Tony Furtado’s Bare Bones
Tony Furtado began his music career on banjo, winning the Grand National Banjo Championship twice (1987 and 1991). Despite his success, he didn’t want his creative muse to remain chained to one instrument and style. Moving to slide guitar and now, embracing his singer/songwriter side, Furtado developed a style that ingests a diverse set of influences that he’s studied like a college student making his way through a semester’s syllabus.
He reaches me via cellphone somewhere in southern Utah following a much-needed washing of his tour van. ("We had been traveling through snow up in Idaho and Montana, so the thing was all gritty and gross.") The hardworking musician is making his way through prairie country and beyond on another tour. So far, his nine albums and work with Alison Krauss, Laurie Lewis, Jerry Douglas, Tony Trischka annd Kelly Joe Phelps has paid off in cult status in pockets of the country. But, like anyone who has heard him play live — my experience was a gig on the second floor of a Boulder restaurant back in 1997 — his low-profile is one of those unnecessary shames among the jamband scene. Possibly his current role as support act on the Gregg Allman and Friends tour will raise his visibility.
JPG: To be frank, I’d like to start out by saying that after seeing you perform live and hearing your albums, I’m surprised that Tony Furtado isn’t a bigger name in music. And based on some of the things I read, others feel the same way.
TF: I’m always working on it. I’ve got management now. That’s helping me. But the other thing is, I’m much more focused now than I was before. Back then [in 97], I was out there experimenting pretty heavily. I was just trying to figure out what I was going to do. I knew that I would eventually start songwriting and doing a lot more singing. Just wanted to take all the elements of music that I’ve done over the years, have all the stuff that I’ve done in the past be more of an influence rather than be presenting, Now I’m playing a blues tune. Now, I’m trying to play dance music…’ I want it to be more of an all-encompassing thing. When it’s a live show, I want it to be a live show, and then on the album have it be more of a good, strong personal statement. I think I’m just now starting to find my voice with what I want to do.
JPG: And where does Funzalo Records come in with all this?
TF: [Management] started the label about a year. They just wanted to have more of an artist-friendly situation where it could be kind of a profit sharing thing. It’s very friendly to me, but the cool thing is since it’s their label and they don’t have to go to battle with the label to get money spent in a certain area where it might need to be done, they just do it. Do what they feel needs to be done and they’re doing a great job of it.
JPG: Does that mean you’re more into the independent thing or if a major label or a major indie wanted to get ahold of you, are you still up for that?
TF: I’m pretty focused with them right now. It’s a good thing for me ‘cause they understand where I’m coming from. They know what I want to do. They’ve got major distribution. They’re putting the money for radio where it needs to go. I’m perfectly happy here with this.
JPG: When you hear the word Funzalo. You see the F-U at the beginning and thinking it’s a play on Furtado.
TF: Oh no. I realized that later. I’m like, Oh geez, people are going to think this is my label.’
JPG: Right now, you’re touring as a trio, will you be doing the same thing when you open up for Gregg Allman & Friends?
TF: I’m going to be solo for all of those shows
JPG: Why the switch?
TF: Oh, a bunch of reasons. One is financial, obviously. Also, I’ve been doing a lot of solo openers. Last year I did a bunch for Eric Johnson. Went out with Susan Tedeschi for a while. The new album that’s coming out in about a month, which is Bare Bones, is just a live solo acoustic album. I’ve had a lot of people asking for that. I figured what the heck? Recorded some shows and put together the best of the shows.
I’ve got some acoustic albums that I’ve done over the years, but nothing this stripped down. So I figured, the best way to do it was to cut it live at my shows that I’ve been playing. Did it last year mostly throughout the west. I set up my recording gear and fumble around and recorded it.
JPG: The interesting about that upcoming album is it continues your approach of always following your artistic muse. But, at the same time, you were kind of influenced by the requests of others.
TF: If I didn’t want do it, I wouldn’t have done it. It seemed like a good idea. It seemed like as long as it was a fair representation of something I’ve done in the past, which obviously it would be because of live shows. I’m into it. It was almost experimentation at first. I wanted to see if I liked what I was hearing first. I was happy with it.
One of my favorite albums is an album that Richard Thompson did years ago, Live at the Bottom Line. I’ve listened to that thing over and over and over again. There’s something that you just can’t get from a studio performance when you have the audience there trying to help you, egg things on.
JPG: Is it just you and a guitar or do you play banjo as well?
TF: It’s me and all my instruments. There’s a bunch of singing. Bunch of playing. Whatever it takes to make a show. There’s a couple of songs I do on the banjo. A lot of slide guitar. There’s some songs from my newest album These Chains. Some songs from the past. There’s even a Tom Petty cover on there that I never recorded before, "Running Down a Dream."
