[Interview] Hot Tuna

Kaukonen and Casady refreshed and ready to play again after pandemic

Hot Tuna – Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady – return to town Dec. 9 to play Ludlow Garage for the first time. I’ve been lucky enough to talk to each of them multiple times over the years, including a chat with Kaukonen (who turns 81 this year) in early November. Normally, I would take our conversation, search for the best quotes, then try to craft a story. As I transcribed this tape, however, a couple of things came to mind. First, his answers were more interesting than my questions. Then I remembered reading an interview with Jason Isbell, who proposed just printing the interview verbatim instead of putting the writer’s spin on it. He wasn’t complaining, but merely proposing to reduce the buffer between artist and audience. Writers still influence the product by the questions they ask, but the Q&A format provides space for complete thoughts. Since I don’t have to squeeze the story into 500 to 600 words for publication, this seems like a perfect place to bring you a half-hour spent talking with a fascinating guy. We’ve also included the original audio of this interview, earlier stories that I wrote about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame members (Jefferson Airplane) who have turned their side project into a 50-year-plus second career, and the bulk of my first interview with Casady from 2012. I wrote a story from it, but that is lost in the ether.

2021 - Q & A with Jorma Kaukonen

Bill Thompson: Good morning, are you at home at Fur Peace Ranch (in southeastern Ohio)?
Jorma Kaukonen: I am.

BT: You spent quite a bit of time there over the past two years, didn’t you?
JK: I did. Obviously I miss working because I love to work. Also, when you work you get paid. I did spend more time with my family than I ever did in my entire life and we found that we still like each other.

BT: You have traditionally spent a big chunk of the year on the road, so what was the time like when you couldn’t leave the ranch to play? Did you get the itch to just take off?
JK: Of course, yes, of course. We did these quarantine concerts, which really saved us in a lot of ways. But it was such a different thing because I had a whole week to prepare for each show, because of course in my quote unquote “real life,” that never happens. Listen, you make the best of what you’ve got. All of us would have preferred that none of this happened, but since it did, me and my pals were really lucky. None of us got sick, we managed to make it through and now we’re starting to work again.

BT: Just a short digression here: How old is daughter Izze these days?
JK: Izze is 15, and on the 26th of December she will be eligible for her learner’s permit. I’m not as tall as I used to be, but she’s darn near as tall as I am. My son (Zachary Kaukonen-Kearse) is almost 25, and he owns his own house. You know, he’s a grown man.

BT: I recently saw a video of Izze singing Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” at the ranch with you and John Hurlbut. What a poised, beautiful young woman with a great voice she is today.
JK: She really is, but here’s the interesting thing: She has a lot of musical talent and you heard her, she has a woman’s voice, and she loves to do it, but I don’t think she has any desire to do it professionally. For some strange reason, her school grades are important to her. As a professional musician and a father, I’m conflicted by this (laughs).

BT: Talking about your buddies, how far back do you go with John Hurlbut, with whom you recorded two albums , “The River Flows, Volumes 1 and 2,” during the pandemic?
JK: Gosh, John and I have known each other for a good 40 years. I’m guessing that I met him probably in ’83.

BT: Would you have made those records if there wasn’t a pandemic to navigate?
JK: No, probably not. John and I talk about this. We play together for the lunch crowd here at the ranch and sometimes the dinner crowd and this and that. But to actually sit down and have the time to do this, the answer is probably not. So for us at the ranch, there were a lot of hidden blessings in the pandemic. Getting to record those two records is one of them.

BT: Does he enjoy his later-in-life turn in the spotlight?
JK: (Laughs) He’s such a funny guy. His hero in life is Yoda. He’s always working on his Yoda-like sensibilities. Yeah, you just never know. We’ve done gigs together … and this is interesting for me, too, because when we do gigs together, he’s the singer, he’s the frontman. Also, when he gets on stage, he likes to talk. So when we do gigs, I really am the sideman, I just sit there and play guitar. And you know something, it’s OK.

