The Ash Grove - February 1, 1999

If you are fortunate enough to see magic performed when you are a child, you will always believe in magic. Even after you have gone backstage and learned the magician’s tricks, the enchantment will remain.

When I was growing up, my musical home was a folk club called The Ash Grove. Situated on a corner lot in West Hollywood, The Ash Grove was a small, funky, ’60s style coffeehouse that you could easily have passed by without noticing, if it weren’t for the simple logo: a banjo leaning against a stool. The sign beckoned you into a crowded, worn out lobby, where modern art hung on walls, and a hodge-podge of political pamphlets, petitions, and mailing lists sat scattered over messy tables, waiting to be read, pocketed, or signed. To your left was a counter over which you could buy hot cider, cookies, or if you were really cool, cappucino. To your right was a curtain (an old sheet, really) hanging in a doorway, and on the other side was the backstage (a closet), from which you could actually hear the performers warming up! And straight ahead was the dark blue curtain, which they kept closed during performances. My heart used to pound when I showed my stamped hand to the usher, he parted the curtain, and I entered a dark, mystical world where music and joy and revelations were in the air, and some of my greatest lessons were learned.

The night I discovered The Ash Grove, I must have been eleven. I was going for a walk with my grandpa, who lived with Grandma just a few blocks away. As we strolled by, music floated through the air and wafted over me like the aroma of cooking. I ran to the door and peeked in. The lobby was empty except for a few employees milling around, but on the other side of that dark blue curtain, I heard the muted crackle of banjos, fiddles, guitars, and voices singing. I got there just as the music roared to its finish, and then came the explosion from the audience: a deep sea of applause pierced by whoops and shouts that shook the foundation of the building, and shook my foundation too. I wanted more than anything to immerse myself in the mysterious world on the other side of the curtain, to see who could be creating those lively, gripping, pure sounds that could make the dark mass respond as though the music was the most important thing on earth.

I became an Ash Grove regular in high school. The first person I saw there was Lightnin’ Hopkins, and I was enthralled. My friends and I were all into the blues, so we would go every chance we had to catch the blues acts: Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, Mance Lipscomb, Howlin’ Wolf, Big Mama Thornton, Big Joe Williams, Son House, Bukkha White, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and my favorite, Lightnin’. But the night that changed my life was the first time I saw Doc Watson. My cousin had given me Doc’s first album, and while I was forced to perk up my ears and notice when I heard Deep River Blues, and Black Mountain Rag, I was into THE BLUES, so I wrote it off as hick music. But the audience at the Ash Grove certainly didn’t feel that way. People crowded in, thickening the air with anticipation. My friends and I were lucky to get a table in the back before the overflow was turned away. When Clarence Ashley, Fred Price, and Clint Howard led the blind Doc Watson down the aisle, through the audience, and up to the small stage, I knew something very special was about to happen. And when they kicked into Way Downtown, they sang so purely, their rhythm was so crisp and quick and...What was THAT ?! A guitar line so sharp and clean, so impossibly fast...I looked over at Doc and the guitar line was gone. He stood there singing into his darkness, playing impeccably solid rhythm and...there he goes! He did it again! This time I heard and saw every note, but it was so fast! So impossibly clean! I learned my lesson. I never took my eyes off him again. My jaw must have ached the next day from being hung open all night. He sang with power, he played the harmonica with force and drive, his banjo playing was crystalline, his presence was unforgettable. And his guitar...Oh, my! I had a new hero. 

Through the ’60s, I had many memorable evenings in this haven that became my temple and my school. I remember the night Dan Hicks and his Hot Licks played an audition set . To understate it, they passed the audition. I saw Canned Heat countless times before they ever had an album out. (For a while, I tried pursing my lips like their guitar player, Henry Vesteen did.) I saw The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band before Mr. Bojangles. I remember opening night after the Ash Grove had burnt down and they built it back up: The New Lost City Ramblers headlined the bill, and brought up Clarence White and Roger McGuinn as special guests. They almost burned the house down again! Albert King, Albert Collins, Buddy Guy, Taj Mahal, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott... these were my mentors who taught me from touching distance. Although I was too shy to ever speak to them, I watched and listened and absorbed.

I’ve travelled miles since those days. I know now that much of what happened at The Ash Grove was probably more glamorous for me than it was for the performers I idealized. I only gave passing thought to the fact that they had to get up the next day, travel to the next town and hit it again; they had to make ends meet; they had to keep their creativity flowing, their energy up, their anxiety down; they had to perform in front of watching eyes every night, whether they were inspired, tired, sick, or depressed; they had to work things out with their families, get along with each other, deal with the hazards of alcohol and drugs. These were not my concerns. Coming from a family of classical musicians, I received extraordinary lessons from The Ash Grove about the other side of the musical fence: lessons about spontaneity, purity in the raw, and uncontrived simplicity. Growing up in a huge city, I was transported to places I longed for without knowing they existed: country places where air and water were clean, where roads were dirt, where there were more trees than people, and where life’s biggest problems were presented by the elements.

And even though I’ve been backstage and I know the sorcerer’s sleight of hand, when I think back to those early days at The Ash Grove, my heart still leaps, I still see heroes, and I know there is magic.  

(February 1, 1999) 


Old School, by Paul Chasman and the "Great Gatleys"


Accompanied by Dan and Laurie Gatley on bass and vocals, Paul Chasman returns with 11 new original tunes that will make you laugh, make you cry, and make you think. With his trademark sparkling guitar at the forefront, Paul’s poetic lyrics contrast life and mortality; grief and celebration; and light that penetrates the dark.