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Published: 2009/02/22
by Randy Ray

Jorma Kaukonen: More Than My Old Guitar

“there are a thousand nights hidden in boxesthere are a million stars on the roof of my room..there are steps down side streets” – excerpts from Hiding Places, Jack Micheline, The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry

Jorma Kaukonen is currently on the road as part of the Guitar Blues Tour with Robben Ford and Ruthie Foster in a unique triumvirante of talents that serve to showcase each musician’s respective work, while also combining their acts into a unifed whole at evening’s end. The guitarist/singer/songwriter also, of course, has been crafting a combination of groundbreaking and time-honored music for half a century as a member of the original Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna, and as a formidable solo artist equally at home with acoustic blues, classic country, and Americana roots music.

Kaukonen has just released River of Time which was recorded at Levon Helm’s studio in Woodstock, New York, and was produced by Larry Campbell. The sublime album features a combination of Kaukonen self-penned originals, lean, sturdy and memorable instrumentals, and cover versions of old favorites, some of which have occasionally appeared in his live work in the past but never before been recorded in a studio format. What is instantly so striking about the set of music is the way that Campbell effortlessly captures the many facets of Kaukonen’s musical personality without sacrificing an ounce of the man’s majestic identity. Kaukonen, like Campbell, is an adept student of the rich catalogue of American roots and blues music, and he finds a way to cut through a song while paying respect to its authors, and forging his own unique stamp on its framework. caught up with Kaukonen on the Guitar Blues Tour, before he heads back on the road for another series of solo dates, and then another round of Hot Tuna shows with his partner in magical alchemy for over 50 years, Jack Casady, later in the spring. Kaukonen is sincere, serious, humorous, considerate, humble, and not given to making a misstep in conversation. In short, his words flow almost as effortlessly as the music one has grown to love for so many yearssearing, searching, distinct, and always rooted in what makes the man so great: a direct passionate link to the heart of American music.

RR: I last saw you when you played an acoustic show with Barry Mitterhoff at the Rhythm Room in Phoenix in late 2007.

JK: You know I think it had been a while since I had worked in Phoenix proper. I remember the last time I was there, I think I was at the Mason Jar, a decade before. It was just nice to be back. I like Arizona a lot. It’s a Western state. Those of us that don’t live there think about Gunsmoke and stuff like that. It’s just great playing there. I remember that night. There’s barbeque outside, too. Yeah, that’s great. I remember that.

RR: I picked up your 2007 release Stars in My Crown at that show, and I played that quite a bit over the last year or so. Your new work, River of Time takes you back to your roots with originals, instrumentals, and covers of songs written by artists that have inspired you over the years.

JK: Yeah, we sure had a lot of fun making that record. I wrote six originals for this one, and yeah, it’s just very close to my heart. I really liked Stars in My Crown, also, and that was more of a produced thing by my friend, Byron [House]. I loved the songs, but we just had more cats involved. With this thing here, we really made it as a jamming record. By the time you finish getting stuff together, it’s not really jamming in the sense that you get it live, but all of our arrangements came out of jamming, which is cool.

RR: Yes, for example, “A Walk with Friends” is a beautifully moving instrumental.

JK: Oh, thanks. Thank you, man. I’m sure the other guys would thank you, too. [The piece was co-written by Kaukonen, Mitterhoff, and Larry Campbell.] I had written the chord chart for that some years ago, and I had been working with it. We got in there, and I said, “You know, I was trying to write words, but you guys come up with something and we’ll play it together, and we’ll share the tune,” and that’s what we did.

RR: What is the genesis of the idea for the title track “River of Time?” It sounds like it has an interesting back-story.

JK: Well, it kind of does. Some years ago, I was in California, and I was working at a place in Santa Cruz called Palookaville. This lady showed up, and she was the older sister of this guy that died years ago; he died as a young man. And I didn’t know her, but she said, “I know you knew my brother and I wanted you to have this picture of him.” She gave me this picture of this friend of mine, and there he wasa young man and all of this stuff. I was really deeply moved by that. We were staying in San Francisco, and we went back to the hotel after the show. I’m not the kind of guy that has dreams about things. I dream about stuff, but they usually don’t mean anything. I had a dream and my grandmother came to me because I was sort of thinking about relatives, and things in the past, and she said, “You’re always surrounded by the river of time; everybody who you care about and who you’ve loved and loves you is surrounding you, whether they’re alive or dead, as you float down the river.” I called my wife, and said, “Check this out.” She said, “You’ve got to write that down; you’re going to need that some day.” (laughter)

Sure enough, when we started doing this record, I had been thinking about that for years, and I wanted to call the record River of Time. The funny thing is that I hadn’t written the song, yet. The night before our last day of the session, I decided, “You knowI really should get off my lazy butt and write this song.” When we got home from the studio, I didn’t have a guitar with me. I had taken the guitar case home, but it belonged to Larry, and there was nothing in it so I wrote a poem, and the poem was “River of Time.” The next day while the guys were setting up, I went out in the woods because Levon’s place is in the woods, and I sat down and wrote the music for it. I worked at it, and it was kind of a gift in an odd way.

RR: I love songs with stories like that, and how it sounds so together as if the song was always out there, somewhere, waiting for you to record it.

JK: That’s how it came together. Man, I agree. ListenI wish stuff like that happened to me all the time, but it doesn’t.

RR: How did Larry Campbell get involved with your latest project, and why did you choose Levon Helm’s Woodstock studio to record the album?

JK: My friend Barry and I had been doing some live stuff with Larry over the last couple of years. He’s such a great musician, a wonderful man. When I got a chance to make this record, he was the first thought that came to my mind for a producer for the project. I called him up, he checked his schedule, and said, “I’d love to do this.” We did some juggling so we could make this happen because we both wanted to do it, and then we were discussing where to do it, and my thought reallybecause I’m not an authority on studioswas “Where do you think, Larry?” He said, “How about Lee’s place?” I thought, “WowI never would have thought of that.” He’s working with Levon’s band, too, these days, and I thought, “What a great idea.”

I had done a homespun video there about 15 years ago, and Lev and I have been friends for years, and “Wowwhat a great idea,” so we got there, and Levon’s recording room is where he does these Midnight Ramble things, and it’s really a beautiful giant room. There’s no isolated control room. The control room is on a balcony overlooking things. It’s really a very organic kind of place, and it’s right in Lee’s house, too. Every now and then, one of his dogs would come in, or his granddaughter, and it had a relaxed yet extremely professional feel to it, so it really worked out well for the way the album sort of grained. Teresa Williams is Larry’s wife and she sang on it with us. We just really had a great time. The atmosphereit’s in the woods, and I live in a rural area so I really like that stuffwas very relaxed yet an extremely productive five days.

RR: River of Time also doesn’t sound like just a bunch of friends sitting around playing. The group of musicians on the record are very seasoned, as well.

JK: Right. One of the things that’s great about working with guys like Larry, Barry Mitterhoff, and Lincoln Schleifer, who played bass, is that these guys are seasoned pros. With a lot of the work that they do, they get hired to do a session for somebody else, most of them are charged to do whatever, and they just do their thing. With this, we were all involved as things came together, but we were able to keep our minds from wandering.

RR: You’ve played with Barry for quite a while. How do you keep each other focused without the mind wandering?

JK: Yeah, seven or eight years. Barry and I wound up being really good friends. We know each other’s family and all of this stuff. I think we just really enjoy playing with each other. Barry’s the busiest guy in the world. He’s been home for the last two months while I’ve been doing other thingshe’s coaching one of his daughter’s basketball teamsso we haven’t played together for a while. Yesterday, we did a radio station up in Fordham University, and when we came out, I said, “Wow, man, I’ve really missed you.” We started to play, and there it was, there it was. I think we like to do it. I think we’re friends, and I think that shows.

RR: Teresa Williams also had good chemistry with your work on the album.

JK: Oh, yeah, gosh. She’s such a sweet human being, and you can’t sound like that unless you’re from Memphis, Tennessee. She sounds like that, and she is from Memphis, Tennessee. She’s just the greatest. As a fan of roots music, I always look at these great singers that I really like, but I grew up in Washington D.C., and I have no accent whatsoever. I just have a generic American accent. To be able to play with peopleI love regional dialects, and when you add that into the mix, it’s just so cool.

RR: Let’s talk about the opening original composition called “Been So Long.”

JK: Jack [Casady] and I recorded that on our second Hot Tuna album, First Pull Up, Then Pull Down, in’71, and it has never been recorded in the studio context. Barry and I have played it together, and I said, “You knowI’d like to re-do this song simply because I think it would be a good way to start the album off.” It’s 30-something years old, and it’s just a nice departure point. Plus, we had a cool arrangement of it, too.

RR: How about another original you wrote called “Cracks in the Finish?”