JPG: With your last album, These Chains, you’ve gone in another direction, singer/songwriter, for longtime fans do they just accept the changes and just follow your next move or is it a matter that you pick some up and lose some…?
TF: I’m just going with what I want to do and trying to be happy with the music I’m presenting, and people who are fans of mine know that I do that. I think at this point I’m going to be kind of hovering around what I’m doing now with the songwriting and the playing. But people that have been to my live shows in the past five years know that I take a little bit from what I’ve done in the past. I also do a little bit of what I’m currently doing and some spontaneous stuff and combine it all. I like to put together as strong a show as possible every time, not like, Okay, now I’m touring this album. Now I’m only doing…’ cause that’s a foreign concept to me. I’ll play songs from the new album, but I’ll play just as many songs from the past just to create a good well-rounded show.
JPG: Compared to your other releases, These Chains has a different sound than what I’m used to from you.
TF: A lot of it I really love and there’s a few songs on it where I’m, Eh, oh well.’ It was a statement, so that’s cool. The next one will be even more of a strong personal statement.
JPG: On the other hand, when I was listening to some of your past work, in particular the Live Gypsy album, I really, really enjoyed it because it brought me back to seeing you in ’97, recalling you playing over such a fluid strong groove.
TF: Right. You know what I found also is people that are more into jamband stuff are into the Live Gypsy album. That’s pretty raging and pretty intense. There’s a lot of playing on it. Whereas These Chains, a lot of people that are more into singer/songwriter stuff or folk music or whatever are into that.
JPG: The way that the jamband scene is going, the singer/songwriter material works just as well.
TF: Sure. But I love doing that as much as I love singing a good strong song. My favorite cut on These Chains is the title cut; one of my favorite songs I’ve ever recorded. It’s written from the heart. It feels like a good strong statement.
JPG: As far as venturing into singer/songwriter territory on These Chains, at one point did you feel comfortable enough to start presenting what you were writing?
TF: Basically, I was writing for two or three years before we went into the studio. I had a good chunk of 30 songs that I was working on and played em for the producer and my manager and whoever else I could. Got some input because when you’re just starting to do that kind of thing, it can be a little bit of a naked feeling and a scary thing. When I got the feedback, I felt good about it. Plus, it is a first step forward in that and I know that my next studio album is going to have songs I wrote on it, too. I know that that’ll probably be a more personal, stronger statement. This one is somewhat personal, but some of the songs are somewhat vague because it’s something where I’m still learning how to really connect with myself inside and present what I’m feeling in the song.
JPG: For someone who has been an instrumental player and arranging tunes, was it harder for you to write and develop lyrics or harder for you to sing those lyrics?
TF: I would say I approached it the way I approached learning how to play my instruments. I was a graphic art student when I was in college. I was going to be a sculptor. I approach lyrics and poetry the same way I would look at a piece of art or sculpture. And, until I thought about it that way, I didn’t quite get it. I didn’t quite get poetry. I didn’t quite get lyrics. But once I thought of it in that way, that you could use words like you do paint or clay, you can use words for the texture. Then, I started to understand what I did before.
I’d been doing a lot of reading, a lot of reading poetry and non-fiction over the past five years, just something I gravitated toward. Started doing a lot more writing in my journal and a lot more writing in general; local pub, sit down with a pint of beer and write down what I’m thinking. And things just started to pop out. Then, I thought, ‘Why don’t I put some music to this?’ It took a little while. There was a bunch of misfires or I felt like I was going in too cheesy a direction or something that didn’t feel true or something that’s forced. After a little while I started to get it. Started to get a little bit of a method for myself that worked as well as sitting down with a few of those top songwriters. Getting to sit down one-on-one and write songs, that was like going to school right there with Jules Shear, Al Anderson and Jim Lauderdale.
JPG: Back to singing, there’s a past quote of yours, ‘It such an important thing when you’re playing slide to have it be like you’re singing because that’s why it was developed.’
TF: Yeah, yeah you want it to be more like, I mean the slide players that I respect and idolize are people where it sounds like a voice. It definitely comes from that place where if you listen to some of the old blues musicians years and years ago, sometimes the slide lick would replace a vocal lyric. Blind Willie Johnson and Mississippi Fred McDowell.
JPG: Do you think as you got more and more into doing the slide work that you naturally got into singing?
TF: Oh no, I knew I’d get into singing eventually. It just took some time. This whole process started like 10 years ago when I became frustrated with the whole bluegrass scene. It wasn’t something I found myself feeling like I was fully accepted in that genre. I also didn’t feel like it was the genre that I was going to get into.