BT: Now you know how Jack (Casady) has felt for 50 years.
JK: Well, yes, but Jack talks. And I let Jack talk. But yes, I do know it’s something different. But I’ve said this before in interviews, to just be a contributing musician in a group – in this case me and John – and not have to take any responsibility for choosing songs or things like that, it’s a blessing, it really is. And considering I’m the frontman for my world all the time, to be able to step away from that and be in somebody else’s world, I really enjoy it.

BT: In that vein, you and Jack are featured prominently in the Teresa Williams and Larry Campbell documentary, “It Was the Music.” There seems to a real fondness among the four of you.
JK: We consider each other family. I guess I met Larry in the early 2000s, strangely enough we had never met before. But it was just one of those things when we felt like we had known each other our whole lives. And the same thing with Teresa. They are family to us, no question about it.

BT: They are regular visitors to the ranch, and their Woodstock neighbor, Justin Guip, is your drummer in Electric Hot Tuna. Is that how you met him?
JK: Yeah, I met Justin when he was running the studio for Levon (Helm) at the barn (at his Woodstock home). I recorded my “River of Time “ album in 2009, and he’s Larry’s production partner, too, so it’s funny because I didn’t even realize he played drums until we needed drums for one of the songs – “Well, Justin can play drums.” Then we recorded the Hot Tuna record, “Steady as She Goes,” there. Skoota Warner was our drummer at the time, but Skoota kind of went into semi-retirement. Larry said Justin’s a really good drummer. Now the funny thing is I don’t really audition people, I just get feelings about stuff, and I thought Justin would be great. And he is great. He and his family are family to us also.

BT: I first ran across him when he played here with Amy Helm, then he just popped up with lots of other people.
JK: Yeah, he’s great. Oh, and by the way, he’s a gourmet chef.

BT: Wow, I’m feeling a little inadequate at this point.
JK: No, all you need to feel is hungry. (Laughs)

BT: Have you ever thought about making Teresa and Larry part of your traveling road show?
JK: Yeah, we have worked together before. And I’m sure we will again because it’s really a marriage made in heaven. Larry and T have their own thing, absolutely. But look at a guy like Larry, who is so talented, and is a virtuoso with so many instruments, and where he lives musically is in classic country music. They’re just such interesting folks, so we get together whenever we can and I know we’re going to do it again. I hesitate to use the word incestuous, but you know what I mean.

BT: I read your book (“Been So Long: My Life & Music”) during the winter, and frankly was amazed (and impressed) by your unflinching honesty about how much of a jerk you were in your younger years, but also your awareness of it.
JK: Well, sometimes you just gotta face facts, you know? Back in the 2000s at some point, some company got interested in me doing a biography and they wanted me to have a co-writer. At that time, I hadn’t really thought about anything like that really, but when I looked at the project I realized they wanted me to tell stories about people who they considered to be more famous than me, and I wasn’t interested in that. So when I had a chance to do this for St. Martin’s Press … I’ve never written a book before, but I like writing. I mean, there’s a big difference between writing diaries and writing a book, but when I got into it, it became apparent to me immediately that if I was going to do this, I might as well tell the story and that’s that.

BT: It’s a great tale, and what sets it apart in a way is your love and appreciation of (your wife) Vanessa when the light went off in your head. What was it like recounting your life?
JK: Vanessa and I have talked about this, you know we have been married for 30-plus years. And to be honest with you I’m not sure I really understand how she was able to stay with me during the rough years, but the main thing is she did. We are really good partners, you know. For example, I was just walking the dog around the ranch today and the ranch looks unbelievable, we have all these buildings and all this stuff, and I would be playing the guitar no matter what happens, but I wouldn’t have any of this because that’s not what I do. She has the ability to put these things together, but she might not have had the  opportunity to do it without a guy like me, so we just really work well together. And in addition to everything else, she’s my best friend.

BT: Yep, that’s what really counts.
JK: And when we were doing the Quarantine Concerts and stuff, we would do a bunch of chatting, and people would complain about the chatting, I thought maybe you could get your money back … but wait a minute, you can’t get your money back because it’s free (laughs). What people saw with me and Vanessa, that’s what we are 24/7. That’s the deal.

