Puremusic interview with
Jorma Kaukonen
by Frank Goodman next

Throughout history, there has been a long lineage of electric guitar heroes. In their parallel universe, there have been as many acoustic guitar heroes. But the only musicians I can think of who have legitimately been both are Richard Thompson and Jorma Kaukonen.

Jorma rose to superstardom in his early twenties in The Jefferson Airplane. (In fact, he named the band. It was part of a name a friend made up for him, Blind Thomas Jefferson Airplane.) Paul Kantner and Marty Balin needed a lead player, and he took the spot reluctantly. He was more into the Blues. His propensity for acoustic fingerstyle spawned an instrumental on their 1967 breakthrough record Surrealistic Pillow called "Embryonic Journey" that is still in demand, featured in the soundtrack of A Walk On The Moon (the great movie produced by Dustin Hoffman), and the NBC series The Sixties.

The legend of Jefferson Airplane is a matter of Psychedelic record, and in 1970 Jorma and bassist Jack Casady put together Hot Tuna. Hot Tuna was and is a Blues based act (from a duo to a quintet over the years) that featured the work of Reverend Gary Davis and other acoustic Blues masters, as well as Jorma's originals in this style.

I certainly recall the mind boggling impact that the first Hot Tuna album (recorded live at Berkeley's New Orleans House) had on my musical family and all my fingerpicking friends in the suburbs of Philly. We all started to learn as many of the difficult pieces note for note as we could. "Hesitation Blues," "Death Don't Have No Mercy," "Mann's Fate," and all the rest, it was even more exciting than learning the Mississippi John Hurt or Blind Blake numbers. This was a young white cat, a Rock guy. He jammed in the middle of the pieces with a great bassist, it was a totally different and very cool trip. It made fingerstyle Blues even cooler than we thought it was, it made it cool to Everybody. (Hell, it's 30 years later and I still like to play a version of "How Long Blues," the Leroy Carr song I learned from that record as a teenager.)

In fact, we think that first Hot Tuna record is so important that we will include some clips from it on the Listen page, since it's still available, reissued in 1996 with five previously unreleased tracks.

There have been many incarnations of Hot Tuna over the years, and they are still actively touring and recording. They have been featured in several Further Festival tours. The current lineup includes Jorma and Jack with keyboardist Pete Sears, drummer Harvey Sorgen, and Michael Falzarano on guitar and mandolin.
In 1998, Jorma and his wife Vanessa Lillian opened the Fur Peace Guitar Ranch. On a farm in Pomeroy, OH, they built two dozen outbuildings, mostly to house visiting students. The site now includes a 32 track recording facility, a music library, a gourmet kitchen and a dining hall. They're currently building a 200 seat concert venue. From April to October, students of various levels take weekend workshops from world class guitarists. (One of them, Aussie Geoff Achison, is reviewed in this issue.) Some of the luminaries among the instructors, besides Jorma himself, are John Hammond, Roy Book Binder, Rory Block, Alvin "Youngblood" Hart, and Duke Robillard. You can even learn bass from Jack Casady or guitar repair from Dan Erlewine. We plan to make a Puremusic call on the Fur Peace Guitar Ranch in the Spring, and we'll write a feature all about the experience, which promises to be very special. You can find out even more about this unique and wonderful place at the website, furpeaceranch.com.

It had been some years since I'd seen Jorma or Vanessa, and I was very happy to do so again. They were both looking radiant, very healthy. We met at the Elliston Soda Shop in Nashville one Saturday at 8:15 in the morning. Jorma was in town recording with the Bluegrass "A" team (Sam Bush on mandolin, Byron House on bass, Jerry Douglas on dobro, and Bela Fleck on banjo) for a new record on Columbia. It's not everybody that gets a new deal with Columbia Records at 61, but he's a person who has broken a few rules in his time. We discussed his current project and anything else we could think of before it was time to head down the studio. It was a real pleasure, he's a helluva guy.  continue to interview