This is a follow-up to the Bluegrass Today interview with John a couple months back, which mostly covered his latest album, New Time & Old Acoustic. He had expressed an interest in talking about his years with Tony Rice, so this a great opportunity to dive into the rest of his story, including the early years, the Good Ol’ Persons, the Tony Rice Unit, and the Jaybirds. Don’t miss the mini podcast with his comments on the Tony Rice Unit album, Backwaters.
Let‘s start at the beginning. Tell us about growing up and your early musical memories.
I was born in Ukiah, California, and was the youngest of five children. My father passed away when I was quite young, so I was raised by my mother, who was a wonderful person and always supportive of my musical interests.
My older sisters had jazz and Kingston Trio records, and we also had some 78s. One I remember in particular was This Old House, sung by Rosemary Clooney. My great uncle ‘Unkie’ lived with us when I was a kid. He was a grandfather figure to me, and he played harmonica and sang songs like The Preacher and the Bear.
Do you recall your first instrument?
I took guitar lessons when I was nine years old, but didn’t stick with it. We did get a guitar out of the deal though, which my older brother, Steve, took over. Steve is a naturally talented musician and he would learn songs from his friends which, by the time I was 12 or so, he started teaching me. Twelve bar blues and Credence Clearwater songs are what I first remember playing. Also bass lines to Louie Louie and Green Onions.
How did you come to hear and play bluegrass and folk roots music?
I first heard bluegrass by watching TV shows like the Beverley Hillbillies and the Andy Griffith Show. I’d also come across bluegrass and folk music on the local PBS station, KQED. Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest was one I remember. The Greenbrier Boys and the Stanley Brothers were both guests on that show. I was pretty intrigued with that music.
What other artists did you listen to back then?
Another exposure to the music via TV was seeing John Hartford’s Aeroplane band on the David Frost show. Vassar Clements, Norman Blake, and Tut Taylor were in that band. My friends and I would make trips to San Francisco to go to Tower Records, and on one trip I discovered Norman Blake’s first record, Home in Sulphur Springs. I just flipped over that record. I was still into playing a lot of guitar so I learned several tunes from that record. I also loved Doc Watson at that time.
How long did you have your first mandolin, and what motivated you to upgrade it?
I had a Harmony mandolin for several years before I had the chance to buy a nice old Gibson F2. I think I was 19. I soon learned that you had to have a mandolin with F holes to play bluegrass, so I was able to buy a Givens A5. I sold them both to be able to buy an F5 made by Stan Miller in 1977. That was a wonderful mandolin, and its back and sides were made from Brazilian rosewood. I used that instrument on the first record I made with Tony Rice, Still Inside. I remain good friends with Stan to this day.
Do you recall the first tune you wrote?
I wrote The Meat & Potatoes Rag when I was probably 18 or 19. It had a fun chord progression, but maybe not the most memorable melody.
When did you migrate down to the Bay Area and who did you play with?
In 1977 I was living near Eugene, Oregon, working on a farm, but mostly playing the mandolin. A fellow named David Bersch, who was part of the bluegrass scene in Eugene, was hired by the Good Ol’ Persons to play guitar. The band was in transition, and when thy needed a mandolin player, he suggested me. I auditioned in late ’77 and got the gig. I was incredibly happy since I had been a fan of the original lineup. I started full time in January 1978.
As I understand it, the Good Ol’ Persons were a product of the jams at Paul‘s Saloon in San Francisco. Do you recall the specifics of some of the early shows?
I was not an original member of the band. The group was originally made up of all women, and my understanding was that they worked up three songs to play at the jam night at Paul’s Saloon, and it went over so well they were offered their own night. I lived in San Francisco briefly in 1975, and was a fan of theirs. By the time I next saw them in ’77, the personnel had changed and it featured both men and women.
Was that band kind of like a musical cooperative?
By the time I joined the group, Kathy Kallick was the only original member, and she became the leader. We all contributed material. The band was starting to feature a lot of Kathy Kallick’s originals, and also Paul Shelasky’s, so I decided to suggest some of my own. Itzbin Reel and Birdland Breakdown were the first of my originals that the band worked up. The group had a large repertoire.
At the time, did you think it was something different?
The personnel of the band solidified around 1980, and featured Kathy on guitar, Bethany Raine on bass, Sally Van Meter on dobro, Paul Shelasky on fiddle, and me on mandolin. I knew we had a pretty different sound because most of the vocals featured women singing lead, we had a lot of original material, and there was no banjo. My memory is that we went over well when we toured outside of California. Once we released the first record featuring that personnel, we developed more of a national following.
I like the story of Bill Monroe playing your Gibson. Are there any other memorable Monroe moments? Did he comment on the sound of your Loar?
He never commented on the sound specifically, but I could tell he liked the sound. When The Good Ol’ Persons travelled to Bean Blossom in 1983, I asked if he would perform Get Up John in their evening set if I tuned up my mandolin for him. That was pretty exciting!
How did you come to play in the Tony Rice Unit?
When Tony and David Grisman parted ways in 1980 or so, Tony decided to put together a touring band that would feature some of the instrumental music he’d been recording. The music was similar to Dawg music, but less arranged and with more improvisation.
Tony had heard me play at Paul’s Saloon, and decided to reach out to see if I’d be interested in joining his new band. He gave me some LPs, and I learned a few of the tunes and went back a few weeks later to actually play with him. He was very happy with what he heard and said, “Okay, I’m not looking for a mandolin player anymore.” I guess he heard the potential I had. Tony was always super supportive and encouraging.
