Power Pickers
of the '60's

Musicians of the Flower Generation



The RIDGERUNNERS Years: 1961-1963
Folk music and the bands of the ‘60’s

It’s taken me nearly 50 years to appreciate what my old college-days Bluegrass band, the RIDGERUNNERS, did for me and my musical education. But I have a feeling most of the music makers of the era, the groups, solo artists and living room performers that came out of middle class, urban, root-seeking America, owe a similar debt of thanks to the folk music revival of the 1950’s and 60’s.

Case in point: as you probably know, another Bluegrass guy, Jerry Garcia, was playing the banjo up to within six months of co-founding the Grateful Dead in 1964. I know this because I played it with him, and that would have been in late 1963, because that’s when I left Berkeley to come back to LA. And the closest thing to an early Dead anthem, “Rain and Snow,” was inspired by a haunting earlier version recorded by Obray Ramsey, a Southern mountain banjo player-singer. Many of us in the Berkeley music scene knew about that little gem.

Jerry’s co-opting of American genre music for his and his band’s own personas was an almost universal practice of every performer and composer in the ‘60’s: Bob Dylan (emulating Woody Guthrie), Ry Cooder (copping Reverend Gary Davis), Taj Mahal (“Big Boy” Arthur Crudup), David Lindley and Richard Green (generic Bluegrass), the Lovin’ Spoonful (jug bands), Canned Heat (10,000 blues 78’s), Jorma Kaukkonen (various finger pickers), Mike Bloomfield (BB King), Janis Joplin (Houston’s 4th Ward screamers) and far too many more to name. It’s actually easier trying to find ‘60’s performers who were not deeply influenced by American folk music tradition. I really can’t think of any offhand, including the esoteric [John Fahey], who felt he channeled the great bluesman Son House in some way.

(BTW, I was lucky enough to play with all these people. I shared their love of traditional American music, white and Black, and developed a “cross-picking” guitar technique of my own based on the instrumental styles of Earl Scruggs and mandolin players Jesse MacReynolds and Scott Hambly. It became an important part of my own musical arsenal as I played and recorded with my band, Evergreen Blueshoes in 1968, and other recording and performing artists of the era.)

What does this have to do with the Ridgerunners?

Surprise of surprises, it’s where I got and honed my own chops and taste, just as almost all of us did via our different, and highly romanticized, musical role models. The Ridgerunners-actually, we were the descendents of an even earlier Berkeley Bluegrass band, the Redwood Canyon Ramblers, ca. 1958-61-is where I first got close to a three-finger Scruggs-style banjo player, Greg Lasser (an ex-Brooklyn folkie), and a world class mandolin player, Scott Hambly, a fellow student at Cal.

What I think is most interesting, though, is that very few of us thought we were incubating a new kind of music that would result from combining what we were trying to imitate with mainstream, mid-Century Rock n’ Roll, Country & Western, Rhythm & Blues and Soul. These were all thriving popular idioms being played by “real people,” like Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash, Little Richard and the Beach Boys (yes, the Beach Boys. They were playing their version of the music they grew up with, not that they discovered in folk music clubs and Socialist sing-alongs.

The point is that we all took traditional American music deadly seriously. For many of us, to mess with the authenticity of the styles and idioms was to court the revulsion of, and possible expulsion by, the keepers of the flame, the American roots-music establishment, in its many branches, locations and guises throughout the land. And please believe me, they were there, wherever the music was being played. Just look at our group shot: three college kids, string ties, mustaches and somber expressions, just like (at least in our minds) in a mid-19th Century Matthew Brady portrait of people going about the business of living. Don’t you want to just take us home with you? Right, neither would I.
Country’s One-liner Notes
‘50’s, ‘60’s and ‘70’s monster jazz and session guitarist Barney Kessel, on being told about an “incredibly scary” new kid on the block, George Benson: “Oy, thank God I’ve got Blue Cross.”