“Grandpa’s Yard,” the sixth solo album by renowned Santa Clarita Valley Western singer-songwriter, guitarist, and historian John Bergstrom, wrangles musical memories and his down-home brand of storytelling in eight new original songs and a trio of choice covers.
Writing and recording songs for his first album in six years, released in fall 2021, “is what kept me sane during the pandemic,” the performer-turned-teacher-turned-performer again said in a recent interview.
Bergstrom spent a lot of 2020 and 2021 ensconced in Jesi-Lu Studios, award-winning musician-producer Terry Wilson’s home studio in Canyon Country, and the rest of the time at home a few miles away, writing. “I didn’t go much anywhere else,” he said.
John Bergstrom. Photo: Pamela Musgrave.
Some of the songs pre-date the pandemic, but he finished a few and wrote a few more during the lockdown, then rounded out the setlist with favorites “Mind Your Own Business” (Hank Williams), “Sueno” (Bill Staines), and “Cowboy’s Prayer” (Michael Fleming and Les Buffham).
Working with a veteran blues and rock producer like Wilson was a departure for Bergstrom, whose previous albums have been mostly acoustic. He and Wilson were both pleased with what they came up with, an acoustic-electric sound blending traditional Western and Americana with a little rock ‘n’ roll and soul.
Terry Wilson and Teresa James.
Wilson, bassist and musical director of celebrated Southern California blues band Teresa James & The Rhythm Tramps (he produced their 10th album, “Here in Babylon,” nominated for the “Best Contemporary Blues Album” Grammy in 2019), played bass, keyboards, acoustic bottleneck, and electric guitar, and was one of the background singers on Bergstrom’s latest effort.
Wilson enlisted multi-talented fiddle and mandolin player Michael Starr, drummer Richard Milsap (from The Band of Heathens, based in Austin; also Wilson’s son-in-law), and then James, the Rhythm Tramps’ lead singer (and Wilson’s wife), who contributed background vocals to various tracks. “She is so good, it’s scary,” Bergstrom said. Wilson recorded, mixed, then mastered all the final tracks at Jesi-Lu.
“The instrumentation and some of the arrangements are a little different from what I’ve done in the past, what I’m used to hearing, but I trusted Terry,” Bergstrom said. “I like what he came up with and how it turned out.”
“Grandpa’s Yard” might be a sonic departure for Bergstrom, but like his five previous albums, there’s a familiar casual warmth to the performances that complements his very personal songs and puts him right in your living room or on your back porch. Only this time he has a few extra pickers and players backing him up.
“Somehow all my CDs have that same in-the-living-room quality,” Bergstrom said. “And there’s at least one song that’s pretty autobiographical.”
Here, it’s the title song, about his grandfather’s backyard. That’s where John Richard Bergstrom first experienced the joys of singing and playing live music as a toddler in the late ’40s.
A Family Affair: Music Everywhere
“My grandfather, John Bergstrom, had come over from Sweden about 1907 and bought a piece of land in Lomita, just off Pacific Coast Highway,” Bergstrom said of the tiny community between Palos Verdes and Long Beach. “He became kind of the neighborhood host. He planted a big tree in the backyard and people would come over and hang out after work. His regular full-time job was as a carpenter for Union Oil.”
“My dad, Al Bergstrom, played dance music for about 80 years. His last gig was at age 93. This was taken at my dad’s 90th birthday in 2007. He played for another three years and passed in 2011. He loved the music.” — John Bergstrom
Bergstrom’s folks started him on piano at age 4, and by elementary school age, he was also learning to play guitar and bass.
“Anytime there was a holiday, there was music and dancing in Grandpa’s backyard, a lot of Swedish folk dancing,” he said. “My dad (John Alfon Bergstrom, or “Al” for short) would bring his accordion, my older brother (Eric) would have his fiddle, and I’d have a guitar or a bass. Sometimes there’d be as many as 10 musicians.”
Outside his grandfather’s yard, Bergstrom’s first performances in public were at the local Swedish lodge.
“Back in the ‘50s, the local community service groups were big, and there was the Elks Lodge and whatever else was around,” he said. “In Lomita, the Swedes had their own lodge, a building owned by the Swedish community. They would have dances there all the time, and the kids were expected to perform. If you had a kid that didn’t perform, something was wrong with you.”
“Three generations of the Bergstrom family for Mothers’ Day, about 1951. My mom is second from the left. I’m the strapping guy in from of her on the left [with the cowboy design on my sweater.] As usual, my dad took the picture and is not in it.” — John Bergstrom
Later, in junior high and high school orchestras, Bergstrom added bluegrass and folk to his musical repertoire. But he opted for a career in education as a teacher of history, physical education, and social studies, and ultimately a school administrator, so music remained a sideline passion for many years.
