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The Measure of a Man – Frank Wolking, 1955-2008

by Mike Rosso

It was the big, exclusive, Saturday night “cast party”, celebrating the performers of the largest free music gathering in North America, the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, held every October since 2001 in San Francisco.

The vast nightclub venue was buzzing as the musical elite eat, drink, and make very merry, blowing off the crazy steam of playing for record crowds earlier that day in Golden Gate Park. All chattering and laughing, paying little mind to the small stage where notable performers such as Joan Baez, Earl Scruggs, and Emmy Lou Harris struggle to be heard over the raucous festivities. No one may be listening, but everybody’s gotta do it – perform the obligatory number for their fellows – it’s a festival tradition.

Frank Wolking at a Sons and Brothers performance. Photo courtesy of Aaron Wolking
Frank Wolking at a Sons and Brothers performance. Photo courtesy of Aaron Wolking

Few in the audience notice when a group of unassuming young Colorado brothers and their father, Frank Wolking, take the stage. Virtual unknowns in this crowd, they performed early during the festival on the smallest stage. Then, as their voices filled the air, something happens like a roll of thunder in mountains so distant, nearly inaudible, but definitely there. Gradually, in twos and threes, and then groups, all of the other voices hush. Silence falls upon the room as the Sons and Brothers Band perform for their now-riveted peers. They finish and there is the briefest awestruck silence before a river roar of tribute bursts forth with applause, cheers, and calls for encores.

This was to be Wolking’s last public performance. Eleven days later his life came to an end – his friends, family and guitar at his bedside – a victim of the cancer he’d been battling for two years. But that performance in that San Francisco nightclub proved a major highlight in the life of a man who unexpectedly found himself in a successful band, literally, of sons and brothers.

Back in 1994, Mike Wolking, then a young teen, began pestering his father Frank to teach him to play guitar. The elder Wolking had played a good bit of music in his own youth, but had put away the guitar to concentrate on his family and plumbing business. Mike’s younger brother Joe had also gotten the musical bug early on, pounding out rhythms on a set of homemade drums constructed of PVC and deerhide. But soon he switched to violin and began studying with renowned fiddler Bill Daley in Cañon City.

In 1999 the family moved from Cañon City to rural property outside Westcliffe coinciding with a collective decision to quit watching TV, instead becoming voracious readers with plenty of of spare time to learn instruments and play music, according to second son, Aaron Wolking. “We kept each other energized,” he said.

Soon the family decided to form a bluegrass band. Featuring the elder Wolking on guitar, 12 year-old Aaron on bass, 15 year-old Mike on guitar, and 10 year-old Joe on fiddle. All sharing the vocals, they began learning tunes by listening to a number of influential artists such as the Seldom Scene, Graham Parsons, Emmy Lou Harris, and a band that would have a profound influence on their musical trajectory, the Dry Branch Fire Squad.

Though the family originally never intended to perform publicly, the insistence of friends and neighbors friends caused them to begin performing in public. Their first big gig was held in 1999 at the Black Rose Acoustic Society in Denver, an organization Aaron considers critical in developing of the band.

Sons and Brothers band performing at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in October, 2008. Frank Wolking is third from the left. Photo courtesy of Aaron Wolking
Sons and Brothers band performing at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in October, 2008. Frank Wolking is third from the left. Photo courtesy of Aaron Wolking

Around the same time the Wolkings arrived in the Wet Mountain valley, another newcomer, Ron Thomason, was establishing permanent residence in the north end of the valley, and would also play a large part in the band’s development. Thomason had owned a vacation home outside Cotopaxi since 1996 and decided to leave his home in Ohio in 1999 in exchange for the open space of the Rockies.

Thomason, a staple in the bluegrass music industry for over 40 years, is also known the mandolinist and somewhat sardonic story teller for the Dry Branch Fire Squad. Not long after his arrival in the valley he was invited to a local gathering and showed up to hear the unmistakable strains of a Dry Branch composition, “Someone Play Dixie For Me.” He entered to find a surprise party in his honor featuring Wolking and his sons playing tunes he knew very well.

Thomason went on to become a good friend and mentor of the Wolkings, especially Frank. “He was the most generous and honest man I’d ever met, a great man in the sense of his manhood,” said Thomason, “he never had to fake sincerity.”

Performing at the San Francisco festival was Wolking’s final goal, and despite his rapidly failing health, he made the trip to California with his sons to perform in front of the band’s largest audience to date. Two years previous, Wolking was diagnosed with esophageal cancer which lead to a brain tumor which caused his death on October 15, 2008 at the age of 53.

In the past ten years, the Sons and Brothers band have recorded nine CD’s, including their latest, “Measure of a Man,” the final recording that the senior Wolking performed on. This year’s High Mountain Hayfever Bluegrass Festival, to be held July 9-12, 2009 in Westcliffe is dedicated to the memory and inspiration of Frank Wolking.

As for the future, the sons are putting the band back together in the absence of their father with the help of Wolking’s brother Fred, himself an accomplished musician, as well as enlisting well-known fiddler, Johnny Neill, of Denver. “The band is going to play it by ear but hope to have a nice slate of gigs for 2009,” said Aaron. “ We’re not gonna stop anytime soon – we’ll see where God takes us.”

Band information and CDs are available at: