For the Love of the Music

John Jorgenson The last time I heard John Jorgenson play, it was this past summer under a beautiful Shenandoah Valley sky, where his quintet awed us all with a dazzling set of gypsy jazz.

Tonight, Jorgenson was back – this time at the Institute of Musical Traditions – playing a dazzling set of bluegrass.

And all this from one of the great Telecaster masters of his generation, who once spent six years on the road with Elton John.  It boggles the mind to think one man can switch so effortlessly between technically difficult genres and still make great music. Thank God Sir Elton paid him the big bucks so he can now play all the music he loves.

Jorgenson was clearly having a good time tonight, singing and playing bluegrass with singer-songwriter-guitarist Jon Randall and bassist Mark Fain – both from Nashville – and his old California buddy – and west coast bluegrass/roots music legend –  Herb Pedersen.  The band definitely had the “west coast bluegrass” sound going – with smooth harmony singing (minus the twang) and reliance on folk and contemporary work as much as the old masters.

Jorgenson’s mandolin (and occasional guitar) playing was front and center, but he was flanked by two strong musicians, great singers, and stellar songwriters who both contributed to make this group – playing only their eighth gig together – a band.  Fain, who has played with some of the greats in the field, held down a rock solid but low-key bass chair throughout the evening.

Herb Pedersen at IMT

It was clear from the start that the set list was influenced by songwriters – and songs – that had touched this group through the years.  An Osborne Brothers trio number and a Jesse McReynolds-inspired Grandfather’s Clock were followed by Tom Paxton and J.D. Souther tunes. Instrumentals such as a blazing John Hardy and the old fiddle tune Whiskey Before Breakfast allowed everyone to show off their considerable chops.

There was a whiskey themed mini-set that allowed Jon Randall’s impressive songwriting talents to shine through.  Randall – who played alongside Sam Bush in Emmylou Harris’ Nash Ramblers band – co-wrote the Brad Paisley/Alison Krauss hit Whiskey Lullaby which Jorgenson’s bluegrass band played beautifully.  That song has (at least) two great country lines:

She put him out like the burnin’ end of a midnight cigarette

and then the unforgettable…

He put that bottle to his head and pulled the trigger

Whew…I can hear Alison singing it now and I’m getting weak in the knees.

The real song-writing star of tonight’s show was Herb Pedersen.  As Jorgenson said at one point, go look at all your Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris albums from the 1970s, and Pedersen is all over them as a singer and player.  But the full house at IMT – which is always an informed audience – knew exactly what was coming when Jorgenson introduced Old Train – a tune covered by Tony Rice, the Seldom Scene, and many others.  As John said more than once, he knew both Herb Pedersen and this song for a long time, but hadn’t realized that Pedersen had written this gem.

John Jorgenson Bluegrass Band

But the crowd was especially entranced when Jorgenson spoke of a Seldom Scene album and song he admired – and then turned to Pedersen to sing his composition Wait a Minute.  The beautiful harmonies took everyone back to those days when John Duffey, John Starling, Mike Auldridge, Ben Eldridge, and Tom Gray were playing weekly gigs at the Red Fox Inn, or the Cellar Door, or the Birchmere.

Jorgenson’s bluegrass band ended the evening with an encore of Wait a Minute “for John Duffey” so I’ll wrap up this remembrance of a terrific evening of bluegrass with video of the two Pedersen tunes:  first the John Jorgenson Bluegrass Band’s version of Old Train (where Pedersen’s voice isn’t as strong as it was this evening) and then – in a video posted by my friend and Seldom Scene’s original bassist Tom Gray – the inimitable John Duffey singing Wait a Minute.

Keep playing the music you love.

More to come…

DJB

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