High on life

A writer rediscovers mellow vibes at the annual High Sierra Music Festival, this month in Quincy

My Morning Jacket’s gonna jam the hell out of the High Sierra this month.

My Morning Jacket’s gonna jam the hell out of the High Sierra this month.


Plan ahead: This year’s High Sierra Music Festival goes down from June 30 to July 3 in Quincy, which is about two-and-a-half hours outside Sacramento. Tickets vary in price; find out more at www.highsierramusic.com.

When I made plans to attend last year’s High Sierra Music Festival, I worried that it was a big mistake. It’d been three decades since I attended the first-ever attempt to get a music festival off the ground up north in Quincy. The headliner that year was Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. For whatever reason—poor promotion, poor economy, weak lineup—this early effort to draw music lovers to the American Valley during midsummer was a bust. The crowd was too sparse to be called a crowd, the promoters lost a ton of money and it was several years before anyone took another shot at trying to launch an annual music fest in Plumas County, a place that’s still pretty remote—especially now that the oil companies are engaged in yet another of their periodic fleecings over the years.

But this is the 21st year the High Sierra Music Festival folks have been putting on this annual event, and now they’ve got it down. To use an outmoded phrase from my youth, they manage to create a “mellow vibe” that’s just right for enjoying music in such a beautiful place.

My Morning Jacket is one of the headliners at this year’s gathering, a top-notch jam band of the kind so many of the festival’s repeat attendees tend to favor. But there’re more than 50 bands appearing over the four-day event, and it’s an eclectic lineup of performers, genres and styles.

Gillian Welch will be there, and so will Ween. Bill Frisell is coming, and so is Chris Robinson, who knocked ’em dead last year with a Saturday-night performance fronting the Black Crowes. This year, he’s appearing with his Brotherhood ensemble.

Neko Case is on the lineup, and so is Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk (if you can’t get down with Dumpstaphunk, it’s probably because you can’t get up). Yonder Mountain String Band is coming, and so are the Infamous Stringdusters and the Travelin’ McCourys, for people on the hunt for the best bluegrass and newgrass pickers playing these days. From folk to funk, from Cajun to alt-country, there’s Americana out the ying-yang on the most American weekend we celebrate.

My personal misgivings about going to the High Sierra Music Festival last year turned out to be groundless. It was great time. In fact, going there gave new vitality to the word recreation.

This time last year, I was becoming pretty grumpy—and it wasn’t advancing age that was making me so crabby. The general nastiness that has come to pervade our culture—mean-spirited political division, ill-concealed racism, ongoing Fox Newzification of everything—was making me pretty wary of my fellow man and woman. So the idea of going to a place where lots of other Homo sapiens were going to be gathered together to drink beer, smoke dope, and boogie down didn’t necessarily seem all that inviting.

But the sweet and persistent vibe of the event—a Woodstock Nation in miniature, a community of people gathered in the spirit of peace and love and all those other feelings we’ve become too cynical and too sophisticated to believe in any longer—restored my view of human nature.

In a piece I wrote about last year’s High Sierra Fest, I told a little story that exemplified this “vibe” I found in Quincy when the music, the moon, and the mood are right:

On a blanket off to my right, three guys are smoking a bowl of dope. One of them—a guy in his mid-30s—makes eye contact with me, extends the pipe, and says, “want some?” I say “no thanks,” and he looks at me a bit warily because I now fit the profile of an older guy of the kind known to induce paranoia in the hearts of people smoking dope openly in daylight. After a few moments, I go over, put my hand on his shoulder, and say, “last week, I celebrated 16 years of sobriety, and you’re the first person to offer me a hit of anything in a very long time. I thank you kindly for your hospitality.”

“Oh man,” he says. “Congratulations, dude. Is it gonna bother you us doing this so close to you?”

“No,” I say, “not at all.”

I wander off to get some water. When I return, my wife tells me that he’d come over after I left to tell her how cool it was that I had those 16 years sober. It was a true live-and-let-live moment.

If you share his live-and-let-live attitude, you’re likely to enjoy lots of good music in the company of lots of very convivial people. And, for some of us old-timers, more than a few younger people will be perpetuating the dream that music is a redemption center for the best in all of us. There’s no better place to dream it, or redream it, than at the High Sierra on the weekend when this country celebrates independence. It takes place at the center of American Valley, in a town created by gold seekers and other American dreamers, where quintessentially American music provides the backdrop for people in pursuit of happiness.

Judging from what I saw last year, lots of ’em catch up with happiness at the High Sierra Music Festival, if only for a few very special days.