Summergrass festival to celebrate 20th anniversary with bluegrass music greats and future stars

The 10th Summergrass San Diego bluegrass festival.
A parachute provide shade for attendees at the Summergrass San Diego. The bluegrass music festival, held in Vista, will celebrate its 20th anniversary Aug. 18-20.
(Deb Hellman / North County Times)

Founded in 2003 on the grounds of Vista’s Antique Gas & Steam Engine Museum, annual event drew nearly 5,000 spectators last year


How homegrown and unpretentious is Summergrass San Diego, the rustic bluegrass music festival that celebrates its 20th anniversary Aug. 18-20 on the tree-lined grounds of Vista’s Antique Gas & Steam Engine Museum?

So homegrown that the three-day festival’s roofed outdoor wooden concert stage was built by museum volunteers after the 2003 debut edition concluded.

So unpretentious that Summergrass’ schedule includes an hourlong dinner break next Friday and Saturday, and lunch breaks next Saturday and Sunday.

And so homegrown that some of the festival’s most high-profile acts in past years literally grew up down the road from the 55-acre festival site.

Their ranks include such Grammy Award-winners as multi-instrumental wizard Stuart Duncan (who returns this weekend), Nickel Creek members (and Vista natives) Sara and Sean Watkins, and guitar great Dennis Caplinger, who died in 2021.

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

Aug. 17, 2022

The list of Grammy-winning Summergrass alums also includes violin master Mark O’Connor (a former resident of nearby Bonsall) and Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Chris Hillman (who grew up in Rancho Santa Fe in the 1950s and cofounded the band The Byrds in 1964).

The folk-rock and country-rock pioneer lived in Rancho Santa Fe, Del Mar, Tijuana, and a shed behind San Diego’s Blue Guitar store

Nov. 29, 2020

“I really look forward to Summergrass every year,” said two-time Grammy-nominee Rick Faris. The Topeka-based guitarist, singer and band leader first performed at the festival in 2010 as a member of the award-winning group Special Consensus.

Guitarist, singer and band leader Rick Faris
Guitarist, singer and band leader Rick Faris made his Summergrass San Diego debut in 2010 as the mandolin player in the group Special Consensus. He will perform three times next weekend at the 2023 edition of the festival with the all-star band John Moore & Friends.
(Patrick Marsh, Swamp Photography / Courtesy Rick Faris)

Rising star’s Summergrass return

Faris launched his solo career four years ago, leads his own band and won New Artist of the Year honors at the 2022 International Bluegrass Music Association Awards. He returns to perform next Friday and Saturday as a member of the all-star John Moore & Friends, which also features Duncan, multi-instrumentalist Ron Block and bassist Missy Raines.

“I love the audience at Summergrass,” Faris said. “They are always super receptive and very much a great listening crowd. I also enjoy the music workshops at the festival and have taught a lot of them over the years.”

Initially billed in 2003 as Summergrass San Diego! “Pickin’ in Paradise,” the festival’s name was shortened the next year to Summergrass San Diego. Under either name, it was a labor of love for the San Diego Bluegrass Society and the North San Diego County Bluegrass and Folk Club.

The two plucky nonprofits rented the Antique Gas & Steam Engine Museum for the festival. Beginning last year, the museum became the event’s official sponsor.

“It was becoming harder to reach a consensus with the two clubs,” said Yvonne Tatar, who — with her husband, Mike — is a driving force behind the festival. “And the museum, which is also a nonprofit, said: ‘We’ll partner with you.’ We’re so excited Summergrass is going on without missing a beat.”

Debbie Shelton, the museum’s treasurer, agreed.

“It was such a great partnership,” she said, “that we decided to join forces and become even better.”

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

Jam sessions prevail

The 2022 edition of Summergrass drew about 4,200 people over its three days, according to Yvonne Tatar. She and her husband are longtime members of the bluegrass band Virtual Strangers.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the Summergrass audience often includes more avocational musicians than the number of professionals appearing on stage. It’s not unusual for some of the featured artists to join in the impromptu jam sessions that take place — day and night — around the festival grounds, where a good number of attendees spend the weekend in tents or RVs.

“There’s a lot of jamming at Summergrass, which I really enjoy,” said Faris, who noted that impromptu sessions also take place backstage and at the area hotel that houses most Summergrass artists. “I was 14 the first time I went out jamming at a bluegrass festival.”