Basically when I was in that genre, I didn’t feel like I wasn’t feeling like I was accepted or embraced. I was listening and playing a lot of other kinds of music as well. But the problem was I was just playing the banjo and I felt like I had so much more to say. It took having a band that I was in break up for me to go, ‘Okay, well I’m going to start playing the guitar. I’m going to start writing songs, learn how to do the singing. Do everything I need to feel like it’s much more of a personal statement; something that’s much more of a well-rounded statement.’ I didn’t see myself doing a Bela Fleck thing where it stays around the banjo. My interests lie elsewhere as well. I had other things to say.
JPG: Speaking of the banjo, your press mentions that you grew up on the East Bay of San Francisco and how listening to the radio gave you a diverse background, so…
TF: I’ll tell you how I started playing banjo. When I was in fifth grade, you’re required to take an intro to music class. And in that class, you’re supposed to do a report on a musical instrument. I didn’t hear her say. orchestral instrument.’ I just heard musical instrument. ‘You’re supposed to make the instrument. So, I made a little banjo out of a pie tin and some sticks and paper and stuff cause that’s what I saw in my head. I was like, Oh, I think I’ll make a banjo. I saw one of these on tv once.’
So, I made it and I did a report on it. While I was doing the report I found it really intriguing that it had such a diverse background. It’s an instrument that came from Africa as a three-string board instrument originally. Skin over the top of it. It became Americanized with all the metal parts, but a lot of other cultures have borrowed it. Played everything from Blues to Dixieland Jazz, Celtic Music, all kinds of stuff as well as the Bluegrass and old time Mountain Music. I was intrigued by the tone. My parents got me a banjo for my 12th birthday and I just practiced my ass off, sometimes 8 hours a day.
JPG: I interviewed Roger McGuinn a few months ago and it turned out that he started out doing folk music playing the banjo, which ended up influencing his playing on the 12-string guitar. For you, moving over to slide and everything else you do on the guitar, did banjo playing stick with you as well?
TF: Yeah. Banjo playing affects my guitar playing as well as guitar playing affects banjo playing equally. When I was a kid I studied some classical guitar and that helped my technique on the banjo.
I do get a lot of guitarists coming up to me and going, What the hell are you doing?’ cause my finger picking style is related to the banjo.
JPG: You’re now living outside of Los Angeles. The sound and the playing and the players on These Chains, was it affected because of who was around the L.A. scene?
TF: It was heavily affected by the producer, Dusty Wakeman. It’s another take on what I’m doing. He worked really great with singer/songwriters. He’s worked with Michelle Shocked, Lucinda Williams and Dwight Yoakam. It’s got that Southern California rootsy element to it.
A couple of the songs have a bit more of the country feel than I’m used to, but that’s alright. It’s just a moment in time pretty much. In general, I think he did great. He came on the road with me a couple of times and played bass and got a feel for what I do. He got a good idea of what needed to happen with the back up musicians.
JPG: One of the things that worked out for you after the move is you took part in the Tribute to Graham Parsons concert with Keith Richards, Lucinda Williams, John Doe and others.
TF: That was fun. It was great to be in the backup band. Rehearsal was fun. Dusty [Wakeman] pretty much gave me free reign of which instruments to play on which songs. We had to pick which songs to not play because, otherwise, you’re going to have the whole backup band trying to sit in on everyone’s music. I got to play with John Doe. I got to play some electric slide, I think, on one of his songs and maybe banjo on another.
I was just hoping to play with Keith Richards and luckily it happened. I noted that the song he was singing, half the time his hands were by his sides and then he would strum his guitar a little bit. I was like, Okay, I’ll play back up guitar. (slight laugh) Alright, I get to play with Keith Richards!’ It was funny man. It was great standing next to him onstage on the finale and hearing his little quips on what was going on. It was pretty funny.
(At this point I bring up one of Furtado’s favorite players, David Lindley, and a recent post on his website ripping stealth tapers and attributing all taping at his shows to bootlegging. In his bio Furtado mentioned that he purchased Lindley bootlegs, in part because he felt a kinship with him due to both starting out as banjo players.)
TF: The bootlegs I had were ones he put out.
JPG: Oh okay, so he’ll still like you.
TF: Yeah, I know he’s got that problem. I actually got to open for him once, too. He had me sit in and that was a lot of fun. He goes, I like you. You take chances.’ (laughs)
JPG: That could be the best compliment there is. You should put that line on the wall or your guitar case.
JPG: Now, you allow taping at your show, right?
TF: Oh yeah.
JPG: Now, you have the new album coming out, doing the Gregg Allman tour, am I missing something? What else is in your future?
TF: Anther studio album. I’ll be working on that this year as well.
JPG: More tour plans solo or with other people?
TF: I know they’re starting to book me at a lot of festivals this summer .I don’t know anything in particular. I usually don’t know anything until a couple months out. (slight laugh)
JPG: And they just tell you to pack?
TF: Yeah. They say, Better get a band together two months from now.’ Okay, let me see who’s available.’ (slight laugh)