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Jorma Kaukonen's country heart beats blue

By Brian Baker, July 2002

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Once the songs were finalized - represented by everyone from Jimmie Rodgers to the Delmore Brothers to Larry Hensley to "The Singing Governor," Jimmie Davis - and the talent was assembled in Nashville, noted producer Roger Moutenot installed the players at the city's Masterlink studio in a single room for the "Blue Country Heart" sessions.

With everyone playing vintage instruments from the covered period and sitting in the same space while performing the songs, the recording took on an intimacy that surprised everyone involved.

As the time for the sessions drew nearer, Beauvais tweaked Kaukonen's idea for the album up a notch with an offer for a cameo appearance, one that helped shape the direction of the material beyond his original conception.

"Getting B四a Fleck on two cuts was just the frosting on the cake," says Kaukonen. "I'm unknowledgeable about this stuff, but I suspect that B四a is on Columbia or knew somebody, because Yves came to me and said, 'How would you like to have B四a Fleck on a couple of cuts?' And I said, 'Uh, okay...'

"You know, B四a's an adventuresome musical spirit, and you never know where he's going to go next. He listened to the material, and he said, 'Do you mind if it kind of sounds like bluegrass?' I said, 'B四a, you can make it sound like anything you want.'" One of the greatest dichotomies of the project is the fact that "Blue Country Heart," an album of historically poignant material, was recorded using one of the most innovative and advanced technologies on the market today: direct stream digital Super Audio CD.

The irony of recording these songs - originally intended to be heard in a living room or on a stage which were then cut in wax with a steel needle and translated through a single cone speaker or a tin horn - by using this incredible leap in sound science is not lost on Kaukonen.

"I'm not an expert on this, but you hear over the years that CDs don't have this or that," says Kaukonen with a laugh. "When I talked to Jerry Douglas about doing this, I said, 'We're recording this in SACD.' And Jerry, being a Nashville guy, is really into all this stuff. 'He says, 'That's great. The sampling rate is so high that it enables you to sense the presence of things the human ear can't hear.' I'm going, 'Huh?' He said, 'When you hear a normal 44.1 CD, you can't feel the air in the room.' I said, 'Okay...' He said, 'It's hard to talk about, but when you hear an SACD, you'll know what I'm talking about.' And since I've gotten my SACD player, there really is a difference. It has more of the vinyl sound with all that depth. It is kind of funny when you think about these old songs and this new technology to play on a machine that almost nobody has.

Perhaps the biggest perceived difference on "Blue Country Heart" is the Kaukonen's apparent departure in translating early 20th century country songs outside of the realm of his standard Delta/Piedmont blues foundation. To Kaukonen, there isn't that much of a distinction to be made.

"I think there's a huge commonality between blues and country of the time," says Kaukonen. "I'm not a bluegrass musician. It's a clearly defined art form and I'm not a bluegrass guitar player, so I basically went out and did what I do. That said, I get to do it with some of the best bluegrass players in the business, who also play other stuff besides bluegrass. We didn't sit down and say, 'Okay, guys, we want to capture the feeling of spring 1931.' These guys know this music so well, so we sat down and bonded in a cool way. There's no overdubbing on this. It's all recorded live. We just sat around in a circle and started picking the songs, and they started evolving on their own.

The larger context of that commonality comes into play with the realization that the black and white musicians who performed this music were working together freely and without friction at a time when segregation was not merely de facto policy but proscribed law. Kaukonen sees that facet of the songs as their most important legacy.

"Music has always helped us transcend the horrible human trait to be prejudiced and biased and have contempt prior to investigation of stuff in general," says Kaukonen. "I remember the year they desegregated schools. And because we didn't have racism in my family, I thought, 'What's the big deal?' The big deal was that we got a couple of great football players at my high school. How superficial is that? But that's what it was all about back then. But for the musicians, friends were friends, and I don't think there were a lot of Jim Crow stuff between the players, and everybody was sharing roots and substance and material. One of the things that bonds us together is the commonality of the music, and it just seems to be that way.

And he continues that tradition of sharing with his commitment to his Fur Peace Ranch Guitar Camp in Ohio, a rustic, but technologically stocked 119-acre facility that boasts weekend workshops by the likes of G.E. Smith, Chris Smither, Guy Clark and Kaukonen himself, among many others, as they try to impart the important guitar techniques and philosophies that they have absorbed over the years.

And yet even Jorma Kaukonen the teacher can be taught, as the sessions for "Blue Country Heart" offered insights that had never been apparent previously.

"One of the things that really opened my eyes is that when you play in an ensemble context, you just have to do different stuff," says Kaukonen. "When you're being a solo blues guitar player, you're working on all this finger picking stuff. When you're in an ensemble, you do that when it's relevant, and sometimes you just play the groove. When Jack and I play together, there's a lot of flexibility to do things. For me, there's been a lot of fun in just settling down in playing in that solid groove and rip off a few licks when they're pertinent. Most professional musicians who have to play with other people learned that years ago."

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