Bluegrass Growing in Marin
Sweetwater series plays up variety
By George Martin
The grass is bluer in Marin County in recent years, thanks to Larry Carlin, a singer and bass player with a talent for promotion and a love of bluegrass and traditional acoustic "roots" country music.
Once a month, and often more frequently, Carlin promotes the Bluegrass Gold music series at Mill Valley's venerable Sweetwater Saloon, and he runs a twice-monthly jam session at an area church for people who would rather play than listen. To tie the whole thing together, Carlin puts out an e-mail newsletter to nearly 900 people that lists all the North Bay acoustic-music offerings he can find, and also reports on the doings of well-known musicians around the country: new albums, TV appearances, movies and deaths in the traditional music community.
Carlin was raised in Pennsylvania and discovered bluegrass at Penn State University, where he switched from being a rock 'n' roll bass player to playing acoustic bass for a local bluegrass band. He moved to California in 1979 and quickly got into the local bluegrass scene, where he met Elmo "Dr. Elmo" Shropshire, who is famous for having recorded "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer," which is heard somewhere at least once, every December.
Says Carlin, "What most people don't know about Elmo is when it's not Christmastime, he's a banjo player -- he plays traditional bluegrass."
Carlin began playing bass for Elmo & Patsy, Shropshire's band at the time, and has continued with him in various groups (currently Wild Blue) for 24 years.
He also plays country duets with his singing partner, Claudia Hampe. The two met at a Peter Rowan bluegrass concert in 1995 and discovered they both were raised in the same Pennsylvania suburb, about a mile from each other, and they both liked to sing traditional country music. They have a duo act called Keystone Crossing, and they augment their small group with two or three other musicians to become the bluegrass band Keystone Station.
Carlin started the Bluegrass Gold series in 1999.
"For years," he said, "people would complain to me that there was no place to go to hear bluegrass in Marin County. I heard that so often, so I thought, I guess there's one way to get it started: I'll have to do it."
Carlin approached the owners of the Sweetwater and proposed that he would book bands one night each month. The club gets 20 percent of the admission charge, with the rest going to the musicians. Carlin contributes his work "just for the fun of it and to have some place to go."
For Sweetwater owner Becky Steere, Carlin's series has been a welcome addition to her entertainment offerings.
"What's nice is the crowd varies, because he tends to like strictly traditional bluegrass, but he also does a lot of, I wouldn't say newgrass, but younger bands, as well as the traditional ones,'' she said. "And he has really great variety. He has a good panache for finding bands that are up-and-coming as well as those that are already established."
Musicians also appreciate Carlin's efforts. Peter Rowan, who lives in Marin when he isn't touring or in Nashville, said: "He's done a lot to increase the awareness of people that there is local music around the Bay Area. And his bringing in of touring bands has helped local musicians, too."
"He's beginning to have a reputation nationally so that when touring bands are coming to the Bay Area they know they can probably get something going at the Sweetwater, to fill in on a tour," said Kathy Kallick, Oakland bluegrass singer-songwriter who tours nationally with her Kathy Kallick Band. "It's not a big venue, but it's a worthy venue with a long and illustrious history. And it'll have a good listening audience that we didn't really know was there."
Kallick's band played the very first Bluegrass Gold show in April 1999. In the spring, the series marked its 100th show, and Carlin, who has kept careful records of each event, says the 10,000th listener should come through the door this month, probably Wednesday, when Kallick and a group of her friends will appear, with Keystone Crossing as the opening act.
"Larry has done such good work promoting bluegrass in Marin County, that it is now on our radar when we are booking a block of gigs," said Kallick. "Especially me -- I have a fiddle player from Minnesota in the band, so it's nice to be able to get a little block of bookings, and he, aside from promoting music at the Sweetwater, has sort of collected all of the venue possibilities in the North Bay, and has contact information for all of that."
A high proportion of bluegrass music fans are also amateur musicians, and for them Carlin offers a twice-monthly jam session, on the first and third Thursdays, at Marin Lutheran Church in Corte Madera.
"It was the same thing with the jam session," Carlin said. "People were constantly telling me that there's nowhere to jam in Marin County. So eventually I went and got this venue. I set it up, take responsibility for it. I don't always go to it, but I always make sure there is someone in charge, calling the shots. And I always try to make sure there is a bass there, because I am the main bass player. When I can't go, I have three or four people I can call on. If you have a jam without a bass, it doesn't sound like a band anymore."
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This page updated 12/3/05