BT: You talk a lot about growing up in Washington in the book. My daughter has lived there for 12 years or so and thoroughly enjoys everything the city has to offer. Do you have a favorite or secret place or event or memory that I could tell her to investigate?
JK: Washington is my hometown, there’s no question about that even though I traveled around a lot as a kid, Washington is my home town. But it has changed so much since I was a kid. I know this is really stupid to say since I’ve been out of high school for more than 60 years, but when you think about it, I grew up near the Maryland state line near Chevy Chase Circle. I was on the DC side of the line, but back in those days when the weather was good or school was out or something, my mom would pack a lunch and I would get on my bike and go to Rock Creek Park. And she said be home for dinner. If I lived there today with kids with young kids, you would never let them do that … ever. It’s just a different world.

I would hop on the trolley – we had trolleys back then – I’d go down to the Smithsonian … I guess my locus, my most positive memory for DC would be the Smithsonian. I grew up going to that museum from being a youngster and when I have time when I go back as the old coot as I am today, I still like to go to the Aerospace Museum.

People ask if I would ever live in DC (again), and no I never would, but I do love to visit, I agree with you. It’s just a very inviting place to visit.

BT: Without being morbid about it, you, Jack and Grace Slick are the last ones standing from the core of Jefferson Airplane. You and Jack are still playing, so I wonder if you check in with Grace on occasion to say hello and see how she’s doing?
JK: That’s us, that’s a fact. And I do, I do check in with Grace. Jack and Grace both live in L.A., so he visits her periodically and I called for her birthday recently (she turned 82 on Oct. 30), although she didn’t call me back (shaming voice). Grace doesn’t do any digital stuff at all. I know she has a website, but she has nothing to do with it whatsoever. So if she doesn’t answer the phone, all you can do is leave a message. Before the pandemic, we have a management company that handles royalties and stuff like that, so we got together for dinner and I got to see her. One of the things before we did that, I called her and said, “You know, Grace, I don’t think I ever told you this, but it was such an honor to play music with you back when we were young. (To play) with an artist of your caliber.” I had never said that and I just needed to say that because it’s true. Grace is one of the great voices of my time, maybe of a lot of times. Because we still talk on a fairly regular basis, every once in a while she’ll get a wild hair and she’ll call me or something like that. Grace never had any verbal boundaries and she still doesn’t, she never lets us down.

BT: It must be wonderful to have a friend like that where you don’t have to play catch-up, you can just jump right in from where you left off the last time.
JK: Absolutely, just jump right in.

BT: I’ve also talked to Jack a couple of times when you came through town, the last time being when you played with the Tedeschi Trucks Band. That was great because after you opened the show, the Wood Brothers came on stage and the first thing they did is start talking about “Jack and Jorma are OGs (Original Gangstas), they might look older, they might have gray hair, but they are still kickin’ ass.” I thought that must feel good to hear.
JK: And I love the Wood Brothers, too. And speaking of family, I just love Susan and Derek. They invited me to guest with them at the Beacon (Theater) in New York a couple of weeks ago. You know, it’s the best. To be able to dance in their world periodically … I got to play “Don’t Think Twice” with Susan and then Derek, Susan and I jammed on a blues (song). Susan is so bad ass in every respect. When we were on that tour that you saw in Cincinnati, she would occasionally iron my shirts for me.

BT: I talked to her once, and she had an aunt who lived in Cincinnati. She lived in Boston but used to spend time in the summer here, so next time you see her, you can call her one of your Ohio homies as well.
JK: I will. And my grandparents, my grandfather worked for the public health service in Cincinnati in the early ’50s. And I got my first earring at the JCC (Jewish Community Center) swimming pool in Cincinnati.

BT: Anyway, I wanted to finish by talking about Jack for a moment. He’s a quiet and private man, but in addition to being one of the world’s best bass players, he is smart, funny, witty and delightful. I just wish that the public had the chance to see more of that side of him.
JK: Funny you should mention that because Jack just drove into town today. We have a Hot Tuna show at the ranch in two weeks and we have a show in Lancaster this weekend and we have to rehears for that. So here’s the thing about Jack: If you and me and him were doing an interview, it would be an easy gig for me because he would never shut up!

When he starts talking … and you’re right, he’s really smart and … if I were an interviewer, I would love to interview him because he’s fun to get going. He has opinions on everything and he’s a smart guy. You know the deal with him, you open the door and you’re not closing it.

