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Jorma Kaukonen's country heart beats blue

By Brian Baker, July 2002

Jorma Kaukonen is happy about his new album, "Blue Country Heart," and his enthusiasm for the project is clearly apparent even through the phone line. "I'm thrilled with it myself," says a barely contained Kaukonen. "I told one of the guys from Columbia the other night that if we'd done the session, and they'd burned one CD-R (CD-rom) and gave it to me, I'd have been happy. But it's even better that other people can hear it.

Although Kaukonen's primary area of passion and expertise has always been the blues, he's never minded going a little further afield in the interest of experimentation and growth.

It was in that very mindset that Kaukonen made the decision back in 1966 to join Marty Balin and Paul Kantner when they invited him and his longstanding musical partner, bassist Jack Casady, to hook up with their newly formed psychedelic folk rock collective; it was Kaukonen who proffered the band its name, inspired by a friend who had nicknamed the blues guitarist Blind Thomas Jefferson Airplane, in the style of the great players of the '20s and '30s.

When Kaukonen tired of the Airplane's pop success, he and Casady returned to their blues roots by forming the side project Hot Tuna, an electric blues band of earthshaking proportions.

When the Airplane finally grounded itself in favor of the flashier and even poppier Jefferson Starship, Kaukonen chose his solo and Hot Tuna personas over the chart success of the Starship (Casady maintained his dual memberships). For the past 30 years, Hot Tuna has existed in some form or another, the latest incarnation being a stripped down acoustic blues presentation featuring Kaukonen and Casady alone.

When Kaukonen was given the chance to inject a little country into his bluesy state of mind, he leapt at the opportunity, resulting in the release of "Blue Country Heart," Kaukonen's brilliant interpretations of country blues standards and obscurities from an earlier and simpler part of the century, all performed with some of the best contemporary players in the business (Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Byron House, Bla Fleck among them).

When Kaukonen was first confronted with the possibility of doing this kind of album, it was completely in the realm of theory and speculation.

"What happened was, a couple years ago I was doing a solo show at B.B. King's in New York, and Yves Beauvais, the guy who A&Red and co-produced the record, came to see the show and liked it," says Kaukonen from his recent tour stop in Philadelphia. (Record company A&R personnel are the folks who sign artists to the label)

"He came backstage, and we were talking; he really liked what I did, and he was with Atlantic at the time, and he said, 'If you could do a dream project, what would it be?' You think about this kind of stuff - I've been pals with Sam and Byron for awhile, and I casually knew Jerry - so I said, 'I'd love to go to Nashville, and do a period record, songs from the Depression and the '30s and a little newer than that, and I'd like to do it with Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, and Byron House.' So he said, 'Let me think about it,' and he vanished into the woodwork, and I didn't hear from him for six months. I figured, 'Eh, you know...'

"But then he calls me up and says, 'You didn't hear from me because I was changing companies. I'm with Columbia now. Are you still interested in doing the project?' I said, 'Uh, yeah!' He said, 'Call the guys, and see if they're interested.' I did, and they were, and we got to do it.

With the almost limitless auspices of Columbia Records behind him ("To be on a major label at this point in my career is really something special, especially for someone like me who's cruising along below the radar most of the time," says the chagrined guitarist) and the obvious interest of some of country music's greatest musical practitioners waiting in the wings, the only part of the equation that was missing were the songs to be recorded.

To this point, Kaukonen had thought about the album in only the vaguest terms and had expended little energy on compiling an actual list of material from which to extract a working set list for the record.

Luckily, Kaukonen found himself well-stocked when it came to musicologists with a keen ear for '20s and '30s country blues material, almost too well stocked as a matter of fact.

"Yves is an A&R guy in the classic Ahmet Ehrtegun tradition," says Kaukonen with a laugh, referring to the former head of Atlantic. "Even though I have a large collection of stuff - most of which I haven't listened to in years because it's on vinyl, and who knows if my turntable still works - we discussed the stuff I liked, and he started burning CD-Rs with stuff from his collection, and Columbia and all these archives. We started out with more than 200 songs, and I liked them all, but some of them were easier to make mine. About 3 weeks before the session, I still had about 30 songs, and I said, 'I gotta get off my ass and pick a dozen or so songs and actually learn them rather than just listening to all this stuff and enjoying them.' So I just picked songs that I really liked and that I thought I could Jorma-ize quickly.

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