California Report: Snap Jackson

Snap Jackson and his band, the Knock on Wood Players, are an award-winning acoustic quartet hailing from Stockton, California. They blend Americana, bluegrass, soul, and old-time music and have been featured on the same bill with notable acts such as Alison Krauss, Old Crow Medicine Show, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Punch Brothers, Della Mae, Steep Canyon Rangers, and Vince Gil. Snap plays banjo, ukulele, and mountain dulcimer and received both the 2018 Northern California Banjo Player and Male Vocalist of the Year awards. Snap is also an instructor, and has endorsement deals with the Deering Banjo Company and Kala Brand Ukuleles. 

Hi Snap. Tell us how you first got hooked on bluegrass.

For me, it was hearing the Old & in the Way album at my best friend’s house one day. Jerry Garcia’s playing banjo on Pig in a Pen—man, I had never heard anything quite like it! Growing up listening to mostly soul, funk, hip-hop, and R&B, it blew my mind! In a weird way, it’s always reminded me very much of the mariachi music my grams would play when I was growing up. The harmonies, the interplay of the instruments, and even the content and lyrics of a lot of songs paralleled mariachi music to me. Love, loss, family, longing, hard work—same energy and message. Blue-collar working man’s music. Earthy and authentic. I really took to it. It wouldn’t be until years later, after hearing the album Mark Twang by John Hartford, that I would decide to purchase a banjo and give it a go for myself. I fell deeply in love with the banjo and there was no turning back. It’s truly changed my life.

Snap Jackson – Lonesome Road Blues

What all instruments do you play?

I play both Scruggs style and old-time banjo, the mountain dulcimer, the ukulele, and a little blues harp.

Was your family musical growing up?

Musical in the sense of music appreciation and exposure to a wide array of musical genres. Music was huge in the house and there was seldom a time when my parents and grandparents weren’t playing their favorite records. Everything from Motown to mariachi music and everything in between. My siblings and I were very much supported and encouraged in the arts.

Tell us about some other influences.

Wow, so many! A few early influences that instantly come to mind would be John Hartford, Ray Charles, Townes Van Zandt, Nina Simone, Earl Scruggs, Marvin Gaye, the Grateful Dead, J.D. Crowe, Miles Davis, A Tribe Called Quest, Doc Watson, Sam Cooke, Souls of Mischief, Fiona Apple, Paul Simon, the Pharcyde, Ralph Stanley, OutKast, my friend and teacher Bill Evans, and Ben Harper. I could go on and on and on.

Do you do any composing? What’s your process?

I do. I wouldn’t say that I have one fixed process. Sometimes I’ll have the lyrics first and slowly build music around the words. Other times a melody will come to me and I’ll either write lyrics to cater to the feel of the tune, or I might flip through my notebook where I keep ideas, rhymes, and phrases in and piece it all together. With original instrumental tunes, I’ll oftentimes have a melody stuck in my head for some time, so I’ll eventually have to sit down and get it out the best I can. I’ve also found when putting my instruments in alternate tunings, certain melodies will rear their head that otherwise wouldn’t have in standard tuning. Some songs have come to me on the spot and others have taken weeks, if not months. It’s kind of all over the place.

What’s your go-to instrument for learning a new song or tune?

I would say banjo first, followed closely by uke and dulcimer. I consider myself somewhat of a slow learner, so I tend to learn and approach most things through repetition. Slow and steady. Section by section. This method seems to work best for me. I often time record myself to track my progress.

Tell us about the Knock on Wood Players.

I’m so lucky to play with such a great group of talented musicians. Each one of the fellas brings so much to the table, not only musically, but also in terms of personality. Above all, we’re friends first. It’s almost hard to believe that Snap Jackson & the Knock on Wood Players has been performing and recording music for over a decade now! Tons of tunes and many miles on the road with these boys! Shane Kalbach on fiddle, Eric Antrim on guitar, and Brian Clark on stand-up bass. Shane and I went to high school together and have known each other for years. I love and respect them dearly.

Snap Jackson & the Knock on Wood Players at the 2011 IBMA, World of Bluegrass, Emerging Artist series showcase

How did you come up with that band name?

Our name came about because one of the first songs that I wrote that we learned and worked on as a band was a tune called Knock on Wood. When it came time to think of a name, I didn’t want to use “boys” or anything region-related, or hill, or mountain, valley. The word “players” had a cool ring to it. To me, it had a non-genre-specific ring to it. So Snap Jackson & the Knock on Wood Players was born!

