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Jorma Kaukonen kicks back (sort of) and comes full circle with "Ain't In No Hurry"

By Brian Baker, February 2015

Jorma Kaukonen has reached that stage in life where any break he takes is well earned and completely deserved. The 74-year-old singer/songwriter is a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee for his work with Jefferson Airplane and his solo career has kept him busy - and fans deliriously happy - for an astonishing 41 years when he's not sometimes playing with Hot Tuna. He and his wife, Vanessa, have tasked themselves with the nurturing of the world's guitarist population through various teaching/live/radio pursuits at their Fur Peace Ranch, headquartered near Athens, Ohio.

If Kaukonen betrays any evidence of the advancing years, it's in his admission that he utilizes a hearing device for phone calls and conversations.

"I haven't totally mastered the technology yet; that's why I ride a Harley," jokes Kaukonen from San Diego, where he's scheduled to teach guitar classes and play some Hot Tuna dates. "I don't wear them for music because I don't like the way it sounds. The good news is my hearing hasn't hurt my musical ability, and these enable me to hear my wife and daughter, and they like that."

Kaukonen's musical journey began when he was a teenager. A native of Washington D.C., his diplomat father moved the family several times, including stints in the Philippines and Cleveland. Kaukonen taught himself to play guitar, attended Ohio's Oberlin College in the early '60s and eventually ensconced himself in the folk music scene in New York's Greenwich Village.

Jorma Kaukonen - In My Dreams

A move to San Francisco led him to Paul Kantner and an invitation to join his proposed band; it was Kaukonen who suggested the name Jefferson Airplane, a riff on a blues nickname given him by a friend. The band became one of the leading lights of the mid-'60s Haight Ashbury scene, and their music became an acid-drenched soundtrack for the era, as they garnered ubiquitous radio play, did concerts and festivals (Woodstock and Altamont, most famously) and even appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show.

"Ed hated us," says Kaukonen with an audible grin. "And with some good reason, I have to say."

But Kaukonen became increasingly frustrated with the band's direction, wanting to return to his blues/folk roots. In 1970, he and longtime friend/D.C. band mate/Airplane bassist Jack Casady formed their incendiary blues outfit Hot Tuna as a side project, but within 3 years, Kaukonen and Casady exited the Airplane permanently and made Hot Tuna their main course.

In 1974, Kaukonen released his debut solo album "Quah," which he'd been working on for nearly two years. Anyone expecting a psychedelic freak out or an electric blues noodlefest were astonished by Kaukonen's gently fingerpicked and string-arranged folk homage to heroes like the Reverend Gary Davis and Blind Arthur Blake. It also displayed a quality that has defined Kaukonen's work ever since - the uncanny ability to write with the brilliance and authenticity of the performers he most admires.

"I think about the stuff I've liked since I was a kid, and it really hasn't changed much. Sure, I hear lots of newer stuff, and I'm not lost in time, but I think my musical sensibilities stopped growing in the '30s. I just love that stuff, and it's not just the way I think. To come across with that feeling and not just be an archivist when I'm trying to replicate other people's work, that's a great compliment."

Kaukonen's 40-year solo career has included acoustic and electric blues and folk, bluegrass, gospel and even a predominantly original Christmas album. With "Ain't In No Hurry," Kaukonen completes his creative arc by emphasizing the fingerpicked elegance of "Quah."

"I've never set out to do a concept album, but any album that I've done, even if there's a disparate selection of songs on it, basically it all had to do with whatever story I was telling at the time," says Kaukonen. "That's what happened with 'Quah' and with his latest "Ain't In No Hurry.'"

Like most of Kaukonen's solo works, the new album is a wonderful mix of well-chosen covers and perfectly conceived originals. Jim Eagen's contemporarily written "Ain't In No Hurry," inspired Kaukonen enough to make it his unironic title track.

"Jim's a really nice guy, and he was one of our students at the Ranch a couple of years ago; he's not as old as me, but he's not a kid," says Kaukonen. "Our Ranch thing goes from Friday morning to Monday morning, and on Sunday afternoon, we have an open mic, and everybody gets to play a song. Jim played that song, and my wife, Vanessa, went, 'That's a great song. You've got to do that song.' And I went, 'You're right.' We talked to him about it, and he sent the lyrics and a recording, and when we got into it, I said, 'This is a great title for where I am in my life today.' On the one hand, you are in a hurry to get things done because time is finite, but there are a lot of things you're not in a hurry to get done. And I just really like the song."

Kaukonen also covers a couple of great period pieces, Jimmy Cox's "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out," and Yip Harburg's "Brother Can You Spare a Dime," both of which hold a special place in his musical heart.

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