Listen to Bill’s conversation with Jorma:

2017 - Concert Preview

Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen of Hot Tuna could have kicked back this summer, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, when flower power and hippies ignited America’s culture shock on the streets of San Francisco.

Instead, the Jefferson Airplane alumni, who were an integral part of the period’s soundtrack, have joined the much younger members of the Tedeschi Trucks Band and the Wood Brothers on the Wheels of Soul tour.

“Art and music should have no bounds like that,” says Casady, the bass guitar savant and whippersnapper of the two at 73, talking about the multi-generational lineup. “It should not be attached to when you graduated from high school. It should not be the soundtrack to that. That’s not how we approach our music.

“We’re not performing a set to a nostalgic period of time or a rigid format. The idea is to respond to other people playing in the environment of the music they make. That’s what we look forward to. It’s not a battle of the bands.”

For Casady and guitar virtuoso Kaukonen, who is 76, music is a collaboration, not a competition. There are multiple configurations under the Hot Tuna umbrella, with the pair the only constant. As Electric Hot Tuna this month, they are joined by Justin Guip on drums. Even that, though, makes Casady smile. “It’s funny, playing so-called electric. We put two sets of amplifiers on stage, then add one acoustic instrument, drums.”

Casady has a delightfully dry sense of humor that enables him to see the “nonsense” – large and small – in the world. The one regret is that his wife Diana, who died in 2012, isn’t around to share it.

“There’s no easy answer. I never stop talking to her. It’s been more than four years and you still wake up in the middle of the night, literally in a cold sweat, and realize you’re on your own.”

Casady might not share his home with anyone, but he’s hardly alone. He splits time between Los Angeles and the Channel Island of Jersey off the northwest coast of France, where his father-in-law lived before he passed away in 2011. He built a home studio to work on different projects, plus he plays and teaches at Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch in southeastern Ohio.

“We’re lucky. We get to do this. Yes, it’s work, and yes, the travel can be tough,” Casady says. “But I’m not looking to set up a stage where everybody has to come to me. Part of the interchange between me and the audience is the fact that I’ve made the effort to come to them.

“We are booked in Italy, we haven’t played there in a long time. And we’re going to travel in a van with a couple of seats facing each other. We’ll travel about 300 miles a day and do 12 shows in 15 days. That’s the way it has to be done.”

Fifty years on, and the old guys are still showing the young ones the way it has to be done.

2016 - Concert Preview

The year is not four months old, but it has been eventful in the world of Hot Tuna.

Guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bass player Jack Casady and their Jefferson Airplane bandmates were honored with a Lifetime Achievement award at the Grammys in February. Unfortunately that celebration followed the deaths of guitarist Paul Kantner and original singer Signe Anderson, who died on the same day, Jan. 28.

“The saddest thing is it’s just the way it is,” says Kaukonen. “I knew that Paul wasn’t in the greatest of health, but you think that you and your friends are going to live forever. And I knew that Signe (who was replaced by Grace Slick after the band’s debut album in 1966) was ill because we talked. Still, she beat it before and I thought maybe she would beat it again.

“I guess at some point we all have to die, so if that’s the case, I presume I won’t be any different.”

That won’t be from a lack of effort, however. The 75-year-old proprietor of the Fur Peace Ranch in Pomeroy, Ohio, says that 2015 was his busiest year ever. That includes touring solo, as a duo with Casady, in other Tuna configurations both acoustic and electric, and as a teacher and performer with friends who visit the facility near Athens to lead classes and play concerts.

Oh, yeah, he also has a 9-year-old daughter (Izze) at home and an 18-year-old son (Zachary) who lives in Virginia. So while taking time to pay tribute to lost friends – including Dan Hicks whom Kaukonen credits with creating the San Francisco music scene of the mid-1960s with the Charlatans – he takes a different tack.

“How about getting old and living?”

Although that might sound flip, it is anything but. No one appreciates his good fortune as much as the man with Russian-Finnish heritage. “My doctor says, ‘Jorma, you owe your mother (who died at 88) and father (86) a huge debt of gratitude for your genetics.’ There’s obviously stuff that I can’t do that I used to, but that’s OK.

