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Robin Ralston with Destry at Young Lakes (photo: Debra Sutherland)

Just Sit Down And Listen: Coolwater Concerts’ Robin Ralston

Robin and Indy at Bass Lake (photo: Carolyn Shaffer)

AHWAHNEE — Here’s a riddle: what do horses, mountain-climbing, and spectacular music have in common? Answer: Robin Ralston. She’s the dedicated patron and mastermind behind the Coolwater Ranch House Concerts.

Robin brings top-notch musicians known for entertaining audiences worldwide to play intimate shows in her living room.

Following a winding path marked by mixed fortune while maintaining a forward gaze, Robin continually delights music-lovers locally by her careful curation of the finest talent to pass through these foothills.

American fingerstyle master Preston Reed and Robin Ralston

When it comes to Coolwater Ranch, Robin calls herself the sole proprietor, chief grapple and tractor operator, occasional tree feller, head wrangler, booking agent, hostess, sound operator, equipment maintenance coordinator and talent scout. On top of all that, she has a side-job as a “feline life coach” to four strays who stayed, and maintains a much-needed good sense of humor.

The truth is, she’s been able to host many of the most gifted players the world has to offer, and the Coolwater Ranch House Concert series has been touted by the likes of Mike Dowling, Preston Reed, Peter Lang, Richard Smith and Harvey Reid, as one of the best in the country.

The woman who wound up in Ahwahnee, not far from the south gate of Yosemite National Park, started out as a little girl in South Gate, the suburb of Los Angeles. Born Robin Rene Loudon with two older brothers ahead of her, their parents were Don and Earline.

Earline and Don Loudon

“My parents were good people. My dad was just salt of the earth, an eternal prankster, machinist, and carpenter. He worked harder than any man I’ve ever known. My mother had a wicked sense of humor as well. She had all of her church friends fooled. She was a tough, tough gal — and funny as hell.”

Robin grew up learning classical piano — some of her earliest influences were Beethoven, Chopin, Bach and DeBussey. On the cusp of adolescence, she heard Leo Kottke’s 6 and 12 string album, and her influences grew to includ Kottke, John Fahey, John Williams, Elizabeth Cotton, Al DiMeola and Mike Oldfield. One of her favorite memories is seeing Elizabeth Cotton perform at the legendary Santa Monica guitar shop, McCabe’s.

Music was not her only young love. From the time she was a very small child, Robin was hooked on horses.

“I was twelve years old when my dad bought me my first horse,” she recalls. “He was a mustang, a competition roping horse, and way more horse than I should have had at that age and at my level of experience. But I loved him.”

Robin at Wits End, a Colorado dude ranch

The horse was fast, Robin remembers, and a pain to catch. Sadly, only a few months in, they were hit by a car on a small country road.

“I was unhurt, somehow, but my horse’s hind leg was ripped almost completely off. It was an experience I never really got over.”

She was not allowed to ride again until the age of 17, when she was working and could buy her own horse — which Robin did as soon as possible. The results were restorative.

“Nightmares that had haunted me for five year finally stopped, and my love for horses just grew.”

Los Angeles and its suburbs comprise a company town, and the industry is Hollywood, so it’s not surprising that young adult Robin found herself working in the business.

At Allen Int’l, adding scales to the wax casting of a lizard hand for The Primevals (photo: Paul Gentry)

“I knew somebody who knew somebody who was starting up a new project. He called and asked if I wanted to come on board. It sounded like a lot more fun than my current job, which was inputting numbers and printing out credit checks to markets for spoiled deli items. So of course, I said yes.”

Four years passed with Robin working as a production assistant, doing gofer work and some bookkeeping, and typing up script changes. Meanwhile, she was given the opportunity to try her hand at a few creative things, with an emphasis on “things,” as she found herself working on some horror movies.

“Any place I worked in Hollywood churned out movies heavy in visual effects so, back in the old days, it was stop motion animation, building miniatures, mold making and other stuff that was just a lot of fun.” It was a creative time, Robin says, while admitting that her attempt at animating a stop-motion puppet was “disastrous.”

Making the rounds of production, she worked briefly for Irwin and Frank Yablans, brothers whose companies produced the insanely successful Halloween series of horror movies. That job did not satisfy.

“It was the absolute opposite of the merry band of truly gifted misfits I had worked with at Allen International. A more hostile environment I’d never experienced.”

She quit after two weeks.

“I then got a call from one of the people who had done some contract work for David Allen and Peter Kuran of the special effects company, Visual Concepts Engineering (VCE). They were great folks, and some very talented artists. A lot of good movies came through that facility during my relatively short tenure there.”

