When John Jorgenson, a laid-back, soft-spoken Californian who lives in Nashville, picks up a guitar, he can chicken pick, string together long, staccato Gypsy Jazz lines or rack up chorus after face-melting chorus of rock and blues licks like few other people on the planet.
What comes out of the instrument, as Jorgenson told the Advocate last week when he was in Copper Mountain, Co. for Guitar Town, a two-day guitar festival, depends largely on the instrument itself. A Telecaster? Expect to hear country, bluegrass and rockabilly, genres that radiated for decades from the American Southeast all the way to Jorgenson’s native California. (Oh, he can also play the clarinet, pedal steel, mandolin and sax.)
But Jorgenson’s also a consummate professional, a bandleader as well as a first-call session man for artists like Elton John, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris and Bonnie Raitt. Jorgenson performs with fellow shredder Albert Lee at Infinity Music Hall and Bistro in Norfolk on Aug. 21.
[NOTE: Interview has been condensed and edited.]
Hartford Advocate: Tell me how and why you got into Gypsy Jazz and Django Reinhardt. What are the areas of overlap with, say, progressive American country music?
John Jorgenson: I first heard Django in 1979. I was playing acoustic guitar and mandolin. To hear someone attack the guitar like that... the acoustic to my mind was a little more folksy and less aggressive. Django played so aggressively, and that’s what turned me on to that style. To me guitar playing is one giant world, and guitarists usually like guitar players in other styles. A metal shred guy will appreciate a jazz guitarist and what have you.
The type of guitar you use for Gypsy Jazz and the Telecaster are so, so different. The pick that you use for Gypsy Jazz is like 5 mm., and on the Telecaster you use your fingers too. The strings feel different. When a guitar comes into my hands, that’s what dictates what I play. If I attack the Telecaster the way I would in a jazz setting, it just does sound good. The sound of the instruments and the response really helps me decide what to play.
What I’ve found is that stylistically I can’t help but cross over a little. You can do that as a humorous thing or if you want to have a jarring effect to the song. but most of the time I’m going to not want to pull people out of the style they came to hear. i just try to express myself within the style.
HA: In the mid-80s you became really well known for starting the Desert Rose Band with ex-Byrd Chris Hillman. Tell me what it was like to be playing a form of alt-country during that period when perhaps it wasn’t in the vanguard.
JJ: We were all from California, and there’s a particular California mindset. If I had known what the country music business was like I probably never would have tried. It didn’t seem far-fetched to me to try to use a classic British guitar sound within a traditional country setting. Country radio really hopped on it. They played Desert Rose Band music, and they thought it was a fresh new sound. We were happy about that. I felt more out of place when we became part of the machine, opening for artists like Conway Twitty and Lee Greenwood. Nothing against those artists, but I didn’t think those artists had much to do with us. There’s a one-size-fits-all mentality. So this movement we were a part of, Steve Earle called it the Great Credibility Scare. You had artists like Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith... It lasted for awhile. K.D. Lang was part of that too. most of the artists went on and had a good run, and most of them moved into areas that weren’t strictly country.
HA: Did you imagine yourself moving into other musical genres?
JJ: I really did thing that country was going to be it. In hindsight, I grew up playing classical, rock. I played Gypsy Jazz before I played country music. My first album was a Gypsy Jazz record, and I made that album mostly as a reminder of the music I used to play. At the time, the Desert Rose Band was all encompassing. I didn’t see myself touring with Elton John... I didn’t know any of that was going to happen. Gypsy Jazz was so underground, sort of an offshoot of traditional jazz or swing, which itself is a niche. With the advent of the Internet, there started to be enough interest in the U.S. to generate some festivals and to tour... In 2003, I’d been mainly touring with my quintet, but two or three years ago Brad Paisley asked me to be on a track where he wanted to include his heroes. He was very influenced by the Desert Rose Band, and Albert Lee was one of his favorite guitarists. The song we recorded won a Grammy, and it reminded me that I want to play that kind of music. So, the Desert Rose Band did a reunion tour, and it kind of pulled me back to the electric guitar.
The other thing that happened was because of a huge flood in Nashville, a lot of my instruments ended up underwater. I spent a lot of time with my electric guitars, getting them back in shape, and I wrote a lot of new material. I can see now how the energy was conspiring to make this happen. I also wanted to do something with Albert, who plays so much in Europe. We did a west coast run, and now we’ll start an east coast run.
HA: What does it take to be both a successful bandleader and also to be playing on somebody else’s records?
JJ: Well, it helps to have been an artist and bandleader as well. I try to put myself into the artists position. I know what I want when I’m out there, so I try to give that to whomever I’m working with. It’s not my name on the ticket, it’s his. Still, I try to be true to myself and to be true to the music. With Elton, it’s not really guitar music, so I challenged myself to entertain with movement, for people who were far away from the stage. Also, I wasn’t tied to the instrument; I was playing pedal steel, mandolin, saxophone. I don’t keep up on every instrument, but I’ll concentrate on what I need to at the time.
HA: If you could play with any artist on the scene right now, who would it be?
JJ: Peter Gabriel, Wynton Marsalis and Paul McCartney. I just really respect them artistically and I really like their music. They always present something interesting, original. Peter Gabriel always does interesting things to me. Wynton is such a great musician and he’s a philanthropist as well. McCartney does that too, and who wouldn’t want to play his music?
HA: What will you and Albert Lee play at Infinity Hall? How’s the band that’s with you?
JJ: The band is bass player Lance Hoppen, Jason Smith on drums and Jeff Ross on keys. We’ll do some traditional rock and roll, some early Elvis recordings like “Sweet Little Lisa,” we’ll play together then each do a short set of things on our own. I do a Hellecaster number that was played at the Sydney Olympics, some Everly Brothers (with whom Albert played for many years), Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris... We’ll cover all of our careers and the things that we like.