Sara Watkins

The violin-playing co-founder of the bands Nickel Creek and I’m With Her is a native of Vista, where the Summergrass festival has been held since 2003

Sara Watkins is not the only winner of multiple Grammy Awards to perform and teach at Summergrass San Diego, the annual bluegrass music festival that was launched in 2003 on the grounds of Vista’s Antique Gas & Steam Engine Museum. That’s just 15 minutes down the road from where she grew up in Vista.

Watkins shares those distinctions with fellow Vista native Dennis Caplinger, the multiple-Grammy-winning stringed-instrument master who died a year ago this week at the age of 58. Multi-instrumental wiz Stuart Duncan, who also grew up in Vista and is now on tour with Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, has won four Grammys but will not be performing at this year’s festival.

That makes violinist-singer Watkins, a veteran solo artist and the co-founder of the band Nickel Creek, the only Vista native with multiple Grammys in the lineup for this year’s Summergrass, which runs Friday through Sunday. By coincidence, Friday is the same day her latest album with Watkins Family Hour will be released.

“Summergrass is in my hometown and it’s a wonderful event to bring your family to see music under the open skies,” said the now-Los Angeles-based Watkins, who first performed at the festival in 2005.

Her new album, “Watkins Family Hour, Vol. II,” is the third by the group she launched in 2002 with her singing and guitar-playing brother, Sean Watkins.

The 11-song release features such high-profile guests as Jackson Browne and Fiona Apple. It includes two classics that date back to the 1940s, “Tennessee Waltz” and “She Left Me Standing On the Mountain.” Both songs have been performed by various artists at Summergrass over the past two decades.

“Growing up in bluegrass and folk music, there is an innate respect for history,” Sara Watkins said, “and for where the music comes from and the people who played it — so much so that new things are often discounted and the older things are more revered.”

Her Summergrass performances Friday and Saturday will be as a member of John Moore & Friends, an all-star quintet that is making its public debut at the festival.

The new group is led by mandolinist, guitarist and fellow Vista native Moore. It also features Doobie Brothers’ bassist and singer John Cowan, guitar virtuoso Brad Davis, and Alison Krauss & Union Station banjo player, guitarist and singer Ron Block.

2021 Dennis Caplinger Memorial Show

Julee Jaeb (John Moore’s sister), Scott Edwards, John Moore, Chris Vitas, Sara Watkins and Tom Cunningham perform at Summergrass San Diego in 2019. (David Cupp)

Mentors and protégés

Moore and Caplinger were key mentors in the 1980s and early ‘90s to the pre-teen Watkins, her brother, Sean, and mandolinist and singer Chris Thile, who teamed up in the trio Nickel Creek in 1989. The formation of John Moore & Friends was inspired by the passing of Caplinger, with whom Moore co-founded the band Bluegrass Etc. back in the 1970s.

“To be honest, I’m still reeling from Dennis’ death,” said Moore, 61, speaking from his home outside of Dove Creek in southwestern Colorado.

“This new group with Sara, John, Ron and Brad probably wouldn’t exist if Dennis was still alive, because I’d be playing at Summergrass this year with Dennis and Bluegrass Etc.”

Sean and Sara Watkins met and first teamed up with Thile at Bluegrass Etc.’s weekly Saturday performances at That Pizza Place in Carlsbad. It was there that Watkins made her public musical debut, age 4, singing the vintage murder ballad “Long Black Veil.”

Caplinger soon became Watkins’ violin teacher, while Moore taught Sean Watkins guitar and mandolin. Moore and Sara Watkins were among the musicians who performed a tribute concert in honor of Caplinger at last year’s edition of Summergrass.

“Bluegrass Etc. was the band that Sean, Chris and I grew up watching, learning from and taking lessons from,” said Sara Watkins, 42, speaking from a recent family visit to Virginia.

“It was incredibly meaningful to me to be at Summergrass last year to play with John Moore and other friends to memorialize Dennis and (bluegrass violin great) Byron Berline, who passed away last July. So, I was very grateful when John called and asked if I’d join him again this year. He has put together an incredible band and it will be great to get to play with a bunch of my heroes.”

John Moore & Friends is so new its members — who live in four different states — have yet to gather for a band photo. Moore has asked each of his bandmates to select music to perform at Summergrass, including both bluegrass favorites and songs from their respective bands and solo careers.

Might the Friends’ repertoire at Summergrass include “Tennessee Waltz” and “She Left Me Standing on the Mountain” from the new “Watkins Family Hour, Vol. II” album?

“I’m sure we’ll do ‘Tennessee Waltz’ because all of us already know that one!” said Moore, who estimates he has performed at 17 of the previous 18 editions of Summergrass.

Watkins Family Hour

Nickel Creek co-founders Sean and Sara Watkins launched Watkins Family Hour in 2002. The brother-and-sister music team have recorded three albums as the Watkins Family Hour. The newest, “Vol. II,” is released today. 19 The group will be on tour from Sept. 16 to Dec. 4, although no San Diego concert date has been announced thus far.
(Jacob Boll / Courtesy IVPR)

Key Largo

Knowing songs and performing them in the spur of the moment has been a dual focus of Watkins Family Hour since its low-key inception in 2002 at an intimate Los Angeles music venue.

That was when Sara and Sean Watkins began playing a monthly residency as a duo at Largo. As word-of-mouth buzz grew, the siblings soon were being joined on stage by such musical pals as Jackson Browne, Fiona Apple, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ keyboardist Benmont Tench, pedal-steel guitar great Greg Leisz, and others, including Nickel Creek co-founder Thile. Their repertoire deftly drew from different musical genres and eras that were all treated as equals.

“The Watkins Family Hour is really reminiscent of what I love about the bluegrass scene, with everybody sitting in and doing (song) arrangements on the fly,” Sara Watkins said during a joint 2015 Union-Tribune interview with her brother.

“That happens all the time in bluegrass, but not typically in pop and rock. But it was happening almost from the moment we began doing Watkins Family Hour, and it was really fun and so different, musically, for us. I was learning every time we did it.”

Violinists Sara Watkins and Tom Cunningham are shown performing at the 2019 edition of Summergrass San Diego in Vista. Watkins, a two-time Grammy Award-winner and Vista native, will perform three times at this year’s festival as a member of the newly formed John Moore & Friends. (David Cupp)

The fruits of their vibrant musical labors have thus far been documented on three Watkins Family Hour albums, including the newly released “Vol. II.”

The group’s stylistic breadth is readily demonstrated on “Vol. II.”

The album opens with a fresh take on “The Way I Feel,” a choice cut from the 1965 debut album by the English rock band The Zombies. It also features such varied selections as the Charlie Rich-penned “Thanks a Lot” (which was first recorded by Johnny Cash in 1959), “We Were Meant To Be Together” (a 2014 ode to transcendent love by San Diego-bred troubadour Tom Brosseau), and “Hypnotized” (a skittering 2021 song by the Oakland duo Tune-Yards that is delivered here in a far more languid manner).

The Watkinses and their musical guests put a distinctive stamp on each selection. Elliott Smith’s understated 1998 ballad “Pitseleh” is beefed up with a propulsive Bo Diddley beat and an echoing electric guitar part by Madison Cunningham. The Delmore Brothers’ bluegrass rave-up “She Left Me Standing on the Mountain” is slowed down and given a far more plaintive feel.

“When you are playing old country songs, or any song, you can do it as a tribute to the original or shake it up a little,” Sara Watkins noted. “It’s nice to revisit songs because you can come at them fresh.

“The value of the Family Hour is that it’s not about one thing. It’s about finding many things that fit together, bringing many musicians together and being part of a community we’re so grateful to know and call home. It’s about bringing a range of things together and finding the commonality and constant resonance each of them has.”

John Moore and Friends

In addition to having been the mandolinist, guitarist and vocalist for the internationally acclaimed band Bluegrass Etc, John Moore was also the mandolinist with the award-winning band California, the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Instrumental Band of the Year, three years in a row.

John’s musical performances have led him throughout the U.S., Canada, Europe and Japan, as well as into the studio doing radio and television commercials, along with movie soundtracks and sessions for other artists.

He has appeared in productions by, and done musical soundtracks for, HBO, Paramount Pictures, Touchstone Pictures and A&E Television Network. He most recently appeared in the HBO Series Deadwood, and has appeared on the cover of Bluegrass Now, Bluegrass Unlimited and Flatpick Guitar magazines.