Bergstrom attended Glendale Junior College, then USC, majoring in history and PE and earning his BA in 1968. Over the next two decades, he taught at Mount Carmel High School in south-central Los Angeles (1969, U.S. and World History); Indio High School (1970-1980, History, English, Drama, and guitar, as well as coaching football and baseball); Notre Dame High School in Riverside (1980-81, U.S. History); Perris Valley Middle School, then PV High School (1986-1989, English and U.S. History); and Riverside Unified (1989-1991, district-wide substitute, various subjects).
In 1991, Bergstrom capped his career in education as Vice-Principal at Highland High School in Palmdale and retired four years later.
Segue from Educator to Performer
“After that, I took music lessons, refreshers mainly,” he said. “That’s when I started nosing around Western music.” He also completed studies to earn his Master’s in Secondary Administration from Chapman University in 1999.
Just after the new millennium, at the suggestion of Bergstrom’s wife Diane, also a Western music fan, the couple caught a concert by acoustic cowboy trio New West – Mike Fleming, Raul Reynoso, and David Jackson – at Stevenson Ranch’s outdoor community amphitheater.
Cowboy music trio New West — Raul Reynoso, Mike Fleming, and David Jackson — tape a segment of ‘House Blend’ at SCVTV Media Center in Newhall, March 13, 2014. Photo: Stephen K. Peeples.
Along with Jackson and his bandmates, Bergstrom said, “I met a few people from the International Western Music Association there, too, and joined the IWMA.”
Seeing those other guys in action inspired Bergstrom to connect his affinity for Western music and history and storytelling, by writing, performing, and recording new songs about the Old West’s colorful history. He’s been on that trail since 2001.
His discography includes “Western State of Mind” (2001); “Ghosts & Legends” (2003); “Throw Down the Box” (2005); “Butterfield Stage” (2008); “Daybreak Moon” (2016); and “Grandpa’s Yard” (2021).
For many years, Bergstrom was a regular at the annual Santa Clarita Cowboy Festival (suspended for 2020, 2021, and 2022 due to COVID), and a three-time guest on SCVTV‘s popular “Out West Concert Series” with hosts Jim and Bobbi Jean Bell (2010, 2013, and 2014). He also appeared in the premiere season of the station’s “House Blend with Stephen K. Peeples” local music show (2010).
John Bergstrom on the ‘House Blend’ set at SCVTV Media Center in Newhall, California, Dec. 4, 2010. Photo: Stephen K. Peeples.
Before the pandemic, Bergstrom played solo at Athena’s restaurant in Canyon Country most Sundays and the first and third Thursdays at El Trocadero in Old Town Newhall, as well as private house parties.
He’s returned to the Autry Museum, but as a performer, and appeared at cowboy events in California and Arizona including the Tombstone Western Music Festival and the Arizona Cowboy Symposium. And he went on to be president of the IWMA’s California Chapter and serve as a Director on the IWMA board.
Bergstrom is also a member of the Academy of Western Artists, which nominated his last album, “Daybreak Moon,” for “Album of the Year” in 2016, as well as the title track for “Best Song,” while Bergstrom picked up a nomination as “Best Western Performer.” They were his first AWA nominations but he didn’t win.
The AWA nominated Bergstrom for a pair of its awards for 2021 – “Album of the Year” for “Grandpa’s Yard” and “Male Artist of the Year” in the Western Music category. Winners will be announced soon.
Terry Wilson on John Bergstrom & ‘Grandpa’s Yard’
“David Jackson of New West, one of my oldest best friends who’s got his own amazing musical history, introduced me to John,” Terry Wilson said in a separate interview.
“David played upright bass for John on a couple of his earlier records,” he said. “They brought me in just to master the first one. Then the second one I worked on, they brought me in to mix and master. This is our third project together, and I ended up doing the whole record here.
“John’s a really interesting storyteller, keeping the stories alive about California’s pioneers and cowboy crooks, and I love that stuff, but when he asked me to produce it, I kind of scratched my head,” Wilson said, because he didn’t think of himself as a western-bluegrass-country producer.
“But I started checking out his new tunes, and I thought, ‘What can I bring to them that would stay truthful to where he’s coming from, without taking away from the stories?'” he said.
