Singer, songwriter and guitarist Jorma Kaukonen was a founder of classic rock group Jefferson Airplane. Over the decades, Jorma has been exploring the folk, acoustic and country roots of rock music. He's had success as a solo artist, and still plays with former Jefferson Airplane bandmate Jack Cassady as part of the duo, Hot Tuna. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Jorma Kaukonen's latest release is Blue Country Heart.
For his new album Blue Country Heart, Jorma Kaukonen gathered some of Nashville's prominent folk, country and bluegrass artists, such as banjo player Bela Fleck, mandolin and fiddle player Sam Bush, and the master of the dobro, Jerry Douglas. For the recording session, Jorma told the engineer to just roll some tape while they sat in a circle and played. Jorma says that rock fans who have followed his career since the 1960s are commenting that they're intrigued with his new album.
"I hear a lot of people who listen to what I'm doing and they say, 'I didn't know I was going to like country music.' And I say, 'Well, it's not exactly country music, and what do you mean by country music?' Once again, there's just a heavy roots/blues feeling to the whole thing," he says.
With Blue Country Heart, Jorma returns to his first love, traditional and bluegrass music. That influence was heard in his early work with Jefferson Airplane, especially in his instrumentals with bandmate Paul Kantner.
"When I started out playing music when I was a kid, I started out playing 'old-timey' songs because when you study an instrument, you don't just sort of generically learn an instrument," he says. "You have to learn something. And I like that stuff, because my dad had the music around the house and I started playing those things. And I think many of us, even Paul (Kantner) and some of the other guys in the band, playing folk music, you're going to play some of that stuff. But, it's certainly morphed into the so-called psychedelic music of the period. But still, you're absolutely right, it was always there."
Fans and music journalists will probably always refer to Jorma as the original Jefferson Airplane guitarist, and one of the architects of the San Francisco sound of the late-1960s. But does that overshadow all his solo accomplishments of the past three decades?
"I think there might have been a point in my life where I might have thought that it did, but today I really don't think so," he says. "It's like the Oh Brother, Where Are Thou?' movie. Whatever it takes to give you visibility so people can hear your music is O.K. And that's O.K. with me, because that's what we did. It's not what I do now, but it certainly is what we did. And as a result of doing that, probably, we're having this conversation today."
Since 1998, Jorma and his wife Vanessa have been running the Fur Peace Ranch and Guitar Camp in southeastern Ohio. From February through November, guitar students from all over the world journey there to study with Jorma and some of the most prominent musicians in rock, pop, country and folk.
Kaukonen: "The camp has been successful beyond our wildest dreams. It's just really a lot of fun, and you and I have talked about this before. In fact, we have to get you out there one of these days."
Bernard: "I'd still love to come."
Kaukonen: "But since we last talked, we finished our 200-seat theater, our little radio show is growing, and life is good."
Jorma Kaukonen runs his camp and teaches classes, while juggling solo dates and recording sessions. He's been playing as part of Jam Grass, an ensemble of different country bluegrass musicians, in a traveling road show. In the next few weeks, he'll head out on the road again with former Jefferson Airplane bandmate Jack Cassady for their annual Hot Tuna autumn tour of the eastern U.S.
Jorma says one song from Blue Country Heart reminds him of some old San Francisco friends who have passed away - musicians Jerry Garcia, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. It's called What Are They Doing in Heaven Tonight.