The Ballad of Sleepy John: An Americana original and master show promoter leaves the stage

"Sleepy John" Sandidge in front of Santa Cruz High School
“Sleepy John” Sandidge is retiring from his perch at Snazzy Productions after his big “Locals Only” music festival this weekend at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Santa Cruz continues to be an unlikely outpost for the rich Americana sound that Sleepy John Sandidge made possible. This weekend, he leaves the stage with a “Locals Only” mini music festival at the county fairgrounds.

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Back in the 1990s, when I was regularly interviewing musical performers visiting Santa Cruz for a Snazzy Productions show, I heard several variations on the same theme. It went something like this:

“It’s weird, but Santa Cruz is really the only place I [or we] have a big audience [pick one: in California, on the West Coast, outside of Texas].”

By then, Snazzy — under the direction of radio personality and veteran show promoter “Sleepy John” Sandidge — had already developed its brand, not only through its live concerts but with Sandidge’s live-music Sunday morning radio show on KPIG (107.5 FM). Today, it’s often referred to as “Americana,” but 30 years ago, the music Sandidge was bringing to town didn’t have a snappy name like that. It was country music, sure, but not the slick, prettified country music that was then enjoying boom times again in Nashville. It was folk music, too, but it was much more greasy and gritty than the clarion voice of Joan Baez singing about the Civil War. More often than not, it was rooted in or related to Texas and it often carried that state’s unmistakable sense of plain-spoken charm. It wasn’t Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, exactly; those guys were big stars, much too famous for Snazzy’s reach. But it was the legions of artists who thrived in the world those outlaw-country superstars created. It was Robert Earl Keen, Jesse Winchester, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Marcia Ball, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Guy Clark.

Santa Cruz continues to be an unlikely outpost for the rich Americana sound, but this weekend marks an end to a glorious era. Sleepy John is leaving the stage.

After more than 40 years of producing shows in Santa Cruz, Sandidge is retiring (but only from presenting concerts; he’ll continue to host the Sunday morning “Please Stand By” show on KPIG).

On Saturday and Sunday at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds, Sandidge goes out with a bang with “Locals Only,” a mini music festival starring several of the Santa Cruz-based musical acts that Sandidge has promoted and supported over the years.

Saturday’s lineup includes rising young star Mira Goto and her band, the Te Hau Nui School of Hula and Tahitian Dance performers, country/folk band Sharon Allen & Dusty Boots, Bonny June & Bonfire, Bean Creek, Patti Maxine & Christie McCarthy, and Hank & Ella with the Fine Country Band. On Sunday, the show includes the popular duo Keith Greeninger & Dayan Kai, the bluegrass sensations AJ Lee & Blue Summit, the Country/western band Carolyn Sills Combo, along with Alex Lucero & Live Again, Space Heater, Michael Gaither, RosaAzul, Ginny Mitchell, and the Coffis Brothers.

Late KPIG station manager Laura Ellen Hopper (left) and John Sandidge
Late KPIG station manager Laura Ellen Hopper (left) and John Sandidge were two principal figures in establishing the “Americana” style to describe a certain brand of country-folk music.

Sandidge, 82, has been producing shows for more than 40 years, mostly at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center, but at many other local venues as well. Along with the late Laura Ellen Hopper, the station manager and visionary behind KPIG, Sandidge helped establish Americana as a popular genre. He was instrumental in helping once-obscure artists like Paul Thorn, Fred Eaglesmith and Todd Snider gain a foothold in the business, and he helped once-notable stars attain a career second wind. With KPIG building a format around it and Snazzy putting on a couple of dozen shows a year or more, Americana music has a broad audience base in Santa Cruz. And Sandidge, with his Snazzy team that includes his ex-wife, Pat Sandidge, stands at the center of that community.

Sandidge himself is unclear on exactly when the first Snazzy show took place, but he’s sure it was in the late 1970s. He had moved to Santa Cruz several years before — he’s a native Angeleno. An L.A. acquaintance called him up to ask him to help her produce a fundraiser for Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers starring David Crosby. From there, he helped put together a number of big-name shows in town — Willie Nelson, Jackson Browne, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Bonnie Raitt and the Grateful Dead.

A historic group photo of luminary Santa Cruz musicians, brought together to honor the retiring “Sleepy John” Sandidge,...

In those shows, Sandidge was a contributor in a larger organization and, increasingly, he wanted to do his own thing. “I didn’t want to do these big shows anymore,” he said. “It was a lot of work. And big busloads of ego that was hard to deal with. That was mostly from the people around the (big-name performers), people who worked for them who thought they were big deals.”

After bringing in such second-tier performers as Riders in the Sky and Jesse Winchester, Sandidge got involved with local radio, first at KAZU in Pacific Grove, then at KPIG. Soon, he established the “General Feed & Seed Live Music Show,” a live Sunday-morning radio show. And he began bringing in artists on repeat visits, creating a devoted local following for distinctly Texas acts, particularly Robert Earl Keen and the Austin Lounge Lizards.

John Sandidge with Ranger Doug (left) of Riders In the Sky.
The comic ersatz cowboy combo Riders In the Sky were one of Snazzy Production’s most popular acts for years, allowing John Sandidge to form a strong friendship with the band’s guitarist and frontman, Ranger Doug (left).

Sandidge himself embodied what locals came to know as “Pig Nation,” in reference to the core listeners of KPIG, itself an industry leader in promoting Americana. For many out-of-town performers, a Saturday night show was often followed by a Sunday morning radio appearance. Often, Sandidge hosted performers at his Happy Valley home, right near the Mystery Spot. Over the course of decades, memorable performances and memorable encounters made for lasting relationships. Many performers remain dear friends to Sandidge and his partner, Betty, to this day. Others have drifted away for a myriad of reasons. But Sleepy John has his stories of great performances and not-so-great experiences, telling the story of informing a well-known Texas singer-songwriter that he was too intoxicated on booze and coke to perform.

Sandidge is stepping off the concert-producing carousel for a number of reasons. One, at 82, he thinks it’s time to take a break. But mostly, the concert business has changed dramatically, and he’s been feeling the squeeze. Government grants associated with the pandemic allowed him to continue producing shows until now. Otherwise, he said, he would have stopped a few years ago.

“I can’t make money anymore,” he said. “It’s much tighter now, because the bands have to charge more money because of the costs of getting here and all the expenses and, you know, ticket prices can only go so high.”

A poster announcing John Sandidge as a music presenter at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville in 2018.
It all came full circle for John Sandidge as a music presenter when he was invited to be the guest host at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville in 2018.

Acts that were once reliably Snazzy acts now come to town courtesy of corporate promoters and others. Other dependable acts have retired from the stage themselves.

Sleepy John Sandidge said he harbors no ill will about the changes in his business that have pretty much eclipsed him. Instead, he’s thankful for all the many experiences and relationships. A 2018 invitation to guest-host the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville provided a kind of capstone to an amazing career of bringing many local people a lot of joy and meaning through music they otherwise might never have heard.

On the bridge overlooking Branciforte Creek, which runs directly in front of his house, he reminisces about the early days of producing big-name acts and feeling “like I was way over my head” and mentions Guy Clark’s “The Cape” — a song about a boy who jumps off the roof with faith that his cape will keep him aloft — as the song that best captures his life.

All these years the people said
He’s actin’ like a kid
He did not know he could not fly
So he did

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