“And I imagined, ‘What if The Beatles were doing this?'” Wilson said. “Think of something like ‘Rocky Raccoon,’ their story songs. So I thought there’s a way to make John’s songs a little more orchestral, cinematic, like something for a TV soundtrack or a movie scene, and not get in the way of the stories. I hope I didn’t get in the way. It seems like it turned out well. I always enjoy working with John because he’s got a lot of great stories to tell and he’s just so easy to work with.”
Bergstrom Talks About the ‘Grandpa’s Yard’ Songs
Bergstrom follows the aforementioned “Grandpa’s Yard” title track with “El Dorado,” which he said is “in recognition of the adventurers who came West as early as the Spanish and as late as the various gold rushes, precious metal rushes, of the late 1800s.”
He said “Evening Shadows” is “an attempt to draw a picture, heading back to the ranch as the day slows down, based on the idea of things coming to an end.”
With “Good Money; Bad Liquor,” “there’s two ways to tell,” he said. “It’s a cautionary tale.”
Bergstrom first heard “Sueno” performed by Eddie Via Lobos. “He did just a bang-up job with that song. We lost Eddie here about a year and a half ago, a real shame. I thought, “I’ve got to learn this song.” It’s a neat tune. I’d love to meet Bill Staines because he has written a bunch of stuff over the years, and this fit the tenor of the album.”
“Mind Your Own Business” goes back to Bergstrom’s boyhood. “My mom would always tell my brother and me, ‘Mind your own business!'” he said. “The song could have been mine at the time,” adding he didn’t have anyone in particular in mind when he chose it to record.
“I think a lot of people can relate to that song because some people tend to be busybodies and just get their faces in everybody else’s business instead of minding their own business,” he said.
“Rancho San Rafael” is about “one piece of property stretching from La Cañada to Dodger Stadium and Griffith Park in the late 1700s,” he said. “Over the years it became towns and the Rancho slowly disappeared. The song is about what became of the Rancho.”
“Ghost of the Sierras” is “more or less a true story,” Bergstrom said. “About 20, 25 years ago, my wife and I were driving south on Highway 395, minding our own business, when all of a sudden this cowboy on horseback appeared out of nowhere. I saw him in the sky, he turned and rode into the sun. Suddenly he was a silhouette and then gone.
“Was it an apparition or a real cowboy? A ghost rider in the sky? Could have been,” he said, laughing, and leaving it open. Either way, at highway speed or the speed of light, “You see it once and you blink, and it’s gone.”
Tom Vernon, circa the mid-1920s. Photo: Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society.
In the past, Bergstrom has written songs about colorful characters and momentous events in Santa Clarita Valley history, including the St. Francis Dam disaster of 1928; bandito Tiburcio Vasquez, whose many hideouts in the mid-1800s included the spectacular natural rock formations near what is now Agua Dulce; and central California stagecoach driver Charley Parkhurst, another mid-1800s figure who was actually born a woman named Charlotte but fooled everyone for decades.
“He was one of the least successful outlaws of the 1920s,” Bergstrom said. “Vernon managed to find a way to get arrested regularly for disrupting train routes and spent several years in federal prison.
“He specifically caused the wreck of the Southern Pacific train coming out of L.A. over behind what’s now the Saugus Speedway. The opening phrase explains what the song’s going to be about: ‘Tom Vernon, what have you done? / Wrecked the SP59 and robbed it with a gun, robbed it with a gun.’
“He was just not good at being bad,” Bergstrom said, succinctly.
“Idaho” is a “little tune I wrote because my brother Eric and my son John and his family were moving to Idaho, so it was kind of a farewell gift to them,” he said. “It’s been six years.”
The album closer, “Cowboy Blessing,” penned by Mike Fleming of New West and fellow SCV songwriter Les Buffam has become “a spiritual anthem among the cowboy community,” Bergstrom said. “I first heard the song at a memorial for one of the guys out here, and just liked it. ‘Cowboy Blessing’ definitely strikes a chord in almost anybody who hears it. Whenever I’ve performed it, people have liked it.”
Bergstrom hopes the themes and messages on “Grandpa’s Yard” resonate with his longtime fans and new listeners alike.
“It’s true of all my CDs,” he said: “Appreciate the West. Appreciate your family. All the things that make life worthwhile…and enjoy them.”
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This story was first published by stephenkpeeples.com under the title “Bergstrom Gathers Family Memories, SCV Musical Friends in ‘Grandpa’s Yard.'” Republished here with permission.
Stephen K. Peeples is a Grammy-nominated multi-media writer-producer and award-winning radio/record industry veteran based in Santa Clarita, California. He is a former SCVTV/SCV News editor and photojournalist. See the “About” page on Peeples’ website. More original stories and exclusive interviews are posted on that site and on his YouTube channel.
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