If John Jorgenson was an octopus, he’d still need an extra head and another set of arms to accommodate all the instruments he’s mastered. It’s easier to list the instruments he doesn’t play than the ones he does.
“Sounds corny, but there’s probably no instrument that I’m not interested in, would like to be able to play, but there’s just so many hours of the day,” he said recently by phone from a tour stop. “I guess I’m just curious how to make sound.” Brass instruments are not on the list (“just don’t have the lip for it,”) and he hasn’t mastered violin, either. “Can’t make a nice sound,” he admits.
He’s proficient on piano, acoustic and electric guitars, saxophone, clarinet, bass, dobro, bouzouki, pedal steel and mandolin, as well as vocals. He’s as versatile style-wise as he is instrumentally, working in gypsy jazz with the John Jorgenson Quintet, as a three-pronged Fender Telecaster wire choir with Will Ray and Fairport Convention’s Jerry Donahue as the Hellecasters, and as a purveyor of bluegrass with his band J2B2 (John Jorgenson Bluegrass Band.)
Jorgenson’s dad conducted Benny Goodman when he was a soloist in the orchestra Jorgenson’s dad was conducting, but settled in the University of California conducting for orchestra, band and jazz.
“My dad started a program like a band camp for young jazz musicians, and I would hear Stan Kenton’s big band play every night,” Jorgenson remembers. His dad took him to see Count Basie, Woody Herman and Maynard Ferguson, but Jorgenson was mostly interested in the guitar players. “I remember seeing Freddie Green playing with Count Basie when I was pretty young, and he showed me you don’t need to use all six strings to make a chord, just use two or three.”
That technique came in handy when Jorgenson got into gypsy jazz, trying to emulate the two-fingered style Django Rhinehardt developed after two fingers on his left hand were badly injured in a fire.
“I like to do that, because it pushes you to play in different areas on the guitar fingerboard,” Jorgenson says. “You have to play out of different patterns. It’s kinda fun, and I like learning how it was possible to do the amazing things Django did with just those two fingers. It doesn’t sound possible, but it really is. It’s almost like doing a crossword puzzle.”
But before Jorgenson got to Django, he spent time at Disneyland. But he wasn’t interested in the rides, nor did he have to wear a set of mouse ears or a mascot suit.
“It wasn’t that unusual,” says the guitarist, who grew up in Redlands, near San Bernardino. “Disneyland hires a lot of musicians, especially at their peak times, summer and holidays. So over the years a lot of famous musicians have worked there. The first time I played there, (at 17) I was part of a show band, every hotel had some sort of show band for entertainment. After I graduated high school, I was part of college program there, and I worked there all summer. I ended getting a permanent job.”
He played Dixieland on clarinet with Main Street Maniacs, bluegrass on mandolin with the Thunder Mountain Boys, and guitar with the gypsy jazz, Django-influenced Rhythm Brothers.
His national exposure came in ‘85 with the Desert Rose Band, with Byrds/Flying Burrito Brothers guitarist Chris Hillman, and Herb Pedersen. The Hellecasters came together in ‘93, and in ‘94 Jorgenson was invited on an 18-month tour with Elton John and ended up spending the next six years with John on the road in and in the studio.
In 2013, Jorgenson put together J2B2, with guitarist Herb Pederson (Dillards, Old And in the Way,) former Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder bassist Mark Fain, and Patrick Sauber (Peter Rowan, Laurie Lewis) on acoustic guitar and vocal.
“I came at bluegrass backwards,” Jorgenson admits. “When I first was introduced to it, it wasn’t really bluegrass. It was progressive David Grisman kind of stuff,” he says, adding that newgrass pioneer Sam Bush was also a major mandolin influence as well as a friend and jam partner. “Eventually, I worked my way back to Jethro Burns and of course, Bill Monroe.”
