Damascus Road Bluegrass at Huck Finn Jubilee by Marjorie Hernandez KCRW

“Only toothless hillbillies listen to that banjo music.”

John Gifford heard taunts like this all the time. Growing up in Riverside, a Southern California suburb, in the 1960s and ’70s, he was surrounded by friends who worshipped Simon & Garfunkel and studied the way Mick Jagger pranced on stage. But when he and his two brothers, Richard and Larry, got home from school, they picked up banjos and guitars and sang bluegrass—a tradition in their family that dates back generations to Oklahoma, more than 1,000 miles away.

Today, three decades later, the brothers are still playing together. Long gone are the days when they had to hide their banjo playing from peers. Their love and passion for the rustic-sounding genre have sent them all around the country touring as the band Damascus Road Bluegrass. Bluegrass no longer has the reputation as music played by “only toothless, uneducated knuckleheads from the hills,” as John says—largely because musicians like his family have helped carry the music down from the hills. Meanwhile, contemporary artists have embraced the music, reinventing traditional sounds to reach an even wider audience.

The earliest forms of bluegrass came to America in the 17th century, when English, Scottish, and Irish immigrants settled in the Appalachian region, and brought their traditional ballads and instruments, such as the Irish fiddle, with them. The music often focused on farm life. While bluegrass is rooted in oral tradition, the invention of the phonograph and the radio in the 1900s brought the sound into homes across the country. At first, the genre was often referred to as “mountain hillbilly music,” but it became known as “bluegrass” around the 1950s, in reference to the Blue Grass Boys, a seminal band led by musician Bill Monroe.

The Gifford family lineage stems from England. After settling in Massachusetts in the early 1800s, the family moved to Oklahoma during the land rush at the end of the century. When crops were destroyed in the 1930s during the Dust Bowl, the brothers’ paternal grandfather and his family packed up what belongings they still had and moved out west to California’s Central Valley.

The family also brought their storytelling tradition and musical instruments. The brothers’ father, Allen, learned ballads from his father, and passed the songs along to John, Richard, and Larry. Their mother, Ella, also came from a musically inclined family that sang and played country western music. John started to play the banjo at the age of seven. Richard learned the guitar, and Larry learned the mandolin. With Allen on bass and Ella on guitar, the Giffords had a full family band before Larry, the youngest brother, was 10.

Like jazz, there is instrumental improvisation in bluegrass, with breakdowns that include rapid tempo and complex chord changes. Growing up, the Gifford brothers studied the traditional style of greats like Bill Monroe—who was known for his “high lonesome” solos, where the tenor singer takes lead in the harmony—as well as Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.

“What people find most addictive is the rhythm and the drive,” says John, who’s now 61. “The fast songs make you want to tap your toes and make you want to move and dance. There really isn’t any other music that has drive in it. There is also a lot of storytelling—about family, life … everything from the good to the bad.”

People also respond to the complex mixtures of styles and sounds in bluegrass, which has been popularized by contemporary artists such as Keith Urban, the Dixie Chicks, and Alison Krauss. The California Bluegrass Association lists shows all over the state, including popular festivals like Summergrass in San Diego and the SoCal Monthly Bluegrass Jam in Los Angeles. The Inland Empire, where the Gifford brothers grew up, has become a destination for bluegrass lovers from across the country, thanks to the Huck Finn Jubilee held every summer in Ontario, California.

“[Bluegrass] is a niche we are grabbing onto, much like Coachella has done for the big music festival and Stage Coach for country music,” said Sue Oxarart, the Huck Finn Jubilee’s director of communications. “We want to be bluegrass central for the whole western U.S., and I think every year we are getting larger, while the fan base is also growing.”

Now in its 39th year, the jubilee has had a profound impact on the region’s musical taste. In fact, John Gifford attributes the growth of bluegrass directly to the jubilee’s founder, Don Tucker, who organized and operated the three-day festival with his family for 37 years. This year, 38,280 people packed into the city’s Cucamonga-Guasti Regional Park, and the jubilee brought in $7.1 million. Twenty-three acts performed—including Damascus Road Bluegrass and comedian Steve Martin, who told jokes between playing banjo with the Steep Canyon Rangers.

In their more than 35 years of writing original songs and performing together, the Gifford brothers have played everywhere from festivals in Europe to the Knott’s Berry Farm theme park in Buena Park. They’ve even played with Bill Monroe, the bluegrass legend. Today, they continue to share their love of bluegrass at a number of community events throughout Southern California, including Redlands, and perform at local colleges and churches. They also still tour, but not as extensively as when they began, since each band member has a family and a day job.

As bluegrass has grown in popularity, it has changed, John says. Technology and experimentation by younger artists have begun to push boundaries and create new forms of the genre. One includes “newgrass,” in which artists use electrical drums, guitars, piano, and other instruments, and incorporate more non-traditional chord progressions, borrowing from other types of music like jazz and rock. (John describes the Damascus Road Bluegrass’ style as a “traditional sound with a newgrass twist and gospel influences.”)

“The younger generation has made a lot of fantastic innovations, and they are bringing some wonderful new dimensions to the music,” John says. “The genre has finally turned a corner with richer sounds. . . . As the music gets more exposure, there is more acceptance, and a wider audience than we ever thought possible.”

Marjorie Hernandez is a Los Angeles-based legal affairs reporter for the Ventura County Star. “Living the Arts” is an arts engagement project of Zócalo Public Square and The James Irvine Foundation.

*Photo courtesy of Marjorie Hernandez.