Recalling a budget meeting with Italian film producer Raffaella De Laurentiis, daughter of director Dino De Laurentiis,  Robin says one moment in particular seemed to reveal the writing on the wall for Robin’s tenure in Hollywood.

“I made my case for why VCE needed a bigger budget to finish some shots for Conan the Barbarian, that the director had expanded. Raffaella, a producer on the movie, told me that I reminded her of herself when she was young. That kind of chilled me to the bone and I started looking for an escape from LA.”

Inside Coolwater Ranch before the show

The specifics of that dodge includes too many twists and turns to recount, says Robin, but the ultimate escape from LA landed her in Oakhurst in 1982, where she lived in an apartment on Road 426 along China Creek.

She worked at Oaks Drugs as a pharmacy tech, and for Sue and Randy Graham at Frameworks. It was enough to keep her horses fed well, in those days, while she subsisted mostly on generic .29 cent chicken pot pies from Raley’s.

“Eventually, the man who turned out to be my husband of 20 or so years and I got together, and he was into the film biz in a big way. After we married he was in high demand. ”

The extraordinary German acoustic fingerstyle guitarist Peter Finger at Coolwater Ranch

Over a couple of years in 1992-93, the couple built the home Robin now lives in, Coolwater, on property they had owned since 1989. They left the area for a short time, moving to Sonoma and Marin Counties, where they lived until 1995.

“During my time in Marin I had the opportunity to work for special effects make-up artist Chris Walas. It was largely a great experience, but I think a big part of my heart remained here in the mountains.”

In 2004, Robin and her husband parted company and she remained at Coolwater Ranch. Over time, among the passions she discovered was the unlikely — for Robin — hobby of rock climbing. She blames her appreciation for the cause on a friend who turns out to be culpable in multiple schemes across the years.

One pitch away from the top of Grand Teton, 2005 (photo: Bob Kaspar)

“Had I never met Bob, I can pretty much bet I would never have climbed,” Robin explains, referring to climber and world traveler Bob Kaspar, a friend known for epic trips who recently wrote about his cross-country coast to coast summer sojourn — Biking Across America from California to Massachusetts.

Up to that point in her life, most of Robin’s exploring and adventuring had been done from the back of a horse, very much in her own comfort zone. Ever the catalyst, it was Bob who first encouraged Robin to find her footing on a rock.

“I was always terrified of heights, and not great at tying appropriate knots under pressure. And boy, did I feel pressure! But it turned out there was something about climbing I really liked — maybe because it seemed like the very last thing I would ever do. Facing things I feared the most and actually getting to the top of a climb in one piece was a high I had never experienced before — and I liked it.”

As it turns out, her rock-climbing mentor was also culpable in igniting the spark that became Coolwater Ranch House Concerts.

Coolwater Ranch House Concert, Tim and Myles Thompson

“Coolwater started as a dare from Bob Kaspar,” Robin points out. Talking about music one night, Kaspar taunted Robin that if she could ever get the great American fingerstyle guitar player Preston Reed to come perform in her living room, that would be a show Bob would come see.

“Well, thanks to the the good ol’ internet — within 20 minutes I had located Preston Reed, and asked. He said, ‘Sure, why not?’ and we had a concert date scheduled. Now this was a big deal.”

Her first thought?

“Holy buckets — what had I gotten myself into? How can I make it worth this musician’s while to come play for my friends? Well, a week later my friend Alan McAnulty had designed a web site. It was starting to gel. Preston was amazing.”

While Preston Reed was playing for the audience in her living room that first concert night, Robin noticed some women who got up and went into the garage.

Father-son fingerstyle and violin duo Tim and Myles Thompson at Coolwater

“I thought it was rude,” she says now. Until, “I found them furiously trying to get a cell signal so they could contact their boyfriends, husbands, friends, and relatives to tell them this phenomenal player was here in Ahwahnee. I think we were all kind of dumbfounded.”

The house concerts grew from there. After Preston Reed, that first year, Robin hosted John Danley, Pierre Bensusan, Peter Lang, Mike Dowling, Michael Gulezian and Gove Scrivenor — all top talent way bigger than the room.

She eventually became the US representation for Preston Reed, John Danley, and Gove Scrivenor. It was a tough gig and the fit wasn’t right.

“While I really liked the people I represented, it was simply too much for too little. My horses weren’t being ridden and I was on the phone and computer 12 to 16  hours a day. I lived in a beautiful place that I simply was unable to enjoy even a little. It was the hardest job I ever inflicted on myself.”

Robin decided to concentrate on the concert series full time.