“I’m just tickled that we’re still here to have this conversation. I still love music, I enjoy my family.”

That’s why there is no false modesty when Kaukonen talks about the Grammy recognition.

“The bottom line is to get recognized is really an honor,” he says. “Who would have ever thought the Jefferson Airplane, Run-D.M.C. and Grammy would be in the same sentence? That’s hilarious, but what an honor.”

Honors have to be earned and the price for Kaukonen’s is time spent away from home. But that is the only life that Izze has known, and her dad believes it’s a learning opportunity.

“I was talking to her and said, ‘Sweetie, in a lot of ways I’m sorry that I don’t get to spend more time with you,’ ” he says. “But to still be involved with what I love to do at the same level, I’m just so blessed.

“I tell them both that I hope they find something that they love passionately. And if you can make a living at it, it doesn’t get better than that.”

During their days as rocks star with the Airplane 50 years ago, Kaukonen and Casady would retreat to hotel rooms to play old blues and folk tunes. Even they are probably surprised that Hot Tuna has survived as long as it has.

Maybe it will live forever.

2012 - Concert Preview

Like many Americans, Jorma Kaukonen is thankful to have a job these days.

He is even more thankful that it is the same job he has had for more than 50 years

It might be hard to imagine, but Kaukonen, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame guitarist with the Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna, will turn 72 in December. He has a young daughter and a teenage son, plays more than 200 dates each year with different musicians and runs the Fur Peace Ranch in Pomeroy, Ohio, where people flock for guitar lessons.

“For better or worse, as you probably know, self-employed people don’t get days off,” Kaukonen laughs as he prepared to play in Carson City, Nev., recently. “But I’ll be home next week, and I have a 6-year-old daughter and we’ll be together then, but she doesn’t know any different and that’s the way it is.”

Little Izze Kaukonen might not know any different, but her father has not only seen the world, he has helped shape a part of it in his own way. While he a key member of San Francisco’s psychedelic music scene with the Airplane, when the amps were put away for the night, Kaukonen would sit with Jack Casady, his bass playing bandmate, and play acoustic tunes, most notably those of the Rev. Gary Davis, for hours on end.

The Washington, D.C., native left the West Coast in the mid 1980s, and despite having lived there for more than 20 years, has a different perception when he returns to play.

“In some ways, San Francisco was never really home to me,” he says. “I’ve been out of (there) as a dweller for long enough that now it’s a charming place when I go as a tourist, see and do stuff that I never would have done when I lived there.

“Back in the ’60s, we were so full of ourselves … I wouldn’t go to Fisherman’s Wharf or any of that stuff. Doing tourist things would have been beneath the importance of my existence.”

Kaukonen laughs like a man who no longer takes himself too seriously. Experience will do that if you’re wise enough to learn along the way. The arrogance of youth is replaced by the gratitude of longevity.

“I was just at the Love for Levon (Helm) benefit,” Kaukonen says. “John Hiatt was there; John Prine, we shared a dressing room, there were literally dozens of people like that. And the good news for all of us is that we are able to do what we love.

“Now Tommy Emmanuel, the great guitar player, told me that one of the things that Chet Atkins told him before he passed away was take care of yourself because if something happens that you can’t do what you love, it’s going to really feel miserable. And we’re all here doing it, so we’re not miserable.”

Kaukonen takes care of himself (“Lots of naps,” he says) and believes he’s blessed with good genetics as well. He also learned an important lesson from his father.

“I’ve told this story many, many times,” he says. “My father retired when he was 61 or 62; he worked for the government, he loved his job. He wasn’t one of those guys who was looking to retire. When he was out of the government – he was in the foreign service, he traveled around – he could no longer do what it was that he wanted to do.

“And he sort of spent the rest of his life, in some respects, at loose ends, trying to find that something again. I don’t know if he did or he didn’t, my take is he didn’t. But the good news for those of us who do this, in some way we can stay connected to this for our whole lives.”

“This” is the drug of choice for Kaukonen and his contemporaries: music. It’s why the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones celebrated their 50th anniversary as bands this year. It’s why Willie Nelson is on the bus at age 79. It’s probably why Bob Dylan plays as many gigs each year as Kaukonen does, but who really knows why Dylan does anything?

