Jorma Kaukonen: Blue Country Heart (Ten Years On)
Today we look back to June 2002 and Mick Skidmore’s conversation with Jorma Kaukonen
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.
M.S.- What about doing some archive releases of Hot Tuna. A lot of bands have done it and technology has made it easier to fix old recordings. There are certain periods of Hot Tuna’s history that your live shows were much better than the studio or live albums that came about.
M.S.- I know Relix put out a ton of CDs but they never really went out and picked the best stuff. Would you consider doing something like that?
J.K.- Yes, I would. If you come up with some good quality stuff, sure I would.
M.S.- One of the things that I always liked (and there’s a lot that I liked) was the early dates at the Matrix in 1969. A couple of shows where you do “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” and familiar stuff but also instrumental Airplane tracks and songs such as “Star Track.” One time the late Dick Latvala and I were talking and we got onto the subject of Hot Tuna and he said that’s the Hot Tuna I like. And we discussed the merits of trying to get that as an archive release. In fact, after we talked he said the next time he saw you he was going to mention it to you?
J.K.- Unfortunately he passed away, but check this out now that you have fired my interest up again right before he died he made me a couple of CDs and said this was his favorite Hot Tuna stuff and I will tell you honestly I never listened to them, but I know right where they are. Now that you have stirred my interest I will pop them on later this week.
M.S.- I’ll be really surprised if it’s not the same stuff that Dick and I discussed. I think there is a market out there for some archive stuff. Even the mid ’70s stuff when you were getting into the excessive electric stuff like 35 minute versions of “Walkin’ Blues.”
J.K.- (Laughs) Right. You mean the 35-minute ending to “Walkin’ Blues.’”
M.S.- Do you listen to a lot of music these days?
J.K.- I am a big country music fan, not country pop but I listen to a lot of singer/songwriter oriented things. I just really likeI don’t what to call itguys that can really play, player oriented music. We just had Guy Clark at the camp. I listen to a lot of stuff like that. He has a great guitar that also writes songs, Verlon Thompson. I listen to Alison Krauss. I’ve got Randy Travis’ CD in my truck right now.
M.S.- How is the Fur Peace Ranch going?
J.K.- It’s going great. We are almost completely sold out for this year and we have only been open for a month. I just can’t tell you life is great. We just finished building our theatre, we have a 200 seat theatre now, so I am considerably more in debt than I was four months ago, but we are making the payments and a lot of good music is coming here. Do you ever listen to our radio show on your computer?
M.S.- No, I’m still a little in the dark ages with that stuff.
J.K.- Well, when you have nothing else to dothere’s a link on the Fur Peace Ranch site or you can go to WOUB.ORG/Furpeace they have all sorts of stuff archived. You know we just had Peter Rowan here last week. He was spectacular.
M.S.- He is a great songwriter.
J.K.- He is. Oh my god, you know I think about him as a singer and songwriter and he was here performing solo and I forgot what a great guitar player he is.
M.S.- Talking of guitar playing on this album it sounds like you are finger picking rather than flat picking, and most traditional bluegrass players flat.
J.K.- Yes, I’m finger picking…it’s true that most flat pick but having said that Lester Flatt in the early Flatt and Scruggs not only played a Gibson J50 and not a Martin but he played with a thumb pick. He played all that bluegrass stuff but he used his fingers to do it.
M.S.- Well, I live and learn. Did you ever listen to Clarence White of the Byrds?
J.K.- Of course. Speaking of flat pickers of everything pickers. Clarence was brilliant.
M.S.- Anything else?
J.K.- Let me see. Record, going to Merle Fest, tour coming up, Ranch is doing great. The sun just came out it was raining earlier toady. Life is good my friend.
M.S.- Hopefully I’ll see you next time you are in Boston.
J.K.- That’ll be great. And next time I’m in Boston it will be with what ever band we finally get together. As I said it will definitely be me and Sally.
M.S.- Now are there any plans to record any of the shows?
J.K.- Well, when you get into the recording thing that’s another thing with the majors. They don’t fool around with a lot of that stuff. You know they are worried about fans recording stuff and I said it doesn’t matter what you say it’s going to happen, so really try to get over that right now because it is going to happen. But to answer your question there are no plans right now but you never know. If we get a real tight band together we might just say hey we should do a live album.
M.S.- Now there are only 13 songs on the album so when you go on tour I assume you are going to incorporate some of your traditional stuff?
J.K.- Right. I am going to cull from my bag of tricks; songs that I think will play well in that format. I was talking to Sally the other day and she said “You have got to do “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” and I said “Don’t worry, I can’t actually imagine playing a night and not doing “Death Don’t Have No Mercy.” I have to do it at least once a night. I have been doing it for years, so we are going to pull some stuff out and maybe some of the original songs that I have written that kind of fit into that feeling. I’m not sure yet but obviously it is not going to be a 13-song set and of course, I would like to give everybody in the band a chance to do something. I figure we will wind up with a good two-hour set.
M.S.- So basically you are going to reinvent some of your older stuff?
J.K.- Exactly, that’s what I was looking to say.
M.S.- One of things that I also noticed on the album was not only did these songs from the 20s and 30s make a lot of sense today but thematically there’s a lot of similarities in the lyrics. Was this a conscious thing on your part?
J.K.- You know I was just talking to someone else about that and I don’t think I consciously did but I agree with youbut when I look at the songs I picked its just pretty much where I am at today.
M.S.- Is there anything on there that is a particular favorite?
J.K.- Hmm. I really like the album a lot. I rarely listen to myself once an album is done but I have listened to this a bunch of times because I can hear all those guys play. I really like “What Are they Doing In Heaven Today” and I really like, strange as it may seem “Me and My Old Guitar”.
M.S.- That’s funny they are my favorites and they are the last two tracks.
J.K.- Great minds.
M.S.- Now when I first heard the album I didn’t know who wrote them. They almost sounded like originals. They fit your voice perfectly.
J.K.- Yes they do. You don’t have to be an opera singer to sing them.
M.S.- Do you have any new material?
J.K.- I have a couple of new songs that I have written that I have yet to perform. I might bring them out this summer. I wrote this real nice song about when my mom died but I start getting too sentimental. It’s that Finnish/Russian thing. I just have to get a little more disciplined so I can get through the song but I have about four instrumentals. So, I am slowly but surely getting there.
M.S.- Well, thanks a lot.
J.K.- It’s always a pleasure and I will dig out those things from Dick, god rest his soul.