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History of the CTBA

By Ken Brown

From the Bluegrass Bulletin, 2002

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Even if you've noticed the "1978" in the association's logo, or if you've noticed that this issue is part of Volume 25, the significance of that may have escaped you. Well, the CTBA is now 25 years old, presumably placing it among the oldest local and regional bluegrass associations in the country. Steve has asked me to write this retrospective essay, perhaps because I'm a relic of the past myself, and in it I intend not only to review some of the association's history, but also to assess where we stand as an organization. We have a distinguished history of faithful support for bluegrass in Central Texas, and it won't hurt to review some past accomplishments. As I type, I'm listening to my favorite Internet bluegrass DJ, Lisa Kay Howard, on BluegrassCountry.org, and that helps speed the task along. If you're interested in local bluegrass history, I'd also like to remind you of the comprehensive two-part history of Austin bluegrass bands published by Tom Ellis in the February-March and April-May, 1988 issues of the Bulletin.

Late 1970s: Founding and Early History

The story actually starts seven months before the founding of the CTBA, when Austinite Don Rodgers (1933-1990) started a privately published monthly "Bluegrass Newsletter." The first issue was published in April, 1977. At that time, the chief umbrella organization for acoustic musicians was our sister association, the Austin Friends of Traditional Music (also still going strong, by the way), which hosted an open mike at the old Rome Inn on 29th Street. This was the chief jamming outlet for Austin-area bluegrass pickers. Before that, the AFTM sessions had been held at the Crazy Horse Saloon (on Cameron Road). These places, along with the beloved Split Rail on South Lamar (see photo; now the site of a Wendy's burger joint) were the hotspots for bluegrass jamming. And believe it or not, Austin already had a bluegrass radio show "Bluegrass Breakdown" on KUT-FM, hosted by Terry Lickona, now the producer of Austin City Limits. The principal Texas bluegrass festivals were at Kerrville, McKinney, Buffalo Gap, Perrin, and Glen Rose (Oakdale Park).

The first planning session for a proposed Central Texas Bluegrass Association took place on October 12, 1977. Attending were Rod and Nancy Kennedy, Bob and Joyce Barton, Ken McCormick, Ted and Carla Miller, Frank Jennings, Don Rodgers, Judy Minshew, and Pete Nichols. Ted Miller was the chief sparkplug for the founding of the organization. The charter membership convention took place on January 22, 1978, at the Tumbleweed Restaurant, (now the County Line restaurant on the hill, FM 2222 west of Loop 360; see photo). Rod Kennedy was the MC for a crowd of 120 people (61 of whom signed up to become charter members), and seven bands performed: Backyard Bluegrass, Grassfire, Southern Select, the Poverty Playboys, the Broken String Band, Southwind, and No Money Down (the band that I was in at the time). There was a general membership meeting, Ted Miller was elected chairman, and a board of directors was elected (including Tom Pittman and Wayne Ross). The following month was marked by the beginning of the official CTBA jam (first and third Sundays), at St. Michael's Episcopal Church, on Bee Cave Road, a jam session that was to persist at the same location for the next 12 years. Since Don Rodgers already had an existing Texas-oriented bluegrass newsletter in existence, the board of directors worked out a contractual arrangement in which Don's publication was to be distributed as a benefit of membership in the CTBA. This arrangement persisted for ten years, until the association started its own newsletter in 1987. Only a few months old, the CTBA co-sponsored (along with the Kerrville Music Foundation) its first public bluegrass concerts in Kerrville (McLain Family Band, Buck White and the Down Home Folks) and at the Paramount Theater in August, where fiddler Jana Jae was the headliner and 600 people turned out. And 1978 also marked the founding of Leon Valley Bluegrass, a longtime CTBA band.

The second annual meeting of the CTBA took place on February 4, 1979 at the Alamo Roadhouse, which is now the other County Line restaurant, the one on Bull Creek. Continuing the precedent set at the first meeting, several bands performed: Lower Forty Bluegrass (from Alabama), Leon Valley Bluegrass, Blue Blazes (featuring among others, Tim Wilson), the Poverty Playboys, and No Money Down. Somewhere, I still have a cassette of part of those shows. Ed Garner was elected as the new president. At this point in the incipient history of the organization, a significant proportion of the members actually showed up at the annual meetings. I can't find any attendance figures, but I seem to recall a decent-sized crowd. The CTBA's charter still provides for an annual meeting (the last one was December 1, 2002), but hardly anyone shows up any more. Of course, we don't offer free beer and pizza. What were we thinking?

On April 1, the association co-sponsored (with KOKE Radio, then a country station) another concert at the Silver Dollar South with Leon Valley, the Poverty Playboys, Grassfire, and Southern Select.

The 1980s: Bluegrass Boomtown In January, 1980 the Bluegrass Newsletter went to a bimonthly schedule, and in March, the CTBA held its third annual membership convention at the Opera House in Bastrop. The Board of Directors defined five goals for the association:

  1. Buy a sound system to be used at CTBA concerts

  2. Buy a banner for a membership booth

  3. Build the treasury to $2000

  4. Promote one show per quarter in small towns around Austin

  5. Pay bands for playing

The "Bluegrass Breakdown" program on KUT-FM was cancelled, and Bill Monroe played the Armadillo World Headquarters (November 19, 1980); the band included Kenny Baker, Wayne Lewis, Butch Robins, and Mark Hembree. I shot up an entire roll of black and white film and managed to get some good photos of Bill and the Blue Grass Boys. About this time, I moved to San Antonio, and for the next eight years, my knowledge of CTBA happenings is derived mostly from the newsletter. In July 1981, Jamie MacLaggan took over as editor and publisher of the Bluegrass Newsletter, beginning with Volume 5, number 4. The CTBA continued to promote shows at the Bastrop Opera House in the summer of 1981, and it was about this time that the CTBA's logo first appeared in print. The mandolin-shaped logo was drawn by Austin dobro picker Leonard Kasza. During the early 1980s, the events calendar began to expand somewhat, and it's clear that there were more venues supporting bluegrass, and more special events in the Central Texas area. The CTBA continued to promote concerts at the Bastrop Opera House. In October, 1982, Dave Marcum launched a new radio program, "Bluegrass Sunday Morning," on KVET-AM, in effect a forerunner of the current "Strictly Bluegrass" on KOOP-FM.

The CTBA probably achieved its high-water mark in 1984 and 1985 with the successful staging (in cooperation with the UT Bluegrass Association) of two "Bluegrass Winterfests" at the Performing Arts Center Concert Hall on the UT campus. The first of these, held February 10, 1984, featured the Doc Watson Trio with Sam Bush, Hot Rize, Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, and the Fire on the Mountain Cloggers. And remarkably, 2200 of the 3000 seats in the auditorium were filled. On March 2, 1985, the second Winterfest was presented, with the Johnson Mountain Boys and the Whites featured.

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jam at the split rail

Jamming at the Split Rail circa 1976; Marshall Wilborn, Dennis McDaniel, and Bernard Molberg can be identified behind the Ford Pinto in this photo. This is authentic "parking lot picking." The brick building in the right background is the Paggi House.

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