May 27, 2010, 06:19AM

Live from Paramount

The 50th Annual Topanga Fiddle and Banjo Contest.

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All photos courtesy of the author.

I first checked out the Topanga Banjo and Fiddle Contest last year and was instantly hooked. A pleasant, winding jaunt up Pacific Coast Highway and Malibu Canyon drive (if you’re coming from the west side that is) this little-folk-festival-that-could seems about as far away from LA as possible and it’s partially thanks to its location.


Situated in Paramount’s rambling, ancient movie ranch, (bought in 1927 to shoot westerns) perched in the green foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains, at first glance, the quirky gathering looks less like a folk festival than a O’ Brother Where Art Thou? casting call. Walk around and you’ll see bluegrass and western music players of all ages and stripes making music together—I’m talking 78-year-old saw-playing cowboys jamming with virtuoso pock-faced nine-year-old fiddle players, hard-jawed fathers hooting on jugs as their sons thwap basses made out of strings and buckets, freckle-faced cousins singing nasal harmony while thunking spoons and washboards, and tough-eyed mothers and their daughters grinning above their banjos and autoharps and mandolins. There are even a few women under the “sheriff’s station” balcony spinning tufts of wool into yarn.


I suppose it’s not totally old-timey—you can find NY pizza and t-shirt sellers about—but it’s pretty darn close. Mixed in the dusty overalled crowd are typical Santa Monica day-tourists, assorted valley rednecks, a smattering of Harley dudes and a reformed Venice post-hippy or two but for the most part, unlike most folk festivals these days, the ranch is gloriously hipster free. It’s more of a family affair and not to sound stodgy but it sure is refreshing to see kids singing along to old Leadbelly, Ralph Stanley, Pete Seeger and Weavers songs in the sunshine rather than playing another glazed-eyed game of rock-band and bopping to the Jonas Brothers.

While there are “stages” where the legit contest takes place, the majority of the best music happens organically and without the supervision of a booking staff or soundman. Here’s how it works: you show up with your instrument, really anything acoustic will do—well, no horns please—and wander down the old storefronts, find a front “porch” in front of the bank or the feed shop and start playing with whoever’s there. The last few years, I’ve spied a few of LA’s best Americana bands setting up shop against a certain wall. Five minutes later and there’re 20 people playing “The Orange Blossom Special.” Sloppy, sure, but not a bad way to spend a Sunday.



If you’re bored, there’s a barn for dancing and a covered area where you can watch a band and eat some BBQ-drenched tri-tip. If you venture past the portable toilets, you can hear Malibu Creek serenely gurgling by, cutting a green swath through the swaying golden grass and purple flowers of the blooming foothills. It’s a good thing they have this thing in May—a month or so later and this whole spot will be brown as scorched meat and the river will be dry.

If you’re in LA next May, I urge you to check out the Topanga Banjo and Fiddle Contest. With the smart festival organizers lowering entry fees to a laughable ten bucks, (parking is free), this unique piece of Americana is the perfect way to beat the mean old LA recession blues.


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