JK: This idea came to me. Where it came from was, on my honeymoon with my first wife, my ex-wife, in 1964, we went to Yosemiteit’s a goofy little story, but it’s really true. We were camping because we didn’t have money, and we were camping and I remember we were sitting by the campfire, and I was playing my old Gibson J-50 that I got in ’59, and they used to dump a bunch of blowing embers off of half dome. It’s an environmental hazard so they don’t do that anymore. (laughs) It was really dramatic. I went to sleep in the sleeping bag, and I woke up the next morning, and the finish on my guitar was cracked in a thousand placesnot the wood, just finish cracks. No big deal.

My marriage to my first wife was not the happiest one for either one of us, so the metaphor of cracks in the finish, I had been talking about it with somebody and he was going “The love may have died, but the cracks are still there,” and I liked that metaphor idea. Of course, when I sat down and started writing it, it went in a completely different way from my departure point, but that’s where it came from: the cracks in the finish from my guitar. But, I stumbled on that middle partthat sort of tango thingwhen I was showing it to Larry. I said, “I want you to play some tango violin here.” He said, “Are you sure?” And I said, “Absolutely.” Once againcoincidence? I think not. (laughter)

RR: I assume that “Simpler Than I Thought” also has a story that resonates?

JK: Yeah, and the story for that, of course, is simpler than I thought. I have a three-year-old daughter; my wife and I adopted a little girl from China. I’m 68 years old. I didn’t have kids when I was younger, and I didn’t have that experience, so you get into this stuff, and all those questions run through your mind and all those things that happen and all of that stuff that I wrote in that song was things that happened with my little girl.

The funny thing is the one lyric where I talk about “she went to sleep without a fight.” My friend, Barry, has three kids, he’s got three daughters, and he was talking about that by the time we went to do the song, she wasn’t going to sleep without a fight anymore. (laughs) “I’m not changing the lyrics. That’s how it was when I wrote it, and that’s how it’s going to stay.” Of course, now she’s older now, and she’s going to sleep again, but it’s just like the relationship between a father and his kids. These things pop up, and sometimes we overcomplicate stuff.

RR: Definitely. I have three sons and two are twins so it’s a lot of fun.

JK: Yikes.

RR: (laughs) Your “Yikes” comment makes me think of your son. How were you able to get Zach to sit silently while you worked on demos for the new album?

JK: That was amazing. Zach is my twelve-year old son who lives with his mom in northern Virginia. He’s a great kid, and he was visiting us. We were just getting ready to go to Europe together. He plays a little bit himself, but my friend Myron [Hart], is my guitar tech and he’s also one of my buddies at home, and we record together, and we do all kinds of stuff, so anyway, he and Zach are pals, too, and I said, “I’m going to do this project when we come back from Hungarywe went to Hungary togetherand I really got to do this stuff, and I know it’s going to be boring, but you can help Myron.” He said, “O.K.” We went over, and for some reason, he really tolerated me twanging my way through these songs(laughs)and there he wasI didn’t have to get him to do it. My friend Myron and I fly radio-controlled airplanes together, so after we finished that, we flew a bunch of airplanes with him.

RR: Is Zach showing any inclination towards forging ahead with an axe?

JK: Actually, he’s been playing guitar and cello. He was with me over Christmas, and his hands are as big as mine now. It’s amazing. I had gotten him a baby Taylor about 5, 6 years ago, and I said, “That guitar is too small for you. We need a full-size guitar. You don’t need a huge-body guitar, but you need a full-size neck.” He said, “Well, Dad, that’ll be great.” Of course, kids today have their own little web sites, and they put their music up. On his little web site, him and his friends are playing “Smoke on the Water” with his cello. He’s not obsessed by it. All of these kidsas I’m sure you knowhave full dance cards with all of the stuff they do these days. But he likes music, he’s comfortable with it, and if he wants to go there, he won’t have any problem.

RR: I wanted to ask you about Myron Hart since you mentioned him. He is obviously an important part of your life.

JK: Yeah, he is. You get to a point in your career where, in the beginning you hire people, and it doesn’t matter, but in the end, you like to work with people who are family.

Myron’s like that to me. We’re neighbors at home, I know his mom and his dad and his sisters, and he’s a great guitar tech. He’s also builds and does that work, and he plays really well, too. I’ve told him a bunch of times that given another set of circumstances, he could have somebody doing for him what he does for me, and he says, “Ah, no, I’m happy. I’m O.K. I get to play enough.” He’s just a great guy, he’s like family.

