My first interest in playing music was sparked at age 15 by my brother Bill, seven years my senior. He was going to college at U.C. Berkeley, where folk music was getting popular. He had a good guitar; a Martin 00018, which he played finger style, and had a pretty nice touch. He also had just gotten an inexpensive open-back banjo, which he wasn’t doing much with.
Bill had taught me a little guitar, but I was not very motivated to progress on it until one day when we both discovered a record of Merle Travis. For the next year we both were trying to play as much like Travis as we could, but much of it remained a mystery.
One year later I heard a Flatt and Scruggs LP — Foggy Mountain Jamboree — that changed my life. Bill had not given me permission to play his instruments, but I began sneaking into his room when he was out in the evenings at the library studying, and started figuring out a rudimentary version of a 3-finger roll on his banjo. When he finally discovered me (betrayed by pick marks on the banjo head) I expected him to chew my head off. Instead, he was impressed with my right hand roll. It was the first time in my life that I’d outdone my big brother at anything, and that inspired me. Before long I had my own banjo; not a great one, but good enough to learn on, and I was off to the races.
In 1960 only a handful of people in the Bay Area knew what bluegrass was, let alone tried to play it. I was fortunate to meet a kid my own age, Sandy Rothman, who played banjo and guitar and was at the same place as me on the learning curve.
For about three years we were inseparable, hanging out together almost every day, talking about, listening to, and playing bluegrass music. We’d play for anyone who would listen, at every opportunity.
During that same time period I did some playing with a group called the Clovis County Country Boys. Here is a picture my Mom took off the TV set, with me playing on the Blackjack Wayne Show. I was fifteen at the time, although I look younger (and scared to death) in this picture.
We played every Saturday afternoon on TV, and then later that same night at a dance hall called the Dream Bowl that featured top country stars. We were the opening act, and quite frankly, we were amateurs and in way over our heads. But we felt like big shots at the time, playing on TV and hobnobbing with pros.
When Sandy Rothman headed east with Jerry Garcia, both seeking genuine bluegrass in its native habitat, I was in search of musicians to play with. I contacted Vern Williams, half of the powerhouse bluegrass vocal duo, Vern and Ray. I coaxed them out of retirement, and played some gigs at coffeehouses and festivals around Berkeley. But I was still a novice player, and overmatched musically. I was soon replaced in that band, but would reunite with them a few years later when my playing had greatly improved, and I was then a better match for them.
In 1966 David Grisman moved to California. I had met him a few months earlier on his initial west coast visit, and we had done some playing together. He asked me to form a bluegrass band with him. This became the Smokey Grass Boys, first with Bert Johnson on guitar, later replaced by Herb Pedersen. For about six months we played at a coffeehouse in SF once a week, and at the Jabberwock, a folk club in Berkeley, once or twice a month. During this time Grisman was formulating the foundation of his uniquely personal Dawg Music, and although we played straight bluegrass onstage, we had a few mandolin and banjo duets that were harbingers of things to come.