By Michael Hall, reprinted with permission from the Northern California Bluegrass Society

Carl Pagter, the co-founder of the California Bluegrass Association known as “Member No. 1,” an old-time banjo player and attorney, died January 3. He was 89 years old. Carl was one of the founding board members of the IBMA Foundation (then known as The Foundation for Bluegrass Music) when it was created in 2007.

“Carl genuinely understood the value of folks working together for things they had great passion for,” said Dan Hays, IBMA executive director from 1990-2012. “That’s clear from his work through his beloved CBA, but his appreciation extended beyond geographic boundaries. The Foundation for Bluegrass Music was envisioned as a means by which we could make sure the resources of our legacy empowered future generations. Carl was a clear voice for the concept and invaluable in shaping the structure of the Foundation in those early years.”

Pagter led the old-time music band Country Ham during a decades-long part-time performance and recording career in the San Francisco Bay Area and Washington, D.C. His wife, Judie Pagter, was a band member, along with fiddler and US Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia. Country Ham evolved from Pagter’s first band, the Sprout Run String Band.

In 1973-74, Carl founded the California Bluegrass Association along with Jack Sadler and Jake Quesenberry. After starting with a small day festival in Fairfield, the organization grew to become the world’s largest bluegrass association and the presenter of the top West Coast traditional camping festival, the CBA Father’s Day Bluegrass Festival at the Nevada County Fairgrounds in Grass Valley.

Carl was born to Charles and Mina Pagter in Baltimore, Maryland, on February 13, 1934. He moved to California as a youth and earned an Associate of Arts degree from Diablo Valley College in 1953, a bachelor’s degree from San Jose State University in 1955, and a Bachelor of Laws degree from the University of California – Berkeley in 1964.

Pagter joined the Kaiser Industries Corporation in Oakland as a law clerk while in law school and became a corporate attorney with the company after graduation. He was transferred to and from Kaiser’s Washington, D.C. office, where he focused on lobbying the federal government. He eventually rose to become the company’s Director of Government Affairs, based in Washington. Upon the dissolution of Kaiser Industries in 1976, Pagter remained with the surviving Kaiser Cement Corporation in San Ramon, CA, as General Counsel. He retired in 1998, but he continued as a consultant to Kaiser on antitrust issues.

After returning to Walnut Creek, CA, from Washington, Pagter played an active role in the CBA, serving for many years as the chair of the Board of Directors. He and others took a strict view of bluegrass and old-time musical purity, leading the organization to take a dim view of less traditional “California-style” bands, and temporarily welcoming very few — or sometimes no — area bands to play on the Grass Valley festival stage.

This led to the proliferation of “Put California Back in the CBA” bumper stickers and eventually a change in the organization’s leadership and booking policies. Also during this period the Santa Cruz Bluegrass Society (now the Northern California Bluegrass Society) created the Good Old Fashioned Bluegrass Festival, which is devoted exclusively to the presentation of California bands.

During this same period Pagter and the CBA also undertook a major and hugely successful initiative to introduce the California bluegrass community to the International Bluegrass Music Association, then an organization principally made up of members from the eastern and southern United States. This effort transformed bluegrass on both coasts. Using personally donated funds, Pagter led the CBA to establish a popular week-long hospitality suite at the annual IBMA World of Bluegrass, then held in Owensboro, Kentucky. This was a major volunteer undertaking and one of the largest and most ambitious performance suites in the convention’s history.

Shows in the “California Suite” made West Coast bluegrass musicians and bands better-known in the bluegrass homeland, leading to an expansion of California bands touring “back East.” It also led to greater interest among major eastern bands to make the long (and potentially less profitable) trek across the country to play for new fans in California. This led to opportunities for California bands and fans to expand bluegrass participation in Northern California. It also led many CBA members and other Californians to attend the IBMA convention and to assume major roles in IBMA affairs.

Pagter played a significant role on the nonprofit national bluegrass scene, serving on the board of the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro and as board member and treasurer of the Foundation for Bluegrass Music (now the IBMA Foundation) in Nashville. His involvement with the bluegrass museum made it possible for the Northern California Bluegrass Society to create the NCBS International Bluegrass Music Museum Film Festival in Redwood City. As the museum could not allow exhibition of its films without the personal involvement of a museum official, Pagter graciously agreed to act as emcee. This event was the first showing of these films outside of the Kentucky museum.

In his later years, Pagter performed with the Mount Diablo String Band, which played on a Northern California Bluegrass Society stage at the NCBS San Francisco Bluegrass & Old Time Festival.

He also played at the first Brown Barn Bluegrass Festival with his CBA co-founders Sadler & Quesenberry as the Three Amigos. These three were also honored with Lifetime Achievement Awards by the Northern California Bluegrass Society at the first NCBS Bluegrass on Broadway Festival in Redwood City.

Throughout his long musical life, Pagter was an enthusiastic participant in old-time jams at bluegrass and old-time festivals around the country. For jams, he always sported his trademark, misshapen and well-worn leather hat. The hat had been purchased at an early bluegrass festival, where it was almost immediately run over by a car.

In addition to releasing 17 old-time record albums, Pagter was also a published author, producing humorous books and collections of cartoons with his collaborator Dr. Alan Dundes of UC Berkeley, many relating to the ups and downs of office work and corporate life. Here is a typical example of the long and interesting titles in this series of books: When You’re Up to Your Ass in Alligators: More Urban Folklore from the Paperwork Empire. Pagter took pride in the authenticity of the songs and stories he collected. Unlike some folk collectors, he never cleaned up the “blue” aspects of the originals.

Carl’s first job was working on the Benica-Martinez Ferry. He used that experience serving in the US Navy after college and before law school, and he later held the rank of Commander during his 16-year career in the US Naval Reserve. For an extended period of time, Pagter was simultaneously a lawyer, a Naval Reserve officer, and a touring old-time musician. His service was doubly rewarding, as he was introduced to the banjo by a friendly fellow sailor during his Navy enlistment and learned to jam with fellow Navy personnel.

Carl Richard Pagter is survived by his second wife Judith Elaine Cox Pagter of Stanardsville, VA, and by his son from a previous marriage, Corbin Pagter.

Photo above by Darwin Davidson

Return to the March 2023 issue of The Cornerstone.