Allan Sanders has never been west of the Rocky Mountains in his life — that is until yesterday.
The 19-year-old college student, his brother Collin and three friends piled into a black Cadillac Escalade Thursday and drove for 36 hours, over 1,500 miles and five states to play a gig in Longbranch, Wash. These road warriors are Coyote Hill Bluegrass, a band from Vinita, Okla. — a tiny hamlet of 5,758 people in the northeastern corner of the Sooner State.
“This is as far west as I’ve been… up until this point,” Sanders said with a smile, the long drive already a fading memory. “Actually, it has been fun. Never a dull a moment and we’ve played tourist all the way here.”
At least the road trip was for a good cause.
About 200 people tapped their feet to the rhythm and harmony of three bluegrass bands at the historic Longbranch Improvement Club house on a sunny Saturday afternoon. The Longbranch Community Church second annual “Bluegrass and Barbecue” fundraiser also featured a performance by cloggers from a Key Peninsula Civic Center step dancing class.
By noon, tents were up on the grassy lawn and you could smell the onions and barbecue pulled-pork cooking in the kitchen.
“We’ve only just begun,” said Kat Herold, as she arranged board games and boxes of beads at the “kid’s booth”.
Herold was not kidding. The church expects a crowd each year. The ladies at the booth selling tickets were giddy, getting rolls of blue and yellow tickets ready for sale at $1 a piece, as cars lined up to find parking spots.
For many years up until last year, the church fundraiser was a salmon bake. But the cost of hosting a salmon bake “got too expensive”, said church pastor John Day. Since the good reverend grew up singing four-part harmonies with his father and two brothers, plays the mandolin and generally enjoys music, it was not much of a stretch for him to suggest hosting a bluegrass concert for a fundraiser.
“(Bluegrass) is accessible. It is music just about anyone can enjoy,” Day said. “It steers a sentimental chord with people. It relates to people in real life.”
Making bluegrass the star at the church’s event just made sense to a pastor who uses the musical genre to preach the good news.
“When I came out here, I brought a bluegrass jam with me,” Pastor Day said.
‘I LIKE THE MUSIC’
And Saturday afternoon he brought a treat to Longbranch and the Key Peninsula: Coyote Hill Bluegrass. The Oklahoma-based band picked, strummed and harmonized for most of the afternoon, to the delight of the crowd.
“They are awesome,” Day crowed.
“We’d like the people to decide that,” Sanders said.
Check and check.
Sanders, the band’s frontman with boyish good looks and a wisp of a beard, has been picking guitar strings since he was five, according to his website allansanders.com. He lists guitar maestro Eric Clapton and bluegrass legend Doyle Lawson as heroes. Music was always in his heart, but he yearned to become a cowboy.
“I always wanted to be a cowboy. And to be one I had to learn to play guitar,” he said with a chuckle. “I just got into it.”
He played guitar at his church. He travelled to bluegrass festivals. He sought advice from his music teacher and anyone who might have musical knowledge. He was introduced to Daniel Day, the pastor’s brother, and the rest is Coyote Hill Bluegrass history.
When asked why bluegrass? Sanders replied:”It takes a lot to play bluegrass music. You have to like to play fast.”
“You gotta keep up. The speed is a challenge,” said Day, who at 47 is more than twice the age of most of the band. “But it’s a blast. I love it.”
That bluegrass picks a note from many other genres — blues, rock, folk and gospel — appealed to Sanders.
“It has endless possibilities,” he said.
And he has thought of making a career of it. This long drive west — he calls it a tour — is a start. But “my parents would like me to get a steady job,” he said.
His passion for the music hits a sweet note every time he picks a banjo or the mandolin. His velvety voice gentle and sincere.
“It is just something I can do. It is an outlet for me,” he said.
The mellow crowd showed its appreciation with applause, some quietly tapping their toes on the building’s century-old hardwood floors.
“I like the music,” Alta VanSomeren said.
THE JOY OF TAPPING
VonSomeren also enjoyed the step dancing demonstration by a handful of men and women led by Mike Williams and his wife Watona.
“We’ll start with the basic and we’ll end it with the push… kick 1-2-3,” Williams said.
And the demonstration kicked off. The enthusiastic crowd clapped and tapped their feet along with the Rhytm-n-Shoes Cloggers, at one point a man in the crowd bellowed “faster!”
Williams and his wife have been showing people how to tap their toes and stomp their feet for over two decades. The joy in his smile grew wider as the 63-year-old retired electronic technician from Bremerton talked about how all the dancing started.
“That is a funny story,” he said. “I was born in Tennessee you’d think I picked it up there.”
But it was not until he moved north of the border to Canada for his job, he said, that he got introduced to step dancing. According to him, hIs wife went out looking for something to do as soon as they landed in their new home. She stumbled upon a tap dancing class but was less than impressed. The instructor told her to go down the hall where step dancing was taught. She did, had a grand time and ran home to tell her husband he had to join her.
“The class happened on Monday night. I am a football fan,” he said, the conflict clearly registering in his face. “I told my wife I would do it for one Monday night and if I don’t like it that would be that.”
The Williams have been going at it for over 20 years — 10 of those years spent teaching a class on American step dancing every Monday evening at the Key Peninsula Civic Center.
It was an afternoon full of fun and fellowship that many will not soon forget. The Sanders brothers will remember their first glimpse of the Pacific. Coyote Hill Bluegrass will now be part of Longbranch lore. And we now all know where Vinita, Okla., is on the map.
“If you know where Vinita, Oklahoma, is, I’m sorry,” Sanders joked.
Somehow I think the crowd was glad to have been introduced to the tiny town — just like the lyrics the boys from Vinita sang: “Precious memories flood my soul, Oh how they linger.”