Jorma Kaukonen: Blue Country Heart
Jorma Kaukonen is best known for his days as lead guitarist for Jefferson Airplane and for fronting the sometimes acoustic/sometimes electric country-blues band Hot Tuna for the past 30 years. Of late, aside from playing with Jack Casady in acoustic Hot Tuna, Jorma has been running his Fur Peace Ranch guitar camp. More recently Jorma has been signed to Columbia Records and has recorded a “roots” album called “Blue Country Heart” which finds him teaming up with some of country music’s finest players. What follows is an interview with Kaukonen which took place by phone from his home in Ohio. As you’ll see Jorma was as articulate friendly and funny as ever to the point where he even got the first question in
J.K.- What do you think of the new album?
M.S.- I like it a lot.
J.K.- It’s a good one, I think. It’s been a while since we last talked. What can I tell you?
M.S. Again, I really like the new album. In many ways it is different from what you have done before. What made you want to do this and how did it come about?
J.K.- This is a great storyof course any story I tell is a great story (laughs). It’s a great story because some of these people of my musical generation and I don’t need to name any names or fill in the blanks, but they have always complained about major record companies and how they screwed you and how they made you do this and that, and that they didn’t do this.
Well, the A&R guy for Columbia, this French fellow Yves Vouvais is a friend of Diane’s (Jorma’s publicist) and he came to see me a few years ago at BB King’s place when I played a solo show. We started talking and he liked what I did and he said if you can do a dream project what would it be? And I said I would like to go to Nashville. I would like to record an album with Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and Byron House. He said, “Really, what kind of material would you do?” I said I would do the stuff from the 20s and 30s and maybe get into the 40s. He said, “Okay.”
Then I didn’t hear from him in a while and the next thing I know he calls me up. He had been with Atlantic and he had moved over to Columbia, and he said he wanted to talk to me about this thing. He said, “Is it still your dream project?” and I said yes. And then he burned a couple of hundred hours worth of songs for me to listen to. I sifted through songs for a year and a half to find songs to record. Every one of them was great. I have always liked that kind of music. I’m not a bluegrass musician but I started out playing music in that world. I started out playing old timey music and I really liked it. It was just such a great opportunity. I’m a huge country music fan and have always been. It was a great chance to get to do this. The guys sing harmony too. How about that! I can’t do that.
M.S.- Actually I thought your vocals on this album were extremely good.
J.K.- Thank you. We cut everything live. It was just all of sitting around playing. It is direct stream digital. I doubt that the copy they gave you is SACD but when it comes out it is going to be in that SA stereo proprietary Sony format. Yes, you’ll have to buy another machine to play it which means most people will not hear it in SA format, you can, of course play in any of the other formats. Anyway, we just sat around and played. 16 songs in four days cut live.
M.S.- So you have stuff left over that you didn’t use?
J.K.- Yes we do.
M.S.- I assume you knew all these players before this?
J.K.- Well, I know Sam and Byron pretty well and I have met Jerry and I am a huge fan of Jerry’s but we got to know each other through the course of the project. It was fantastic. They are funny guys. They are fun to hang out with and they play great. I hate to gush, but truly it doesn’t get much better than that.
M.S.- Are you like everyone else and surprised that a major label would put something out like this?
J.K.- Yes, I am.
M.S.- All of a sudden the majors are getting savvy to good music again.
J.K.- It’s funny, when I was in a meeting in New York in the Sony building; at Columbia they have these like full size pictures of Billie Holliday, Bob Dylan and the whole gang. Even though they have wandered from this tradition over the years from time to time when you think about it they really have a tradition of having some great people on the label.
M.S.- Even the classic Robert Johnson recordings were released on Columbia.
J.K.- Yes, they were.
M.S.- Is there a possibility of doing any shows with these guys?
J.K.- Well, we are putting together a tour right now. I am going to be able to do some dates with Sam and the boys but they are hugely busy. Of course, my real dream situation would be, “Come on guys you are going to be in a band” but it doesn’t work like this. The good news is about people that play this kind of music in order to play bluegrass or whatever you want to call this kind of music; you have to be really good. Some people are better known than others so I’m going to have a road band, I have already got Sally Van Meter, and she is going to play dobro. She is just the best. We had her at the camp just a few weeks ago. We are working on getting a bass player and some kind of utility player that plays maybe mandolin and banjo or fiddle. We have to settle on that, but Sally is definitely on board.
M.S.- It’s funny you keep sort of referring to it as a kind of bluegrass record but get stuck because it really isn’t. I hear country, blues, jazz and bluegrass
J.K.- You are absolutely right. Here’s the thing bluegrass music in opinion, and I am not an expert, is a very rigid art form and you know if there are certain things that you don’t do you are not really playing bluegrass. I am not a bluegrass musician and when these guys play with me we don’t really play bluegrass. It has that flavor, but I don’t know what to call it. Come on you’re a journalist
M.S.- I don’t know, but I know it’s good! What I like about it is it ties a lot of things together. It’s not that drastically different from what you normally do. It’s got more color to it. I think having more instruments that play melody seems to bring out things better.
J.K.- I agree. I couldn’t have said it better myself. Thank you. You just said what I wanted to say.
M.S.- What kind of dates to you think you might play?
J.K.- I think we are going to be on some of the Jamgrass tour. I think we are going to be on some of the Phil and Friends shows and then well do a lot of stuff like we always do, the Birchmere, the Iron Horse and more. We are going to be very busy. I’m going to the Merle Fest and then after that we will start really putting the band together and we will be playing pretty much all year, of course, except my Hot Tuna New York thanksgiving date.
M.S.- That Tuna date will that be just you and Jack as Acoustic Hot Tuna? Are there any plans to do an electric Hot Tuna at any time?
J.K.- Well, here’s the thing. I’ve learned a lesson from Trey Anastasio of Phish and that is you just go on hiatus so if you ever what do something again it’s not like a reunion, you are just off of hiatus. The answer is yes, hopefully at some point we are going to some more electric stuff. I would like to do some recording. Right now I am totally consumed with this acoustic thing so it is going to be a while. Hopefully the guys in the band will all still be speaking to me. They are all still on my website and as far as I am concerned they are all still in the band. That band is just not working right now.