Cowboy Entertainer Dave Stamey and Robin at Coolwater

“It was obvious the venues for these great musicians were few. I’ve kept it alive out of true love for the music and the inside knowledge of how next-to-impossible it is for these guys to practice their art in an environment where they are actually being listened to, as opposed to background music. The people I book here are full time musicians, and I’ve seen the sacrifices that are made in order for them to make that happen. It is tough.”

As mentioned earlier in regards to her mom, Robin knows tough. She’s tough herself, having proved that many times, including a few years ago following a life-altering fall that occurred — as accidents do — when she was least expecting it. The incident took place in on the Sonoma Coast near Jenner in Northern California.

“It was bad, and it was completely my own fault,” she easily admits. “I had booked a tour for a couple of artists, Todd Hallawell and Robin Kessinger, and their first play date was at the Timber Cove Inn. Todd and Robin had gone off to rehearse, and I decided a walk down to the tide pools with my camera was a great idea.

“Once I had my fill of starfish and ocean spray I went to head back up, but the trail looked boring and the cliff looked — to me — to be very climbable. So I decided to try to ‘free solo’ this 70-foot cliff. Not smart.”

Halfway up, the rock she clung to was crumbling and falling apart.

“It seemed to be more difficult to back out of my situation than to attempt to motor forward, so  I did manage to get past what I thought was the worst of it. I had one last move to ‘summit’ this little cliff. I chose a hand hold that, initially, looked and felt very solid to pull myself up, but it snapped in two and down I went.”

Robin and Martha Robrhan in Yosemite, 2005 (photo: Bob Kaspar)

Robin’s face smashed into the cliff as she hit every part of her body on sharp rocks all the way down to the bottom.

“When the dust settled, my face was broken, my back was broken, my pelvis was shattered, four ribs were broken. I had a punctured lung, and a laceration that gave me a great view of the inner workings of my left forearm. I couldn’t move. I screamed for help for about an hour, not knowing if anyone was anywhere near, or if anyone could even hear me over the crashing waves.”

Remarkably, Robin says, she was lucky. A couple, out for an evening walk along the bluff, heard her yelling. The passerby popped his head over the cliff and yelled back that he saw her, and called for help.

“So after the helicopters, ambulances, Coast Guard and the marvelous team at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital Level II Trauma Center did their job, I found myself in ICU for close to a month. My lungs were so damaged I developed acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) and was very close to cashing it in. We discovered what was thought to be a hematoma was actually muscle that was ripped off my left hip all the way down to the top of my knee. I spent six months in a wheelchair.”

It was, indeed, life-changing.

“Nothing like narrowly surviving the cold grip of death to give one perspective,” Robin says succinctly.

“While I miss being as active as I used to be, I have tremendous appreciation for simply being here. I can still get on my horse Destry, with some help from a mounting block. He takes me almost anywhere I want to go. He is my legs, at least my good legs, and I am grateful he is my partner.”

Now Robin’s back in the saddle in more ways than one. The most recent series of Coolwater House Concerts has already brought luminaries to her living room including David Jacobs-Strain and Bob Beach, with Chris Proctor appearing on Saturday, Nov. 11. After a brief respite, the series returns with Beppe Gambetta. The concerts remain a labor of love.

“The hardest part about the concert series is simply getting butts in seats. While the concept of House Concerts is not a new one, many people do not know what to expect, or assume the artists are subpar. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have had an occasional Grammy winner, a few that have had their own night at Carnegie Hall, and a boatload of internationally respected composers and players that I am more than proud to have hosted.”

The best part of putting on one of the shows, Robin says, is when it’s actually happening.

Robin Ralston at Coolwater Ranch

“Nothing is better than fabulous live music,” she notes emphatically, “whether it is a spectacularly gifted instrumentalist like Chris Proctor, Peter Finger, or Pierre Bensusan, a classical musician like Michael Chapdelaine, or the sublime storytellers, like Dave Stamey, Gordon Bok or Cozy Sheridan.

“The best part about producing these shows is the night of a performance, when I know I’ve done all I can do to get an audience for the musician being showcased. I turn off the walk-in music, make a short introduction for the artist, and then I can just sit down and listen.”

Coolwater Ranch House Concert tickets are available for $20 each from Coarsegold Feed and Nursery and Oakhurst Feed, or online for $23. 100% of the donations to the artist. Reservations or passes are a must for these concerts as space is limited. Robin may be contacted by telephone at (559) 760-1134 or through e-mail at info@coolwaterconcerts.com.

House Concerts at Coolwater Ranch

Chris Proctor at Coolwater Ranch Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017

 

 

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