Karen Bennett still remembers that sad childhood good-bye, watching her parents pack up for a move to Los Angeles, and driving away from the home she loved in North Fork.
"I didn't want to leave," Bennett recalls. "I was praying some day I would come back, and we did, 15 years later."
While Bennett and her father moved back "home" to stay in the late 90s, there was something big in her life that she hadn't brought back with her.
After a lifetime on stage as a professional drummer, touring the country and overseas, performing for some of the world's most famous entertainers including Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Stewart, Bennett came back to the Mountain Area and "retired" from band life.
Or so she thought.
In May, her retirement was broken with her first area performance at the North Fork Logger's Jamboree kick-off dinner and dance -- coincidentally held in the North Fork Elementary School gym, where she first learned to play drums.
She and three other area musicians started "Wildwood Blues," with their second Oakhurst performance to be held 8 p.m. Saturday at Mountain Mayhem in Oakhurst for a $3 cover, and free for children 16 and younger.
Bennett described her inspiration for joining the band as a combination of serendipity -- meeting the perfect people at the perfect time -- and her "protege" music student going off to college recently.
"It made me think about how long I've been teaching music," Bennett said. "And people up here have been pushing me, 'We want to see you, we want to see you play.'"
Bennett's big break was in the 1970s, chosen as the drummer of the all-women revue group "The Mademoiselles" at age 14, performing at many movie premiers and on television shows.
After the group broke up four and a half years later, Bennett later joined Los Angeles band Carnival of Souls.
"Karen really knew her instrument and knew how to play," said former band member Thair Peterson. "She came into the band with all these sophisticated musical devices. She knew how to do all the classical drum techniques ... When we were playing in Carnival of Souls, we were reviewed by the Los Angeles Times and they called us 'air tight.' You can not be called air tight unless you have a good drummer."
Along with glowing praise from the Los Angeles Times, Bennett still fondly recalls a compliment about her drumming from a band member of "KISS."
While Bennett can make playing the drums look effortless, it hasn't always been so easy -- especially as a woman in her younger years.
"I hate to say this, but it's still a man's business," Bennett said of playing the drums. "You don't see too many women as drummers. Even with Vic Firth, some of these big wigs, they've been rude to me too."
Yet Bennett never let that judgment keep her from her passion and talent, what she describes as "genetic." Her mother also played drums in high school, what she learned some years after she took up her own set of sticks. Today, Karen's daughter Karie Hambrick of Illinois is also a natural-born performer -- an actress and burlesque dancer who likes to play base guitar.
"Sometimes I think of her as an angel or a fairy with her long hair," says Karie of her mother fondly, recalling all her mom's encouragement and support over the years to develop her creativity and do what makes her happy. "My mom ... She's funny, very caring and a happy-go-lucky kind of person. It's rare when you see her down. She's very positive, she's religious, Christian/Catholic, and we pray together. That's also been a positive, big influence in my life. She's wonderful."
Bennett teaches drums much in the same way she was taught by her North Fork Elementary School band teacher Mrs. Hoskins -- an education which includes 40 "rudiments" -- all styles of playing -- and reading drum sheet music.
"What I like about Karen is she's really patient and really easy to work with and shows you exactly what you need to know," said longtime former student Ryan McCourt, a 2011 Yosemite High School graduate who is now attending Azusa Pacific University. "She's pretty old school, which is pretty cool, but will incorporate new stuff. She covers everything -- jazz, rock, funk.
"Karen was always very optimistic, always, 'I love you guys,' and, 'We did great,'" Peterson said, who also played with her in the band, "United States." "Whatever band she was in, she always had high hopes for it, which was nice because some musicians can be very doomy gloomy. And if you want a drummer, you want Karen ... She's definitely the best drummer I've ever played with on a regular basis."
As a young girl, Bennett was forced to take piano lessons from nuns before she was given the choice to pick her own instrument at age 10.
"I think there was a real feeling of freedom playing the drums," Bennett recalls. "As soon as I got home, that's what I wanted to do once I finished my homework."
She now looks forward to playing drums with Wildwood Blues and becoming "Oakhurst's own" after work as a home care provider in the Mountain Area.
Bennett is full of praise for her new band members. Bragging about North Fork guitarist Pat McGaughy, who played in the club circuit around Lake Tahoe for 30 years; and Coarsegold bass guitarist Dave Klatt, who's performed with many Mountain Area groups over the years -- Bennett is especially proud of Kristina Marie McCarty, their lead vocalist who was complemented for her incredible voice by American Idol judges in 2007.
"I've met some well-adept musicians, and Christina is the best singer I've ever been in a band with my whole life," Bennett said. "When we played at Mountain Mayhem the first time last Saturday, a man in the audience told us she was so good, all the hair on his body stood up."
"Drums always get you moving," said Karie of watching her mom play. "I've always liked that part ... The rhythm section ... music is good, it's entertainment and we need entertainment, especially when times are tough. We need to smile and laugh and dance, and that's something my mom has always encouraged. Smiling and laughing and dancing and creating."