Q&A: A New Kind of Nostalgia With The Christy Minstrels

The New Christy Minstrels have been playing music since 1961 and are now back in Fair Oaks to perform at Veteran's Memorial Amphitheatre.

The New Christy Minstrels will hold a benefit concert for the Fair Oaks Theatre Festival Theater Renovation Campaign and the New Christy Minstrel Foundation Saturday at 6:30 p.m. It will be held in Veteran's Memorial Amphitheatre as a part of their summer Theatre Under the Stars.

To hear more about what The New Christy Minstrels stand for and how they got started we sat down with director and founder Randy Sparks and an original member of the group Dolan Ellis. Here is what they had to say:

Fair Oaks Patch: What exactly is your role in the group? 

Randy Sparks: Founder, ramrod, trail-boss, principal songwriter, stand-in for management and father figure.

FOP: When did you create this group and what inspired you to create this group?

RS: In July of 1961 I was working as a solo artist in Vancouver, Wash. and I was frustrated at my inability to make a comfortable living as an itinerant musician. I was a prolific songwriter, but nobody, it seemed, wanted my songs. I read in a biographical book, about Stephen Foster, that he'd been in the same position more than a hundred years earlier, and his solution was in leaning on the most popular performing group of his era, Christy's Minstrels, AKA The Christy Minstrels. 'I wonder if that device would work again?' I asked myself. I sat down and designed on paper my dream group, an amalgam of The Kingston Trio and The Norman Luboff Choir. It took a few months to build the repertoire of material and get my group on record, but it worked so well that our first album won a Grammy.

FOP:What is the main purpose of The New Christy Minstrels? 

RS: The answer to that question has evolved over the years. In the beginning it was simply a way to make a better living, but the entity took on a life of its own, quickly becoming much more than just a writing opportunity for me. I worked at building the enterprise, and it furnished both the money and the fame that had mostly eluded me previously. The group also became a stair-step for talented performers, i.e., Barry McGuire, Kenny Rogers, Kim Carnes, etc. In my old age, it has provided a reason to stay alive - just to share my music. The group is now owned and operated by our non-profit, The New Christy Minstrels Foundation, and our goal is to provide real music, our old-fashioned music, to young people in the schools, gratis. From my perspective, every child deserves to know that music is more than just something that vibrates your car.

FOP: What kind of message does your group try to convey?

 RS: Wholesome, patriotic, humorous, entertaining, nostalgia for our older fans, something new and different for the younger ones.

FOP: How many times have you performed for the Fair Oaks Theatre Under the Stars? And what does performing in Fair Oaks mean to your group? 

RS: This shall be performance number two. We worked the amphitheater to a sold-out house last year, and we've been sold-out for a week this time around. We are grateful.


FOP: What is your main role in the group?

Dolan Ellis: I'm not quite sure what my role is. Randy has referred to me in the past as a "spark plug." So, I guess it would be to add energy to the show at certain moments. However, this current show and this group of talented people doesn't need it. So, I guess my highest and best role is to help load and unload the sound equipment trailer.

FOP: How many years have you been with the group? What is your role in the group? How has your role evolved over the years?

DE: I was one of the original members. Though I have not been with the group continually, that would make it about 50 years. And 2010 will be our golden anniversary.

FOP: What makes The New Christy Minstrels different than other groups? What has made you stick around?

DE: We are not only musicians, we are also entertainers. We love to please an audience. Unlike some groups, our main mission on stage is to entertain the audience with our music. I love to entertain and please people, so it naturally brings me great pleasure to be a part of this show and this group.

FOP: What can Fair Oaks residents expect and anticipate from the benefit concert?

DE: A happy and fun show. Our promos is 'our audience will go home feeling happier than when they came.' We will also be doing many of our hits, that I am sure the audience will recognize.

FOP: How best would you describe the kind of music The New Christy Minstrels play?

DE: Feel good music. Music that will bring back memories for the older people in the audience and it will also introduce, to younger people in the audience, the kind of music that will make them happy and glad to be alive.

FOP: What is your group's dynamic like?

The best. We all enjoy each other's company and respect each other's talents. This will be very obvious to the audience while we are on stage.


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