He is also a sought-after teacher, having taught some of today’s hottest young musicians. John has taught, and continues to teach, at numerous music camps, including Wintergrass Academy (WA), Steve Kaufman’s Guitar Camp (TN), Bluegrass On The Beach (OR), Sore Fingers Music Camp (England), Rockygrass Academy (CO), Northern Bluegrass Circle Music Camp (AB, Canada), Levelland College (TX) and Northern Minn. Bluegrass Camp (MN), among many others.

John has put together an amazing group featuring John Cowan, Newgrass Revival Alum, Ron Block from Alison Krauss and Union Station, Brad Davis “The Shredder” who has toured with everyone from Earl Scruggs to Sam Bush, and Sara Watkins from Nickle Creek and I’m With Her.

John Moore – mandolin, guitar, vocals; John Cowan – bass, vocals; Ron Block – banjo, vocals; Brad Davis – guitar; Sara Watkins – violin, vocals

Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road


Back for their second time, Summergrass welcomes Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road. Pinecastle Music recording artists Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road have a distinct sound and charismatic show that “keeps the tradition.” Known as the “Lady of Tradition” in bluegrass, Lorraine has fronted Carolina Road for 15+ years and honed their distinct sound attributed to the bluegrass-rich area of North Carolina. Their stellar musicianship ensure award-winning powerhouse performances. Welcome Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road as they “keep the tradition.”  Don’t miss this band!

Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road have combined masterful musicianship and a creative sound to entertain audiences in 40 states and 13 countries while scoring multiple hits, industry accolades and collaborations with other legendary artists.

Since their beginnings in 1998, the band has achieved three No. 1 songs on the Bluegrass chart with “A Light in the Window,” “That’s Kentucky” and “True Grass.” “True Grass” also climbed to No. 1 on the Roots Music chart and topped the Bluegrass Unlimited National Bluegrass Survey for an astounding 16 consecutive months.

When the band isn’t touring, they host several events weekly at Lorraine’s Coffee House & Music in Garner, N.C. Down the road in Raleigh, Lorraine and the band are a crowd favorite at the city’s annual Wide Open Bluegrass Festival. The group also produces and performs at Christmas in the Smokies in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., the Willow Oak Music Festival in Roxboro, N.C., and the North Carolina Banjo Fest in Clemmons.

The band is working on two musical projects due out in 2020. “Patriotic Grass” features songs “devoted to what’s great about America and honoring our military,” says Lorraine, adding that additional noteworthy bands perform on the disc. A second project pairs Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road with multi-Grammy nominee Michael Martin Murphey (“Carolina in the Pines”).

Lorraine Jordan – mandolin, guitar, vocals; Ben Greene – banjo, vocals; Randy Graham – guitar, bass, vocals; Matt Hooper – fiddle; Allen Dyer – guitar, vocals

Volume Five

Volume Five, the Mississippi-based group that started as a casual jam band in 2008, has grown into one of bluegrass music’s most popular and unique acts. The soulful lead vocals by fiddler Glen Harrell and the band’s tight instrumentals and vocal harmony have earned the group two IBMA Awards, numerous nominations, and many accolades.

Glen Harrell founded Volume Five early in 2008, and the band has now grown into one of bluegrass music’s most unique new acts. “When I put this group together, I knew the style of music I wanted us to play and the goals we wanted to achieve. It was just a matter of finding the right guys who wanted to create their own identity in the industry. I didn’t just want us to be another band that moves onto the scene and is gone in a few years, but one that would have a unique sound that players and listeners would remember for many years to come – one that sounded like no other band in the business,” said Glen.

In 2010, the band signed with Mountain Fever Records. The label released Down In A Cell, followed by the 2011 release of Children of the Mountain and Run in 2013. In 2014, the label released Volume Five’s well-crafted southern gospel-tinged bluegrass album, The Day We Learned To Fly. The album earned Volume Five two International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Nominations that year. They received nominations for the IBMA Emerging Artist of the Year, and another for the IBMA Gospel Recorded Performance of the Year for The Day We Learn To Fly (album), Stacy Richardson and Leroy Drumm (writers), Volume Five (producers).

Continuing with that success, in 2015, Mountain Fever Records released the band’s fifth album on the label titled Voices. Due to their live performance popularity and album success, they received two separate industry award nominations. Volume Five received a Nomination for the 2015 IBMA Emerging Artist of the Year Award. They also garnered a Nomination from the Gospel Music Association (GMA) Dove Awards for Bluegrass Song of the Year for the song, “Daddy Was An Old Time Preacher Man.” The successful tune featured guest vocals by Rhonda Vincent on the Dolly Parton cover song.

In 2016, Volume Five’s album, Drifter, made its debut on the Billboard™’ Top 10 Bluegrass Album Chart. This highly successful project, and one of their most-streamed albums to date, rightfully earned the group two IBMA Awards in 2017. They won the Emerging Artist of the Year Award and the prestigious the Song of the Year Award for “I Am A Drifter,” written by Donna Ulisse and Marc Rossi.

In 2018, Volume Five celebrated its 10th anniversary with yet another Billboard™ Top 10 Bluegrass Chart album – Milestones. They followed up with the 2019 release of For Those Who Care To Listen, which includes two #1 hit radio singles (“The Army Vet Song” and “The 15th of October”) on the Bluegrass Today Top 20 Song Chart. In addition, a highly viewed video for “The 15th of October” was released. The video was filmed during one of their recording sessions at one of bluegrass music’s favorite venues – Everett’s Music Barn in Suwanee, Georgia.

Of course, 2020 and 2021 brought many challenges to all of us. Early 2021 just after Volume Five finished recording, beloved banjoist Patton Wages suffered a stroke. Patton continues to improve, so please keep him in your prayers. Late fall 2021, Mountain Fever Records released the first single, “When Karma Comes Calling,” from that recording session. The song quickly debuted at #1 on the Bluegrass Today Top 20 Weekly Song Chart and reached the top spot two other times.

Volume Five’s touring schedule has afforded them the benefit of playing with numerous artists over the years, some of whom have become fans, such as Buddy Melton of Balsam Range, who says, “What defines a great band? Superior musicianship, impeccable singing, moving song selections. Volume Five has all the above and more. Extremely talented, yet humble, and genuinely real people. Volume Five has a magical quality about them that will undoubtedly make a lasting impression in the world of acoustic music.”

Glen Harrell – fiddle, vocals; Jacob Burleson – guitar, vocals; Aaron Ramsey – mandolin; Zach Collier – bass; and Chris Wade – banjo

Virtual Strangers

The Virtual Strangers, 2007 Arizona Bluegrass Band contest winners, bring a great mixture of traditional and progressive songs. Their sound is a mixture of the traditional with Stanley, Monroe, and Flatt & Scruggs material along with more progressive material from Blue Highway, Lonesome River Band and Del McCoury. They have shared the stage with Rhonda Vincent, Bluegrass Etc., California, the Dillards, Lonesome River Band, Nashville Bluegrass Band, and others. Virtual Strangers perform in numerous events & festivals in San Diego and throughout California, Nevada, Arizona, and Colorado, among others. In addition, Virtual Strangers lead the annual Cruise2Jam Carnival Line Catalina/Ensenada Cruise each February where they teach passengers about jamming etiquette and hold onboard jam sessions.

Virtual Strangers also has an alter ego – the Tatar Patch Bluegrass Buddies. Several times each year, the Strangers morph into this kid-friendly persona and go into classrooms to educate school-age children about bluegrass music and how to start playing it. They have performed in schools and kids camps at many festivals.

Mike Tatar Sr., on banjo, holds down the lead vocals. He’s played with In Cahoots, Snowy River, Full Deck, LeRoy McNees, and was made an honorary Piney Creek Weasel by the late Rick Abrams.

Dan Sankey plays mandolin and sings harmony/lead vocals. Dan is a fixture on the San Diego bluegrass scene – an accomplished musician on the fiddle, mandolin, banjo and guitar.

Kit Birkett

Kit Birkett plays guitar and sings lead vocals. His credits include the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers and Down the Road, 2001 Southwest Bluegrass Play-off Winners.

Yvonne Tatar plays the acoustic bass and sings harmony. She is a proud fourth generation string player and has accompanied many old time-fiddlers. She’s played with In Cahoots, Full Deck, LeRoy McNees, and sitting in with many other bands.

Jim Blakemore plays guitar and also sings lead vocals. Jim has played with nearly every bluegrass musician and band in San Diego and has hosted open jams at his home.

Mike Tatar Sr. – banjo, vocals; Dan Sankey – mandolin, vocals; Yvonne Tatar – bass, vocals; Jim Blakemore – guitar, vocals; Kit Birkett – guitar, vocals