Each edition of the family-friendly Summergrass features a kids music camp designed to nurture future bluegrass practitioners. The camp’s primary teachers this year are the members of the acclaimed Nashville quintet High Fidelity, which made its Summergrass stage debut in 2019.

This award-winning Nashville band plays music from the 1950s and 1960s with reverence and verve. Its violinist, Corrina Rose Logston, is a fan of blink-182 and Jimmy Eat World.

Aug. 15, 2019

They will offer hands-on instruction for guitarists, fiddlers, bassists and banjo and mandolin players — beginners to advanced — along with stage performance classes. The kids usually earn cheers of approval when they take the stage to do a few songs at noon on Sunday.

Faris, who has done some teaching at Summergrass over the years, is a perfect example of how bluegrass music and events can be a vital incubator for young talent.

August 26th, 2006, Diane Gravlin leads Dulcimer workshop  at 4th annual Summergrass San Diego
The kids music camp has been a Summergrass San Diego tradition nearly from the start of the 20-year-old festival. Pictured here is Diane Gravlin leading a workshop called Dulcimer Magic at the festival’s fourth edition at Vista’s Antique Gas and Steam Engine Museum in 2006.
(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

A family affair

The Kansas native was just 7 years old when he made his stage debut in 1993 as a member of the Faris Family Band, followed by his recording debut a year later. Co-led by his parents, banjo player Bob and bassist Michelle, the award-winning band also featured his three brothers — mandolin player John, violinist and bassist James, and banjo player and violinist Eddie.

“We grew up onstage!’ Faris recalled with a chuckle. “There was a lot of homework that needed to be done while we were on the road.”

A fleet-fingered guitarist and supple-voiced singer, Faris learned his lessons very well. In 2009, he replaced Ashby Frank in the top-rated Special Consensus on mandolin, despite never having played the instrument before.

“Before I joined, I practiced eight to 10 hours a day for five weeks,” recalled Faris, whose multiple appearances at Summergrass with Special Consensus were all on mandolin.

“I would get my guitar out once every five months and play every lick I knew, just to make sure I could still play the darned thing! But I was really committed to playing the mandolin for the years I was in Special Consensus.”

Also a skilled luthier, he is the founder of Faris Guitar Co., which now has a three-year waiting list on orders of its entirely handmade acoustic models.

His third solo album, the warmly inviting “Uncommon Sky,” was released in June. The fact that Faris earned New Artist of the Year honors at the 2022 International Bluegrass Music Association Awards inspires both gratitude and a chuckle from him.

“I’ve been playing music for 31 years, so I’m definitely not a new hand,” Faris said. “But I only became a solo artist and band leader in 2019. And, right now, I’m a nominee for Songwriter of the Year, which is another new thing for me.”

His return to Summergrass should be a treat for attendees — and for Faris himself.

“I always see so many friends there,” he said. “The folks who put on the festival take very good care of us and the sound is really great. I can’t say enough about Summergrass. It’s done by very sweet folks who work very hard to showcase bluegrass.”

20th annual Summergrass San Diego festival

With: John Moore & Friends, Danny Paisley & Southern Grass, High Fidelity, Breaking Grass, MohaviSoul, Ol’ Train, Sheri Lee & Blue Heart, Chris Cerna & Bluegrass Republic, Drought Tolerant, Hot October, Philly and The Cheesesteaks, Virtual Strangers and Sweet Tidings Gospel Jam

When: 3 to 10 p.m. Aug. 18. 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Aug. 19. 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Aug. 20

Where: Antique Gas & Steam Engine Museum, 2040 North Santa Fe Ave., Vista

Tickets: $20 on Friday, Aug. 18, and $30 on Sunday, Aug. 20, if bought in advance; $25 at the entrance gate on Aug. 18 and 20; $30 (advance) and $35 (at the gate)on Saturday, Aug. 19. Three-day passes are $70 in advance and $85 (at the gate Friday). Kids under 10 are admitted free with a paying adult. Parking is $5 per day. On-site camping packages, which include a three-day pass for the festival, are $125 per person in advance and $143 per person if purchased on site. RV electric hookups are $175.

Phone: (760) 941-1791