Sunday will be Kaukonen’s second trip to town this year; the acoustic Hot Tuna lineup played here in March. One of the striking aspects of that show was how much Kaukonen, Casady and Barry Mitterhoff seemed to enjoy themselves.

“That’s because it is great fun,” Kaukonen says, talking about being on stage. “As the great Roy Book Binder always says about gigs and stuff like that: ‘I get to play the guitar and talk about myself all night. What could be better?’ ”

2012 - Q & A with Jack Casady

Bill Thompton: Hi Jack, it’s Bill Thompson from the Cincinnati Enquirer.
Jack Casady: You know, I used to have a manager called Bill Thompson. All I got to say is, it’s a small world. He is a good guy, he’s still up in San Francisco. He’s still involved with us with the website and the entity as it were. He’s a good guy.

BT: I’m sorry I had to change the time of the interview, and thanks for accommodating me.
JC: You pushed this up, so I know you have a schedule. In modern times they can get hold of us 24 hours a day. Our time is budgeted by our iPhones.

BT: Technology was supposed to help us relax a bit.
JC: You’re working harder than you ever have in your life. You pick it (phone, computer, etc.) up and you can’t hide anywhere. Old guys used to sneak off and just sit and do nothing, in a quiet bliss of not even remembering half of their life that has gone by. Nowadays it’s all in a pile somewhere, for somebody to remind you what you did and what you’re going to do.

BT: This tour looks like a bunch of 30-year-olds jumping in a van and taking off.
JC: We’re so old, we didn’t jump in a van, we jumped in an LTD.

We have a very nice bus, we lease a bus for particular tours, and believe me, us old guys need these nice mattresses. We’re working musicians. We’ve sold some records, but believe me we’re working because we love to play; don’t get me wrong, we just love to play and the nature of what we do is live music. This latest album – you’ll love this segue – that we made in the studio, I happen to love going into the studio and working in that environment. It’s almost like making a movie, a specific entity.

But the real test of a musician and the real interplay involves your daily life, the life of a musician, is the playing in front of people. That’s what you do, you sign on to that if you’re going to do that, and those that bitch and moan about it should find another job.

Jorma and I have talked about it. We wanted to play music and be musicians, not rock stars. In my day, there was only a few: an Elvis Presley or in the blues there was Big Joe Turner and there was Little Richard and people that were bigger than life … Chuck Berry, people like that, who had a lot of bigness in that time. But it was like the rock world, you didn’t see that stadium stuff until later on. I can’t really look at that and find it inspiring. What I found inspiring was listening with my eyes closed to all these great musicians, from jazz to folk to classical to rhythm & blues and all the genres that inspired me to be a musician.

So what I feel fortunate about today is that I’m not a so-called rock musician, but I can indulge myself in the musical interplay of the kinds of music that Jorma and I play and that affords me the opportunity to work on the details of my craft. That’s the important thing for us. It’s not about going out every night and just stringing together a set list. So we’re getting to start our annual “Find the Worst Weather in the United States Hot Tuna Tour” and play there.

We’ll do our last acoustic show on this run in your neck of the woods. In the acoustic format, it’s really interesting because we get to pull from all kinds of genres. That’s really how Jorma and I started Hot Tuna. We started out just playing a lot together, in hotel rooms, he would play his acoustic guitar, finger-picking style, and finding various material that translated itself well to a bass and guitar combo. And now, with Barry Mitterhoff, it’s just really exciting stuff to play.

BT: Do you like Acoustic Hot Tuna and Electric Hot Tuna equally?
JC: Absolutely. You know I do one for a long time, do the electric, play the electric for a long time then I want to get back into the acoustic. They are different dynamic functions. You get to pull different parts, not only of your repertoire, but parts of your dynamic range and your abilities on your instrument. You get to put those into use with the different formats. So it’s a lot of fun. I feel very fortunate.

