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San Diego Celebrates Bluegrass

April 30, 2013 1:25 p.m.


Rob Lewallen, Vocals & Guitar, The Shirthouse Band and co-chair, Ramona Bluegrass and Old West Fest

Peter Lauterbach, Vocals & Mandolin, The Shirthouse Band

Rich Craig, Vocals & Banjo, The Shirthouse Band

Related Story: San Diego Celebrates Bluegrass


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: American bluegrass music has its roots in the hills and hollers of the south, but it doesn't stay there. It has become the backbone of country music, grew to delight audiences around the world. And it's celebrated right here in San Diego. This weekend, bluegrass bands and enthusiasts will gather for the annual Ramona bluegrass and old west fest. Here today to perform for us is one of the 17 bands playing at the festival, the Shirthouse Band. Thank you for coming in. This is Foggy Mountain Breakdown.


CAVANAUGH: Thank you, that's a great way to start it! That was Rob Lewallen on guitar, Peter Lauterbach on mandolin, and rich Craig on banjo. Peter, what is it that makes a song bluegrass?

LAUTERBACH: Mostly it's the instruments that are used, strictly banjo, mandolin, fiddle, as opposed to the violin. There's playing style differences. Guitar. And there are some other instruments that are kind of outside of the bluegrass realm that are still used, and of course preferably a stand-up bass, but in some cases electric.

CAVANAUGH: And what are the themes of a bluegrass song?

LAUTERBACH: As far as what do they sing about?


LAUTERBACH: A lot of it's just life, on the farm, railroad song, anything dealing with the hardships of life.



CAVANAUGH: Drinking?

LAUTERBACH: Yeah, drinking. Love. Definitely.

CAVANAUGH: Are there different styles of bluegrass?

LAUTERBACH: Yes, there are, there's traditional style which is basically the same instruments that we just discussed. There's progressive bluegrass, which is kind of more what we play. We introduce some rock and roll song, etc. Gospel bluegrass, and then even from there it opens up widely into all different types of music and instrumentations.

CAVANAUGH: I said in the beginning this comes from -- I know the roots go way back, but in America it comes from the south, the hill country. And I wonder why it would be popular here. Rob can you explain that for me?

LEWALLEN: Well, it did come from basically back in the British isles in Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and the folks working the mines, they brought that old-time music with them. And then there was a huge influence from the south, from African Americans who -- actually where the banjo came from, and they brought all this American roots music with them and this style developed in Appalachia. And it has progressed through the mountain men and the Cowboys and the western movement all the way across the country. The real bluegrass didn't get going until the mid-20th century. 1939.

LAUTERBACH: Bill Monroe started it. A mandolin play. He had a style that he started that introduced some blues and fiddle tunes, and people had never really heard that particular style. And radio was real big back then. When they heard it they got really excited about it.

LEWALLEN: There's even jazz influence in bluegrass.

CAVANAUGH: And part of that style is the singing, right?

LAUTERBACH: Oh, very much so.

CAVANAUGH: High lonesome? Can you tell us what that is?

LAUTERBACH: It's a style of music where the harmonies are stacked, without getting too technical, but it's not your traditional soprano, tenor bass kind of thing. They move the baritone up and mix it up a little bit more.

LEWALLEN: It's common to see two, three, and 4-part harmonies. We work in 5-part harmonies where we're doubled up an octave apart.

CAVANAUGH: Can you give us an example of some of those high lonesome harmonies?



LAUTERBACH: And the concept there is that I'm a tenor, but I take the high, high part. So it mixes up the voices.

CAVANAUGH: That was really pretty. But I'm going to make you perform again.

CAVANAUGH: You did that too well! I'm going to ask you to play a song called the Old Home Place.


CAVANAUGH: I know that the father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe played the mandolin, but a lot of people hear the banjo and think the band is really started with banjos here.

LEWALLEN: I didn't know that. Most of the time they play, they don't invite me.

CAVANAUGH: It sounds like a really fun style of music to play. Is there a lot of improvising that goes on?

LAUTERBACH: Very much so. A lot of times we'll never play the same song twice the same way. But there's a lot of improvising in bluegrass music.

CRAIG: For shows we try and stick to our prepracticed way that we do it, but we do deviate. But there's another aspect of bluegrass that's really fantastic, and you see a lot of this at festivals, and parking lot jams, the whole concept of jamming. Somebody just starts a song, and you've got eight or ten people picking along. Beginners with play along with very experienced folks, and that's one of the things bluegrass is all about.

CAVANAUGH: There are a lot of people who like this music, a lot of people who turn out for the festivals. Why do you think that is? What do you think it is about this music that grabs people even if perhaps they haven't grown up in a place where bluegrass is the major muse take you're going to listen to?

LAUTERBACH: Bluegrass music is moving music. Very rarely when you're playing a song see somebody sit perfectly still. They're always moving their legs. We see kids up and dancing. Can just makes you want to get up and move, and I think that's one of the aspects of it.

CAVANAUGH: Sounds like real family music too.

LAUTERBACH: Very much so.

CAVANAUGH: Can anybody tell me what the Ramona bluegrass and old west fest is going to be like?

LEWALLEN: Well, it's pretty laid back. This year we're experimenting a little bit. We have 16 band, actually. Three stage this is year, 33 musical sets, 19 hours over two days, 11 hours on Saturday, and eight hours on Sunday. It's very inexpensive. If an adult buys an all-day past, it's about $1.05 an hour. And one of the big things, camping. We are getting known as a jamming festival. And folks travel all around the country from one bluegrass festival to another so that they can jam out in the parking lot and out in the camp sites. And our other big thing, we are old west as well as bluegrass. And this year we're having a very historic encampment that starts from the 17 '70s with the mountain men era, goes through the civil war era and then the cowboy era with eight or ten different encampments. And you can talk to some of these folk, and you'll see artifacts there that can only be found in museums. And we bring classrooms in of kids because it's so historic and authentic.

CAVANAUGH: I'm really glad that you could bring this to us today. But you're not getting out of here before you play us out! Thank you so much.

LAUTERBACH: Thank you so much for having us.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for coming in and doing this. And the song you're going to play us out on is I still miss someone.

LEWALLEN: What is this by?

LAUTERBACH: Johnny Cash and Roy Cash junior.