Bill Monroe, John Sebastien and Gillian Welch. The band has had a long-running gig at the San Gregorio General Store.
San Jose-based Sidesaddle & Co. has been performing for nearly 35 years and was the 2008 Band of the Year winner of the Northern California Bluegrass Society. Band members Lee Anne Welch and Lisa Burns both won top honors at this year’s Northern California Bluegrass Awards, respectively for Best Fiddler and Best Bass Player. The rest of the band includes Rob Horgan on banjo, who also performs with Santa Cruz’s Bean Creek, Kim Elking, a former Best Mandolin Player and popular DJ and Glenn Dauphin on guitar. The band’s second and third albums, “Saratoga Gap” and “The Girl from the Red Rose Saloon,” both reached the top 10 on the national bluegrass charts. More recently, the band’s “Daylight Train” album received a National Indie Award nomination for “Callin’ In The Cows.” Sidesaddle & Co. has several upcoming performances scheduled at Sam’s BBQ in San Jose.
Advertised as the next generation of bluegrass music, Palo Alto-based The Tuttles with AJ Lee is a two-time winner of the Best Band Award from the Northern California Bluegrass Show. Band members include Jack Tuttle, a well known and respected South Bay bass guitarist and fiddler, his children Molly, Sullivan and Michael. Lead vocalist AJ Lee, at just 15 years old, is already a three-time winner of the Best Female Vocalist Award and recently described by Mother Jones as possibly the next Alison Krauss. Molly Tuttle is a past recipient of the Best Guitarist Award and Best Vocalist, while brother Michael won the 2012 Best Mandolin Player Award and father Jack Tuttle won the Best Fiddler Award. The band has a new CD “Endless Ocean” and has upcoming scheduled appearances at the Desert Bluegrass Festival in Tucson, Arizona and the Central Canadian Bluegrass Awards in Huntsville, Ontario, Canada. The elder Tuttle has been a music instructor at Gryphon Stringed Instruments in Palo Alto for over 30 years and is the music editor for Fiddler Magazine. Jack Tuttle and award-winning lyricist-musician John Kael lead another popular South Bay bluegrass band, Bluegrass Stomp.
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