BT: You have received the Lifetime Achievement award from Bass Player magazine and now spend time at Fur Peace Ranch teaching whippersnappers how to play bass.
JC: Some of those whippersnappers are older than me, if you can believe it. I’ve been involved in (the ranch) since its inception. Jorma and our manager and owner of the ranch, Vanessa Kaukonen, they put that idea together from an empty field to a beautiful, absolutely wonderfully run facility to create an environment to learn and play and teach music. It’s just great, I go there every year. At the end of this acoustic run, as a matter of fact, we will drive right down and start a teaching weekend.

BT: People of a generation who have worked their entire life who are now indulging their passion for the music.
JC: It’s never too late to learn. The guitar just sits there waiting for you to learn to play. It is very patient. It’s a matter of the opportunity and the desire, some good old repetition to get a concept, learn the concept and put it into practice. Then you get a result that makes you smile. Our job as teachers is to put those essentials across, and at various class levels to assess your capabilities and work to shore up weak points and  put you on a path that will inspire you to go out and learn on your own. You keep pecking away at it and you’ll come up with some songs that maybe you will like.

BT: Thanks for providing a peek behind the curtain.
JC: By all means. These are the kinds of things that inspired me as a 12-year-old. Even as a 3-year-old or a 4-year-old, I was at the radio listening to these orchestra works and folk songs and it opened up a whole fantasy world to me. I tried to imagine what (the musicians) looked like, how they were playing. I listened to Jelly Roll Morton records and wondered about New Orleans, the part of New Orleans called Storyville where all these happenings were going on. I knew something was going on, I didn’t know quite what it was; later on I got a little better idea. There was that mystery involved with it, particularly when you’re seeking out like that. I would say now that the greatest thing about the Internet is your ability to search a whole world for interesting music and really delve into different cultures that will broaden your horizons.

BT: Would the availability of the Internet have taken away some of the mystery that intrigued you as a youngster?
JC: No, we’re talking about audio here, not video. What I used to do was take the No. 12 bus (in Washington, D.C.) and go down to the Library of Congress, sign in as a 12-, 13-, 14-, 15-, 16-year old and I would go in there and pull out Alan Lomax recordings of the rainforest pygmies. All kind of things like that. I would listen to music from all over the world because I had the Library of Congress. Now everybody didn’t have that. You would sign out a 78 (rpm record), go into a booth, put it on a turntable and play it. That’s what I did through all those years to hear different kinds of music.

Today, your access is really just phenomenal. And if anything, it increases some of that mystery. I’m not necessarily talking about commercial pop videos, but there’s still plenty of mystery because of the music and the languages and the singers, about how they phrase and the subject matter that they talk about. There are certain central themes there that are universal. But there’s plenty of mystery out there, believe me.

BT: When people talk to you, are they more interested in Haight Ashbury 1965 or what you’re doing now?
JC: It’s fascinating. There’s a lot of very young interviewers that connect through college radio stations, and they go on the Internet and, if they’re a little less creative, they just rattle off what they’ve read. Others are very curious about it and ask open and honest questions. That’s fascinating to me because it gets past the circus image they have. You run into really interesting, intelligent and curious young people all the time.

BT: It’s inspiring to see what you’re doing these days.
JC: The guys that inspired me … I would go to the Lisner Auditorium in D.C. to see (classical guitarist Andres) Segovia. Now to me, he was a really old guy, he was in his 40s. What’s interesting is that in the classical music world, you can play right up until you’re at death’s door so to speak. You’re expected to get better as you get older. You’re expected to be better in many ways in your 80s that you are in your 60s, and in your 60s than you were in your 40s. You may not be as fast or as aggressive, but you are expected to bring the other things you’ve learned in life to the table of your performance.  It’s only in the rock ’n’ roll world you’re supposed to die before you’re 30 to get some sort of signature recognition.

In the bluegrass world, all the players like Earl Scruggs that kept playing through their careers getting better and better. That’s what you looked at, those were my heroes; jazz folks and in the classical world. So let’s just say that the time on stage is the most precious time we’ve had in that 24 hours. The 22 hours it took to get there, those two hours mean a lot to us, and we respect those two hours and the audience that has come to hear us.


Each week, Bob Hust and Bill Thompson feature the best songs – old and new – from artists they have loved for many years and others they have just discovered. The best songs transport people to a time and place. That’s the foundation of BS&B.

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