Music News & Reviews

Vintage blues never grow old for guitar great Jorma Kaukonen

Jorma Kaukonen, who entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the 
long-defunct  Jefferson Airplane, continues to tour solo and as a member of Hot Tuna.
Jorma Kaukonen, who entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the long-defunct Jefferson Airplane, continues to tour solo and as a member of Hot Tuna.

Every time Jorma Kaukonen plays Hesitation Blues, a bit of history unfolds.

The legacy doesn't exclusively involve the song, even though it has been recorded during the past 90 years or so by artists as varied as W.C. Handy, Duke Ellington, Janis Joplin and a performer whose music has long inspired Kaukonen, the great gospel bluesman known as the Rev. Gary Davis.

But Kaukonen's link to the song, and to similarly vintage blues works by Davis, Jelly Roll Morton, Leroy Carr and the like, also has become historic. From his days as a youth in Washington, D.C., fascinated by the blues, to his ongoing tenure with the Jefferson Airplane spinoff band Hot Tuna and right up through his solo shows today, tunes such as Hesitation Blues continue to hold him in thrall.

"And I don't know why that is," said Kaukonen, 71, who performs at Natasha's Bistro & Bar on Sunday with longtime mandolinist/accompanist Barry Mitterhoff. "I don't do songs that don't stay fresh. A lot of songs, ... they're just not me anymore. But the songs I've been doing for, like, half a century, like Hesitation Blues ... for some reason, are just as much fun to play now as they ever were.

"Growing up in D.C., there really were no boundaries to what you heard. Some of the classics, like the Louvin Brothers' I Don't Believe You've Met My Baby, were just popular songs that were on the radio. There was this feeling of longing in that music.

"With that in mind, I remember I used to do this song called Worried Man Blues. You know that one? 'It takes a worried man to sing a worried song' and 'when I woke there were shackles on my feet'? Well, my dad would hear me play this stuff and would go, 'What do you know about being worried? What do you know about shackles?' I wanted to say, 'I'm a teenager, Dad. I know a lot about both of those things,' but I wisely kept my mouth shut. But for some reason, that music just spoke to me. And as the years go by, it still speaks to me."

Though introduced to the blues and the finger-picking styles that went with them by mentoring guitarist Ian Buchanan, something very electric happened when Kaukonen moved to California in 1962. He discovered rock 'n' roll by way of an alliance that became Jefferson Airplane. At first, adjusting from playing Davis' songs in folk clubs to a band that would be at the forefront of a pioneering Bay Area psychedelic sound was difficult.

"When I got into the Airplane, that transition was huge because I had never really played electric guitar before, even though I had owned one from time to time," Kaukonen said. "I had certainly never played one in the way we have come to take for granted now with sustain and all that nonsense.

"The very nature of the music was totally different from anything that I was really familiar with. So I guess the good news was when I got introduced to rock 'n' roll by the Airplane, it was totally a blank page. So I really got a chance to experiment and come up with a style of my own where, for better or worse — and I think over time it's been for the better — I never really tried to sound like anybody else because I had never really listened to anybody else in that genre before."

Kaukonen's tenure in the Airplane, which disbanded in 1972, led to his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. These days, though, when not on the road, he teaches and performs at Fur Peace Ranch, a guitar camp near Pomeroy, Ohio, on the West Virginia state line, which he owns and operates with his wife, Vanessa.

"My blessings are boundless," Kaukonen said. "I am the luckiest man in the world for, among other things, the fact that I have pretty much been able to do what I love to do all of my life. You wonder how things work out that way.

"My major income is still from touring. The Fur Peace Ranch doesn't cost us money anymore, but I'm not going to retire on that. Still, it has opened so many doors for me. So many great shows have come to play at our venue. And teaching has improved my personal playing more. I owe my students a huge debt of gratitude because I probably learn more from them than they would ever learn from me.

"I mean, I'm sitting here in southeast Ohio. You're calling from Kentucky, so you know what I mean. It's beautiful outside today. My house is paid for. I get to play guitar for a living. It doesn't get any better than that."

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader