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Ventura County Reporter

Where the grass is always bluer
Three local bluegrass musicians give life to an art form at Zoey’s Cafe

By Steven Booth 03/08/2007

Listening to rock or even country radio on the West Coast, it seems that bluegrass is a dead or dying art form. It might be something heard on a Life Magazine compilation, perhaps talked about at a museum or in a history book, but rarely heard in a live setting played by enthusiastic, hungry musicians out to have a blast. Yes, San Francisco had its Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival last fall, but even there, bluegrass was only part of the party, not the main attraction. Bluegrass is popular in the East and South, where its origins lie — not on the left coast.

“Bluegrass is kind of like the underground music on the West Coast,” says Phil Salazar, the talented and influential fiddle player who, along with friends Gene Rubin and Nena Weisman, hosts and plays at the Ventura Bluegrass Jam at Zoey’s Café on the second and fourth Thursday of every month.

Salazar has quite a résumé. Brought up in a family of classical musicians, he heard the bluegrass-inflected sounds of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band at age 16 and was blown away. He has gone on to play all over the world with musicians and bands in and out of the bluegrass world, including Grateful Dead founder Bob Weir, Kate Wolf, the Cache Valley Drifters and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band member John McEuen. He has also put out solo CDs with collaborators the Acousticats and the Rincon Ramblers, among others.

Nowadays, he doesn’t perform quite as much, but instead spends most of his time teaching students out of the little shop he owns with Rubin.

“Bluegrass can’t support a lot of people,” Salazar says. “Nowadays, I’m a full-time teacher and a part-time performer.”

Giving his students live playing experience, not to mention interaction with other musicians, was one of the reasons he started the jam session with Rubin and Weisman. The first sessions were held at Pepo’s, a now-defunct Mexican restaurant, before moving to Zoey’s about two years ago.

Rubin, who sells high-end electronic equipment as his day job, had hooked up with the bluegrass thing about six years ago.

“My wife bought me a fiddle for father’s day,” he says. “I bought a lesson with Phil, we became friends and started jamming.”

Salazar’s and Rubin’s families are close; they go camping and attend musical festivals together. One day, while looking for a favorite Mexican restaurant, they found Pepo’s and decided to start a bluegrass jam there. When it closed, they moved on to Zoey’s.

To Rubin, the choice of Zoey’s was a “no-brainer.” The bluegrass jam is the “most happening thing in town” on a Thursday night, he says. They usually draw 30 to 50 musicians of all skill levels, from beginners to virtuosos. The jam normally breaks off into two to four “jam circles” where the musicians mix playing written tunes with the improvisation that is popular among bluegrass musicians.

Rubin’s reasons for co-producing the jam sessions are a little different than Salazar’s. He always returns to the friendships he has made while doing the sessions.

“The greatest thing about these jams, for me, is that it has created a great community of friends,” Rubin says. “So many friendships have erupted from this.” Rubin’s 13-year-old son Michael, an accomplished player himself, is also a regular at the jams.

Weisman, a mandolinist, played a key role in making the jam session so popular. She works a few months out of the year for the National Park Service, and much of the other time she has spent at bluegrass festivals around the country, making contacts and creating an e-mail list they send out to fans about the local happenings. As a result, over half of the musicians come from outside the area.

“We had a guy from Japan recently show up at the jam session,” says Weisman, who just came from the Wintergrass Festival in Tacoma. “It was a little hard getting around the language barrier, but we all had fun.”

Like Salazar and Rubin, she spoke enthusiastically about the inclusive nature of the jams.

“We have a huge range of musicians,” she says. “Everyone can show up and have a cup of tea and watch, or everyone can play.”