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If You Go

What: SSU Bluegrass and Craft Beer Festival

Who: Ricky Skaggs, Laurie Lewis and Phoebe Hunt

When: 2 p.m., Sunday, July 15 – beer fest starts at noon

Where: Green Music Center, 1801 East Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park

Tickets: $25 to $55, discounts for SSU students and children; beer festival $30

Information: 866-9550-6040, tickets@sonoma.edu, gmc.sonoma.edu

Sonoma State has paired its fourth annual bluegrass festival with its craft beer extravaganza, setting the scene for an ideal afternoon of music, suds and sun.

The Green Music Center’s elegant Weill hall has extraordinary acoustics that should impress bluegrass enthusiasts, while the lawn is the ideal setting for a picnic.

Headlining the July 15 festival is Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, superstars in both country and bluegrass.

Berkeley fiddler Laurie Lewis & the Right Hands play the middle set, while Texas-born fiddler Phoebe Hunt opens the show.

The Grammy Award-winning Lewis has won wide acclaim for her songwriting and shows with the Right Hands and other collaborators.

Linda Ronstadt, according to Lewis’ website, says Lewis’ voice is “a rare combination of grit and grace, strength and delicacy. Her stories are always true.”

The craft beer fest starts at noon, two hours ahead of the music, and features 23 breweries and cider makers, many of them local.

The roster includes Windsor’s Barrel Brothers; Plow, and Cooperage, all based in Santa Rosa, Petaluma’s Ethic Ciders and and HenHouse of Petaluma and Santa Rosa.

Admission to the beer festival is $30 on top of the concert ticket and includes a tasting glass and unlimited pours.

The Bay Area bluegrass trio Fog Holler, discovered while busking at San Francisco’s Ferry Terminal in June by Green Music Center executive director Jacob Yarrow, will play at the beer fest.

Casey J. Holmberg, Fog Holler’s banjo player and singer, grew up in Petaluma and now lives in El Sobrante.

Skaggs, who has won 14 Grammy awards, was a musical prodigy who got his start onstage when the founding father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe, performed near Skaggs’ hometown in rural Kentucky.

The crowd “wouldn’t let up until Little Ricky Skaggs got up to play,” says the bio on Skaggs’ website.

Monroe put his own mandolin around Skaggs’ neck, adjusting the strap to fit Skaggs’ small frame. Skaggs was just 6 years old but impressed Monroe and the crowd.

He’s worked with Ralph Stanley and Emmylou Harris, playing mandolin, fiddle, guitar and banjo, but the versatile Skaggs made his fortune in as a solo artist in country music.

Lewis, who plays just before Skaggs, didn’t grow up in bluegrass country, but her love for the music is just as pure.

Raised in Berkeley, Lewis first heard bluegrass “as a kid – there was something about it that just spoke to me,” she said in a phone interview.

At the Berkeley Folk Festival she heard the legendary Doc Watson, Reverend Gary Davis and Mississippi John Hurt.

“It just totally busted my ears open and got me really excited about folk music,” she said.

“I just loved it. I started trying to play banjo when I was about 14. It wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I started playing fiddle and working in bands.”

Though there are “efforts within bluegrass to modernize the music,” Lewis said, “that’s not what I fell in love with. She’s always “loved the mountain-y, lonesome sound.”

“Every instrument in a bluegrass band has its role,” she said, creating “beautiful tapestry of texture.”

Lewis, 67, who views herself as a late bloomer, made a living by owning a violin shop from her late 20s until her mid-30s.

Then she decided to make her first album, which was “so freeing and so emotionally resonant,” she said. “That was the impetus for me to say: OK, this is where my passion is; this is where my happiness is. This is what I want to pursue.”

The album was well received, she said, though a few bluegrass purists arched an eyebrow as some songs were more country than high lonesome.

Making her second album was even scarier, she said, because “now you have a bar to live up to.”

Although she’s been prolific, with more than a dozen albums to her name, Lewis takes the time she needs for each record to come into its own.

She had been working on an album the day before Sept. 11, 2001, and had been “so ecstatic about the album, so happy. The next morning I woke up to a changed world. It made me shelve that project for almost eight years,” she said.

“I couldn’t see how to put out this joyous music in this time when we were at war. The outside world was just too much for me. But I finally got out of that and have been plugging away ever since.”

In 2016, Laurie Lewis and the Right Hands released a tribute to bluegrass pioneers and collaborators Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard that earned a Grammy nomination.

“It really made me happy to spotlight these two women who (who were) so important as trailblazers and inspirations in my musical life,” Lewis said.

“We concentrated on some of their lesser-known music,” she said, noting, “Dickens and Gerrard did so many great songs” that someday she’d like to record a second album of their music.

Lewis has said that bluegrass is simply “a singer-songwriter with a string band.”

In the phone interview, she added that “one of the original tenets of bluegrass music is: Sing about your life. Do songs that resonate with you and do them with a string band. So it’s a singer-songwriter thing.”

Eager to try new forms, Lewis said she doesn’t feel she’s “setting back the tradition of bluegrass by messing with it in the ways that I mess with it.”

Lewis said she tries to “keep the roots showing, so that I am paying homage to the tradition. But the tradition of bluegrass is a tradition of messing with tradition. It’s a funny thing.”


Michael Shapiro is author of “A Sense of Place.” He writes about travel and entertainment for national magazines and The Press Democrat.

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