What was the transition like for you moving into “Newgrass” and that band?
I was already a fan of the new acoustic style and I knew some of David Grisman tunes. I also like swing and jazz and had played those styles a bit. So the transition was more in practicing a lot so I could feel confident in sharing the stage with musicians like Tony and Todd Phillips.
Devlin is on many ‘best of’ lists. Tell us about playing on that.
The Devlin album is a compilation of two previous Tony Rice albums, including Still Inside, which was the first Tony Rice recording I played on. I took it very seriously and practiced a lot before we started. I can’t remember specifically how long it took—maybe three or four days. We played all the music live, and then Tony would edit between takes, taking the best solos from various takes.
Tell us about your tune Birdland Breakdown, which is on that album.
That was one of the first tunes I wrote. I’d worked it up with the Good Ol’ Persons. I guess Tony had heard us play it and suggested we work it up for the new recording. I felt incredibly honored that he included it. I’m proud to say that Backwaters, the follow-up to Still Inside, was cited by Tony as being his favorite of his own recordings.
As a followup to this article, John did a call to discuss the Backwaters album.
I have to ask, were you in touch with Tony in recent years?
In 2012, when I was working on my CD, Walk Along John, I’d hoped to include a few tunes with Tony and Todd. I wanted to revisit that musical relationship now that I felt I’d matured as a musician. They were both up for it, and I would text back and forth with Tony. He was very friendly and enthusiastic, but when I tried to schedule the details, I got no response. Then when I’d follow up about rescheduling, he was again encouraging and responsive, but then the same thing happened. So I decided just to leave it. I think this was just before he stopped performing at all because his hands were giving him trouble.
What are some things about Tony that aren’t common knowledge. We know about the watches 🙂
Tony was a really good photographer. During the time I played with him, he had a lot of photos of Steller’s jays and scrub jays. I had the idea that it would be cool to have one of his bird shots as a Jaybirds cover, but it never happened.
How long did you tour with the Tony Rice Unit?
I auditioned in February of 1980, but we didn’t play our first shows until December of that year because he was still looking for a fiddler. He eventually hired Fred Carpenter. Our last performance was in 1983 at the Winfield festival. Folks really wanted to hear him sing, so he moved to the east coast and started a new version of the Tony Rice Unit where he sang and the music was closer to bluegrass.
How did you come to play Latin music?
I was always drawn to various forms of Latin music. A Good Ol’ Persons fan gave me a cassette of Puerto Rican jibaro music. I was really taken by it and learned a few tunes. I also heard the Brazilian style called choro, and learned some of those. I’m really just a dabbler in those styles, but I really love the music.
You’ve played on quite a variety of other artists’ albums such as Raffi, Butch Baldassari, Neko Case, and Sarah Elizabeth Campbell. Tell us about that.
I enjoy recording on other people’s projects quite a bit. A lot of the time it’s just adding the mandolin for a bit of flavoring, on say a singer-songwriter album. The recording with Butch Baldassari was more of a collaboration. It was Butch’s concept, but along with Robin Bullock we all contributed material. In 1999 we all met up in Nashville and worked for four days. We would meet up in the morning, arrange the tunes, and then go in the studio in the afternoon to record. The album is called Travellers. Butch was a great guy and wonderful mandolin player. I miss him.
When did you decide to start the Jaybirds?
When my CD Up in the Woods came out, I decided to book a few shows locally to promote it. I’d played with Nick Hornbuckle a fair amount and really liked his playing. Also I’d played a few shows with Trisha Gagnon around town and wanted to have some singing as well as instrumentals, so she was an obvious choice, since she’s both a great singer and bass player. I knew Greg Spatz from my time in California. I heard he was living in Spokane, which is really not that close to Vancouver, but he’s such a great player I asked him as well. Chris Stevens, who Trisha had been in a band with, played guitar. He’s primarily a banjo player, but I liked his Larry Sparks–influenced guitar playing.
It was a fun combination of players, so I kept booking gigs. The guitar chair has changed a bit. First Chris, then Rich Jones, and then for 17 years Jim Nunally played guitar and sang lead along with Trisha. Once Jim joined, we got more serious about touring and made several records with that lineup. Jim left the band about five years ago, and we were fortunate enough to have Patrick Sauber join. I originally just thought of him as a fill-in till we got someone full time because he was such a busy guy playing in several bands already. But he was such a great fit musically and personally, I decided to ask him, and he said yes. The band has been together for twenty-three years now, with four of the five of us being there the whole time. I think we have a unique band sound.
Your albums seem more connected to old-time. Was that always an interest or did it grow later in your career?
I always liked it, but once I moved to British Columbia I became more interested partly because of my wife Gwendolyn’s love of that music.
Can you share something about your next album and when might it be available?
The next recording I hope to be involved with will be a new Jaybirds CD. We’ve been working up new material. I’m excited about sharing the new line up with everyone.
If you could time travel, what musical period and players would you like to witness?
I would have loved to have seen Django Reinhardt perform.
Have you ever had any other occupation than music?
Lots of part-time jobs. I worked in a health food store, and also a video store back when such things existed.
Was it a difficult to decide to be a full time musician?
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
It has been a pleasure talking with you Dave.
Likewise, it‘s been an honor and pleasure chatting.
Copy editing by Jeanie Poling