What other musical genres interests/artists do you love?

Again, I can go on forever. Aside from bluegrass, I love the old blues cats—Mississippi John Hurt, Lighting Hopkins, Blind Willie Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Robert Johnson, and John Lee Hooker. I love classic jazz—Miles, Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Stitt, Charlie Parker, Vince Guaraldi, Mingus, Monk, Art Blakey. I love soul and R&B—Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Al Green, Switch, Nina Simone, and Ray Charles. And so many others, geez—Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Cat Stevens, Ben Folds, The Beatles, Justin Townes Earle, Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris, Vicente Fernandez, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Linda Ronstadt, Billy Joel, and Elton John. Sorry for the long-winded answer. I truly love so many artists. We would be here all day! 

What recordings, new or old, do you all have?

We have some brand new tunes we’ve been foolin’ around with. Excited to see how they unfold! Our first three albums are available everywhere music is sold and we have about a half dozen new tunes that we’re currently working on. The first two albums are all original tunes and our Live in Parkfield album is a mixture of originals and covers. 

How did you come to be a bandleader?

I think it initially came down to being the one who put the band together, booked the gigs, and wrote the majority of the songs. I actually really enjoy those sorts of things—handling the social media stuff and the website, talking to promoters, graphics, photos, etc. The little details. Maybe I’m just a control freak. Haha!

How much touring have you done? Any weird or inspirational stories? 

We’ve been very fortunate to tour all around our beautiful state and beyond. I remember being extremely nervous going to places like Kentucky and Tennessee. I had my preconceived notions of how we would be perceived, and I’m happy to say I was pleasantly surprised and proven wrong when we were received with positive vibes, words of encouragement, and open arms. For the most part, it seems like a lot of these places outside of California are genuinely happy to see the respect and reverence we have for bluegrass music and acoustic roots music in general. Obviously, the gigs have thinned out over the past two years during COVID, but I know I speak for all of us when I say we’re very excited to get back out there and share our music with live audiences.

What interests you when you’re not playing music?

I love just hanging out with my son Milo, being out in nature, spending quiet time at home, cooking, working on my artwork, taking care of my plants, reading, watching documentaries, listening to old records, being outside with my boy, throwing the football around, and backyard bonfires. Honestly just a pretty quiet and simple life.

How would you compare the musical versus photographic creative process?

Even though I shoot a lot of portraits, photography can be somewhat singular and lonesome—an isolated craft. Lots of hours editing, studying, printing, alone. I have complete control from beginning to end as far as how the work is captured and presented to the public. Whereas music for me is very collaborative. There are a lot of variables outside of myself that dictate the experience. Abandoning the control that I have with photography for the unknown aspects of a jam, recording, or performance is very liberating to me. With music I’m just one finger on a hand versus with my photography and illustration work I’m often the entire hand.

Im guessing the nickname Snap has something to with photography.

Yea, my birth name is Tony. I’m named after my father and grandfather. Snap came about because of me being a photographer. That’s what most people call me these days.

How many students do you have and what’s something you teach that might not be common?

Being an instructor is one of my favorite aspects of being a musician. Whether it’s private one-on-one lessons, leading a workshop, or teaching at a music camp, I find so much joy in the process. Before COVID, I had about a dozen students on and off. I’ve also been fortunate to assist and teach banjo and ukulele at various music camps and festivals. I taught online for a short time and realized it just wasn’t for me. Some are great at it, like Bill Evans, Megan Lynch, Evie Ladin, Sharon Gilchrist, and many more. My favorite aspect of teaching has always been the hands-on in-person stuff. The real-time interplay is what excites me. As far as teaching something not commonly taught, I’m an instructor at RiverTunes, a camp put on by the unfairly talented Joe Craven, and one of my most highly attended workshops year after year has been my “Clawhammer and Three-Finger Style Techniques for the Ukulele.” For whatever reason people really dig that one!

Youve played a bunch of CBA events. Tell us about a memorable gig.

One that stands out to me would be our performance on the Vern’s Stage (named after the late great Vern Williams) at the annual CBA Grass Valley Father’s Day Bluegrass Festival. Vern’s is the smallest of the three stages at the festival but is famous for oftentimes having the most passionate and lively crowds—real hardcore bluegrass and old-time fans. I just remember looking out in the packed crowd and seeing the faces of so many people that we love and respect deeply. Fellow musicians, family, friends, bluegrass luminaries. It was just a really great set. One of those magical moments where everything goes right. We were extremely prepared and practiced up for that one. Bill Evans even sat in with us. A day and set I’ll never forget. The cherry on top was after our performance, I was approached by the Janet Deering of Deering Banjos and I was offered an endorsement deal. What a day!

