Mike Tatar has been proudly playing bluegrass for 40 years, in spite of the hayseed prejudice.
“I know a lot of [venue owners] who say, ‘I love your music in general,’” he says. “But they are hesitant because all they can think of when they hear it is hillbillies and blacked-out teeth and straw hats.” To the contrary, he says the average local bluegrass player is more Elon Musk than Jethro Bodine.
Virtual Strangers, "Ocean Of Teardrops"
Now retired, Tatar needed Department of Defense security clearance when he worked as a project manager on classified weapons projects at the 32nd Street naval yard.
“There are a lot of educated people in bluegrass.” He names attorney/Del Mar councilman Dwight Worden as one of the pickers on the board of the San Diego Bluegrass Society. “We have an optometrist, a business owner, and a judge who just passed away on our board.“
Tatar, who sings and plays banjo and dobro in the Virtual Strangers, admits the pay for bluegrass players isn’t great: “You make tens of dollars in a bluegrass band,” he says.
And then there’s that paucity of performance opportunities for the 15 or so local traditional bluegrass bands. Virtual Strangers has held on to its Sunday-afternoon gig at Urban Solace in North Park for ten years. That run ends this month.
After 16 years, Virtual Strangers is breaking up. Tatar and his wife Yvonne, who plays standup bass, are following fellow San Diego musicians Steve Poltz and Graham Nancarrow and are moving to greater Nashville.
“The main reason we’re moving is to be near our son and grandkids, but we will definitely be involved in music. You never know who shows up at a Nashville jam session.”
The Tatars leave behind Vista’s three-day bluegrass-and-camping Summergrass Festival, which they cofounded in 2003. This year the August fest drew some 3500 to see 12 bands from Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina. With the collapse of the Huck Finn Festival, it is now the biggest annual bluegrass fest in Southern California.
3823 30th Street, North Park
(Has gone out of business since this article was published.)
The Tatars and John Cherry (mandolin and vocals) and Kit Birkett (guitar and vocals) play their swan song Urban Solace show as Virtual Strangers on Sunday, October 22, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.