Banjos and fiddles unite at Mar Vista’s Big Bluegrass Bash

By Christina Campodonico

What do bluegrass musicians do when they want to play but have nowhere to go?

They jam anyway they can.

That’s the thinking behind the Big Bluegrass Bash, which has Sugar in the Gourd, Burning Heart Bluegrass and solo artist Fred Sokolow showcasing their talents on Thursday, Oct. 29, at the Vineyard Christian Fellowship Westside.

Burning Heart Bluegrass’s Jeff Fleck organized the concert because he noticed that even though there are plenty of bluegrass musicians on the Westside, there aren’t many places for them to play the kind of traditional bluegrass music that he fell in love with as a kid growing up in Culver City.

In bluegrass, that’s a problem. Fleck explains that camaraderie plays as great a role in making bluegrass music as its acoustic instruments — typically a banjo, guitar, three-part harmony, fiddle and an upright base.

“Bluegrass music is a very social music. It’s not just to sit and listen to. Most people who listen to it try to play and sing it,” explains Fleck, who picked up his passion for folk music by hanging out at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica and The Ash Grove music club in Hollywood during the ‘60s.

There’s something special called the “bluegrass groove,” he says. “When you start playing, it just seems to click; everybody’s on the same page, the music moves along.”

Sugar in the Gourd’s bandmates know the feeling, whether they play the blues or bluegrass. Instead of having just one vocalist sing an entire song, the all-female folk group, known for its intricate harmonies and all-inclusive embrace of Americana sounds, splits up verses from their original songs between the three vocalists. This way the “flavor” and “timbre” of each singer’s voice can shine in its own special way and enhance the song, says Lynn Shipley Sokolow, who plays banjo and upright bass in the band.

“It’s a kind of a cooperative endeavor. We don’t have a bandleader. It allows for a democratic performance, where everyone feels valued and everyone feels heard,” she says.

A special alchemy like this is hard to reproduce even among skilled musicians. But you have to have a jam session or, in bluegrass, a “hootenanny,” to know for sure.

So Fleck asked Lynn Sokolow of Sugar in the Gourd and her husband, longtime McCabe’s Guitar instructor, Fred Sokolow to put on a show with him and his band. Mr. Sokolow will start off the evening discussing the history of bluegrass and demonstrating traditional Americana musical stylings on a variety of stringed instruments.  Sugar in the Gourd will offer an old-timey folk and roots style contrast to Burning Heart Bluegrass’s hard-driving tunes. Fleck hopes it’s the first of many more shows.

For him, the Big Bluegrass Bash is not only an opportunity for bluegrass traditionalists to hear some good ol’ classics, like “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” but also a chance to introduce new audiences to the genre, whose roots stem back to bluegrass greats like Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs and The Stanley Brothers.

“It’s people music. It’s just music that comes from people. And that’s something I think is worth saving.”

The Big Bluegrass Bash: Westside Edition starts at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct 29, at Vineyard Christian Fellowship Westside, 3838 S. Centinela Ave., Mar Vista. $15 presale; $20 at the door. Call (310) 773-6753 or visit