J2B2 sounds like a traditional bluegrass band, but if you look and listen closely there are a few variations on the theme. “We like the gathering around one mike thing, that’s cool, but we tend to sing really dynamically with our vocals, and sometimes really soft, so if you’re all gathered around one mic and you’re singing kinda soft, it’s really kinda thin,” Jorgenson says. “So we sing on separate mikes so we can do our dynamics the way that we want.
Some have dubbed the sound “West Coast folk rock, but Jorgenson says their mountain hearts are pure even if the accents aren’t. “We’re California boys. When we sing, that sound is gonna come through more than say Kentucky or North Carolina sound of our voices. And I always feel like it’s a little bit silly to try to sound like you’re from somewhere else. I totally respect the tradition and love it, but I can’t be better than our heroes were at that, I can only be myself.”
A typical J2B2 set might include “Beautiful Sound,” which Jorgenson wrote with Chris Hillman, “I Will Shelter You,” co-written with J.D. Souther. Rodney Crowell’s “Wandering Boy,” and Herb Pedersen’s “Wait A Minute.” “Then we’ll do an Osborne Brothers song or a traditional Bill Monroe song,” Jorgenson says. “But the bulk of it is more songs that we’ve brought into it.”
“Our sensibility really is traditional bluegrass, as opposed to jamgrass or newgrass. It very much comes from the roots, but the progressive spin we put on it is more in the material. Because were still gonna sing in the traditional three-part way, and our instrumentation is still traditional. We don’t have fiddle, it’s just a four piece, so it harkens a little bit more back to the original Dillards, which was a big influence on me early on.”
Folks around these parts are familiar with Dillards from the never-ending re-runs of the Andy Griffith show. The Dillards were the Darlings, sons of Briscoe Darling and his daughter Charlene, who provided red hot old-time/bluegrass licks accompanying Briscoe’s antics trying to marry off his rambunctious daughter.
“A lot of people’s first exposure to bluegrass was that show and the ‘Beverly Hillbillies,’” Jorgenson says. “Television in a way has been good to bluegrass, to let people hear it.”
Jorgenson’s first hearing at MerleFest in 2005 wasn’t with his bluegrass band, but the response to his Django-esque quintet wasn’t what the band expected. Their outdoor set was sparsely attended. But the following indoor set, opening for Doc Watson, was more reassuring.
“We had six standing ovations in our 40-minute set,” Jorgenson says. “Then our next performance was gonna be in an even smaller place more like a workshop, and that was mobbed. But we haven’t been back since then. (The) bluegrass band hasn’t been there, either. I don’t know how that all works, but I would certainly love to come back with either or both.”
J2B2 played World of Bluegrass in Raleigh last year as well as the opener in 2014. “Funny because I think the bluegrass world is a little hard to break through, a little bit of a wall if any of you play any other styles of music that are unlike that somehow.”
Jorgenson cites the pedigrees of J2B2 members as guarantees of authenticity. “Herb (Pedersen) actually substituted for Earl Scruggs in Flatt and Scruggs. Earl saw him on television playing with Vern and Ray and said, ‘I’m gonna have surgery, I’m gonna call that guy and have him fill in for me.’ I played with Earl Scruggs around the last 10 years of his life quite a bit. And Mark Fain, our bass player, he played with Ricky Skaggs for 15 years. We have a lot of bluegrass history amongst us. Herb was also in the Here Today band, with Grisman, and he grew up with Jerry Garcia and David Grisman all that whole Northern California scene, had one of the first bluegrass bands up there.”
Fans at the World of Bluegrass appearances welcomed the band. “Our second showcase we did at IBMA this year, people were crazy. That’s the kind of situation where you just need to play your allotted time and get off, but they wouldn’t let us go,” he says laughing.
That’s a problem every bluegrass band wants to have, and Jorgenson is up for the challenge.
“There’s a place for our style within the whole pantheon there, he says. “We’ve had the good fortune of playing the Opry three or four times over the last couple of years, and the band’s not that old, so we’ve got still plenty of developing and growth to do, which is exciting to look forward to.