How do you describe your music to someone not familiar with bluegrass or old-time?

I sometimes say, acoustic string band music rooted in bluegrass with hints of blues, jazz, pop, and soul. But honestly in this day and age, instead of trying to describe it to them, I usually just refer them to one of the many places that they can take a quick listen. One of the beauties of technology!

Snap Jackson & the Knock on Wood Players play Minor Setback for NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts

Are there any particular eras of bluegrass/old-time that you favor?

I truly enjoy so many groups and sounds spanning the entire bluegrass spectrum. From the traditional sounds of Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, Jimmy Martin, and Flatt & Scruggs to the progressive virtuosic groups like the Punch Brothers, Sierra Hull, Béla Fleck, Billy Strings, and Molly Tuttle. I dig great ’70s stuff like John Hartford, J.D. Crowe, the Seldom Scene, and the Osborne Brothers. It just depends on what mood I’m in on any particular day. It all informs my songwriting and banjo playing in one way or another.

How do you get over musical hurdles?

For me the “trick” is consistency. Try and create a routine and stick with it. Put in the time. There’s nothing better than hard work. That being said, go easy on yourself. It’s often difficult to see our progress from an outsider’s perspective. Also, the best thing sometimes is to just step away and clear your mind, get some rest, and come back with a fresh mind. It’s easy to become frustrated and discouraged, but as we all know, negativity blocks creativity. I used to get in the bad habit of comparing myself to other players, which can be a very slippery slope. My focus these days is incremental and consistent self-improvement, brick-by-brick. I just try to be a little bit better than I was the day before. 

What’s the first thing you do when you pick your instrument?

Tune!

For the geeks out there, what instruments do you have, play, and love?

Oh yes, I love the geeky questions. Haha! I’m beyond blessed to be endorsed by the kind folks over at Deering Banjos. They’re a family-owned and operated company out of Southern California making beautiful banjos. I play their Calico maple model and their John Hartford model with the wooden granadillo tone ring. The Calico has such a clean clear punch to it. I have that one set up with a G# head, a custom Silvio Ferretti Scorpion bridge that he made for me, and GHS J.D Crowe Studio Strings. The Hartford is such a cool banjo with such a unique tone. The wooden tone ring gives it a cool dry pop. It’s much lighter than your average bluegrass banjo but surprisingly doesn’t seem to suffer on the volume or power side of things. I sometimes tune the Hartford down to open E, or sometimes F. It sounds great in the lower keys. I have that set up with a Nechville bridge, Deering light gauge strings, and G# head. Both Deering banjos are so responsive and easy to play, with their unique characteristics. 

My clawhammer banjos are a Bob Carlin model with a 12-inch renaissance head and scooped neck, and a no-name late 1800s fretless banjo with a calfskin head. I use Dean Hoffmeyer fingerpicks and some old Nationals from the 1940s that Bill Evans passed down to me, Bluechip thumb picks, and Paige capos. I’m also endorsed by the Kala Ukulele Co.

Are you Stones or Beatles?

Even though I tend to lean towards a little rough around the edges, I would still have to say the Beatles. I mean, c’mon. Their intricate, ever-changing, prolific body of work is unmatched in music. Such a luscious sound.

Any final thoughts or things you want to share with the readers?

I just want to say thank you to all of you who continue to nurture and support this music we all care so deeply about. I know it’s been a tough couple of years for most people out there. Especially those in the creative world. I hope everyone is finding some peace of mind and solace in the things that bring them joy. Hang in there, y’all, and for those of you looking for up to date daily band content, feel free to follow us on Instagram (@knockonwoodplayers). Thanks!

Thanks so much, Snap.

No, thank you, Dave! I really appreciate your time and interest.

Snap Jackson and the Knock on Wood Players live at Bowers Mansion Bluegrass Festival 2017

Copy Editing by Jeanie Polling

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About the Author

Dave Berry

Dave Berry is an avid mandolin picker, singer and songwriter who writes an interview column for the monthly California Bluegrass Association (CBA) members publication featuring California regional and national artists who tour California. He grew up in bluegrass country on the Ohio River right between where the Big Sandy and Big Scioto Rivers dump into the Ohio. The columns are also featured on the CBA website.