On this particular thing, he just sat there and recorded me. I just played the songs very simply acoustically. However, in the past, we’ve done a bunch of stuff together. There’s a thing down in Athens down where I live called “Passion Works,” where they encourage artistic expression from people that are challenged in various different ways. They did this thing where they had all of these people that were involved in the Passion Works project to write poems. They got various people that they knew to do music, so they asked me to do some music. I got some of our students from the ranch involved [Fur Peace Ranch] and these guys wrote this great music to go with a poem. Myron and I went into the studio together. He played bass for me, and I played guitar, and we sang the song together. It came out great. It’s on the Passion Works CD My Little Pancake Button. We’ve done a lot of stuff like that. We also sit around and play together.

RR: Speaking of playing together, as you worked at Levon Helm’s studio, did he decide to get more involved with the recording?

JK: He did. LeeGod bless him. It’s really amazing because if you go to rock n’ roll shows, the drummers are screwing around with the drums, gating this and mikes for the bottom head and all of this kind of stuff. I don’t know anything about drumming, so drummers don’t get down on my shit. I’m just a poor guitar player.

But anyway, Lee has a little drum setup. He comes in, sits down, and he just sounds great from the moment his sticks hit the skins. He was going to do two songs: “More Than My Old Guitar” and “Cracks in the Finish,” and he was having a really good time, so he said, “How about doing another song?” I said, “O.K.” I was thinking, and then I said, “How about “Trouble in Mind?” That’s how “Trouble in Mind” came up. We were cutting the track, and at the end of it, Lee just didn’t want to stop playing, that’s where there’s that long tag at the end of the song, so we didn’t stop playing.

RR: How did you select the cover songs for River of Time? You’ve got some wonderful old favorites, including everyone from Merle Haggard to Pigpen.

JK: Yeah, I’ve been doing that Merle song for a while. I learned that from a friend of mine named Pat Sweeney. He’s from Akron, Ohio. It’s just a great song. Any song with a lyric like “I love my guitar like God loves the poor, but I love you even more”I mean, come on, I wish I’d written that lyric. So I’ve been doing that for a while because I love the song. We’ve been doing it for so long that I knew at some point, I had to record it.

The Pig songBarry and I got involved in this thing called the American Beauty Project down in the financial center. It was a free show where a lot of people got together, and did their versions of Dead stuff from American Beauty. That gig was also the first time I got to know Larry Campbell. This friend of mine that I work with at home on the Fur Peach Ranch, John Hurlbutwhen I need to learn a Dead song, I go to him because he’s a huge Deadhead, and he knows songs that I can relate to. He said, “You’ve gotta do “Operator.” I didn’t think I had heard the song before. When I got into American Beauty, I thought, “Wowwhat a cool album this is.” I learned the song, and we’ve been playing that for a while, and when we got into the studio, I thought, “Well, you know, we’ve gotta do “Operator.”

A lot of the songs that I do that are covers are songs that I just play in my show. One of the other things is that I wanted a fast songthat’s where “Nashville Blues” came from. I wanted a fast song, like a bluegrassy song. I just couldn’t think of one, so I asked Barry because he’s really familiar with the stuff. He said, “You like the Delmore Brothers, don’t you? (I love em.) Here’s a song that a lot of bluegrass guys do; it’s a great song.” Myron played bass on that, and he and Teresa sang it with me. And we played it fast.

RR: “Preachin’ on the Old Camp Ground” always sounds good, too.

JK: Ohhhonce again, I got involved in a project in New York, and we had to learn a Mississippi John Hurt song. That was one that I learned, and I tell youwhen we did that song, I wanted that to be as sparse and as period authentic as possible without scratchy-record sounds. That first tenor banjo solo that Barry takes in that song, to me, I just want to give him a hug because I love that. It sounds like then, you know? Great song.

RR: What is it like working on your current Guitar Blues tour, which also features Robben Ford and Ruthie Foster?

JK: Well, you know, it’s a different kind of thing for me. Usually, I just do my thing. One of the things that’s really fun about this is that I’m not just doing my thing. I get to do that, too, but we do other things. You’ve heard Ruthie Foster, of course.

RR: Yes, she’s amazing.

JK: Wow, she’s just wonderful. I was familiar with Robben’s work, but I had never really met him. He’s a great guy, a great player. What we do on this show is the first half of the show, Ruthie does about a half hour solo, I do a half hour solo, we take a break, Robben does a half hour-plus of his trio, which is unbelievable, and he calls Ruthie up, she joins the band, Ruthie leaves, he calls me up to the stage, we do a couple of tunes with me with the band, Ruthie comes back, and we all play together to finish the show. It’s a blast.

RR: And you do a little bit of Dylan there at the end?

JK: We do. We’ve been doing a couple of Dylan songs, and we’ll probably add some more. We were trying to figure out things to do together, and I don’t even know where that came from, but one of the guys was saying, “I don’t knowa Dylan song” and I said, “It’s a brilliant idea.” I love Dylan stuff from that period.

RR: Speaking of that period of time and memories of Pig, as well, I always love your take on “Death Don’t Have No Mercy.”

JK: That’s one of my favorite Reverend songs. That’s such a great song.

RR: You covered another Rev. Gary Davis song, “There’s A Bright Side Somewhere,” on River of Time. That’s an appropriate song right about now.

JK: I couldn’t agree more. I couldn’t agree more. One of the things that I’ve always loved about the Reverend, aside from his brilliant guitar playing, etc., is that even in a song like “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” I’ve always felt that there’s a lot of hopefulness in his life. When you consider that here’s a black man, born in the late 1800s, blind, going through stuff that you and I can’t possibly imagine in a million years, and he just kept on going. I didn’t know him as well as some people, but everybody said that he was always, always positive and cheerful. That’s a good thing to take to heart.

RR: Let’s look at your own legacy. You’ve had a fairly strong and long run with your Fur Peace Ranch Guitar Camp in southeastern Ohio.

JK: I was doing this interview with VH-1 the other day about the Woodstock anniversary. One of the things we were talking about is, aside from all the massive crowds, them and us, and all this kind of stuff, there is hope and communication. I’m not comparing the massiveness of Woodstock with what we do at Fur Peace Ranch, but one of the things that we do at the ranch is predicated on hope and communication. We have this little place in southeast Ohio, and we’re open pretty much from March to November, and all weekends are four-day weekends, and in those weekends, people forge a musical community and friends. All we do for the four days is play music, and it sounds sappy to talk about it, but to me, I just couldn’t imagine anything more positive that I could actually be doing than passing the music on. You start talking about community and brotherhood and that kind of stuff and it takes a wiser person than I to put it into words that don’t sound like the real touchie-feelie, but it is touchie-feelie. It’s really good.

RR: Exactly. I think we’ve got a little bit of that process back lately. I just hope that the whole country knows that in a democracy, we all have to work on it together.

JK: ListenI couldn’t agree more. I hear people belly achin’ about stuff, and my thing is look, you know, does it matter to you? Register to vote. Write your congressman. Do what you’ve got to do. That’s what makes it work. We can’t always get what we want, but I think we’re certainly making some progress. Speaking about our current situation today, I was in Antioch College in 1959, and we did a little bit of demonstrating, and some local barber shop and this and that wouldn’t serve black people, and believe me, nothing bad ever happened to me when I did that. I got pushed around and spit on, but that’s not like having your life threatened or anything. Recently, I’ve talked to some of my friends that I went to school with. We wouldn’t have believed in a million years that this could have happened, just based on our experience growing up. And it did happen.

It’s breathtaking. It really is. My son lives in Arlington, and he and his pals went to the inauguration. I called him on a cell phoneI was working in California, so I was watching it on T.V.and I said, “Son, what’s it like?” He said, “Dad, it’s awesome.”

There you have it.

RR: Indeed. You’re also friends with a musician who you’ve played with for quite some time. I was watching a YouTube video of you and Jack [Casady] playing “Hesitation Blues,” from decades ago, and you’re still making vital music today.

JK: 51 years later. We’ve been playing together for 51 years. I know. It’s scary. I’m the luckiest guy in the world. I get to play with a lot of great people. But one of the greatest is Jack, and he’s just brilliant, in my opinion. People who know about him know about him, but he’s kind of like a low-key guy. When he’s not playing with me or Moonalice, he just doesn’t get out that much, and it’s the audience’s loss because he’s just brilliant.

RR: And you’ll be hitting the road with Jack for some Hot Tuna dates in the spring.

JK: Absolutely. We work all the time.

RR: I’ll be seeing you at the McDowell Mountain Music Festival in late April.

JK: That’s right. We’ll be out your way. Listen, if you get a chance, be sure to stop by and say hello. I appreciate it. Give the kids a big hug.

RR: I sure will.

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