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Johnny Staats keeps the (UPS) day job

By Jon Weisberger, May 2000

At this point, two months after the release of his debut, "Wires And Wood," it's tempting to make the media attention Johnny Staats has gotten, rather than he and his music, the center of a story.

After all, it's unusual (to say the least) for a young bluegrass picker to not only release his first album on a major Nashville label, Giant, but to be the subject of national press and television coverage before the album's even been released.

Evidently, CBS and the New York Times have only recently become aware that many of even bluegrass' most talented and best-known musicians have day jobs.

Staats, though, knows it all too well. Born, raised and still living in West Virginia, he's spent plenty of time around the bluegrass scene in his native area.

"I started listening to Bill Monroe and playing the mandolin when I was real young, probably around eight or nine," he recalls. "I think I bought everything Bill Monroe put out. I listened to him, and then as I was getting older, I wanted to explore different kinds of music. I started hearing Sam Bush and the Newgrass Revival, and I liked the way he was playing - it wasn't exactly bluegrass - but I wanted to get my own style, too."

That the young Staats did and not only on the mandolin.

"A guitar player here in West Virginia, whose name is Robert Schaefer, won an international guitar competition. Well, Robert lives just down the road from me, and I loved how he played the guitar, so I immediately got a guitar and started. I said, 'I'm just going to learn how to play like that.' He and I would go to a lot of contests, and you know, we'd have fun at it, but we never would take it seriously. Sometimes he'd win, sometimes I'd win. It's just all in fun. A lot of people go to contests, and they'll get all upset if they don't do well, but that wasn't the case with me."

Not that he had a lot of occasion to get upset anyhow; he won the Ohio State Guitar Championship in 1992 and 1993, and in recent years has taken home three trophies from Charleston, West Va.'s Vandalia Gathering for his mandolin playing - plus another for guitar - as well as a guitar award from a Merlefest competition and a victory for his band at the Winterhawk Bluegrass Festival in New York.

While some players make a career of contests, though, that's not for Staats. For one thing, he writes his own tunes, which doesn't necessarily get you very far in contests.

All but one of the seven instrumentals on his album come from his pen, many of them now well-polished after years of playing.

Staats has a distinctive style, not only in his playing - "I use a lot of pull offs," he says, "because instead of just hitting a bunch of notes - ticky, ticky, ticky - the pull offs add more flavor to it" - but also in his composition.

"I like minor chords," he says, pointing to a feature unusual in bluegrass. "I've been in some bands before that didn't even believe in a minor chord. I mean, you say 'hit an E minor chord there,' and they say, 'what's that?' I've been writing some songs in major keys, but I really love the minor keys; there's just something about them, on any instrument, that really gets to me."

"I wrote a lot of the songs on the CD back when I was in high school. I just never did get a chance to put them on tape before. I had all these songs and nowhere to put them, and it wasn't until I was about 28 that I went to Nashville and we started working on the CD. It took us a couple of years because of our work schedules."

The "we" here is no accident, and it refers not only to the musicians who appear on "Wires And Wood."

Understanding it goes a long way in explaining how the album came to be and why Staats is getting so much attention. The story goes back to his double victory on mandolin and guitar at the Vandalia Gathering in 1997.

Ron Sowell, music director for public radio's popular Mountain Stage show, heard Staats there and was, he says, "blown away." Sowell, in turn, brought a tape of the performance to Sony Publishing's John Van Meter, himself a bluegrass fan of long standing. When Van Meter shared his enthusiasm, the project was born.

"Ron took me over to John's house, and he said, 'I just want to throw a little party and have some pickers over.' I said, 'well, you do that, and I'll come down and play some.' So I took off work and went down there, and he had (former Newgrass Revival bassist) John Cowan there that night. He had Jim Hurst, and there were a couple of other pickers too. It just all clicked together. So then, they started thinking about doing a CD with those guys" - Cowan, Hurst, banjoist Scott Vestal and a select handful of guests, including Sam Bush himself.

With the project completed, Van Meter and Sowell set to work finding a label. Staats remembers, "When John Van Meter first told me, 'I've got this record label that's going to release the CD, Johnny,' I said, 'well, okay.' He said, 'It's Giant Records.' Well, I didn't know the difference between a major label and any other, so I said, 'Is that a pretty good label?' He said, 'Well, I'll tell you, it's a step above a bluegrass label. To be honest with you, Johnny, I can't remember the last time a bluegrass act did get on a major label.'"Being on a major label and not being Top 40 country...I wondered a couple of times, you know, what made Giant want to put this CD on their label. Granted, I'm not going to sell as many albums as The Wilkinsons or Clay Walker, but they love, it, and they told me that they wanted it."

The fact that, signed though he was to a major label, Staats had no intention of giving up his day job as a UPS driver, gave a special twist to his story - at least in the eyes of much of the press.

Staat's interest in economic security is genuine - "I realize that with the style of music I'm playing, it's risky, and this way if it falls flat and doesn't go any further, at least I've got a job with benefits" - and so is his appreciation for the latitude the company has given him to make appearances, but he's not unaware of its benefits as a news angle, either.

"This UPS thing just added icing to the cake, and this kind of business you need all the help you can get," he says with a disarming frankness.

Still, in the end, it's clear that for Staats, it's the music that matters. He's excited about a couple of high-profile appearances with the John Cowan Band, but he's even more enthusiastic about his own band, the Delivery Boys (his old guitar buddy Robert Schaefer's in it), and their summer schedule. "I drive for UPS," he chuckles, "and the drummer works for the Post Office, and the banjo player, he delivers concrete. So I said, 'boys, let's just name it the Delivery Boys.'"

Whatever it's called, though, it's a fine, solid band behind a powerful picker - and who knows? Maybe someday Johnny Staats will be able to do as well for himself fronting a band as driving a truck. That he can't do so yet says a lot more about the music business these days than it does about him.