ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, DEC. 5, 2002
By Steve Newton
Twelve seems to be an age that many musicians—and music fans—look back on as being influential in the formation of their musical tastes. I can remember spending countless hours as a 12-year-old sprawled on my parents’ living-room rug, poring over the lyrics printed on the back of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band LP, trying hard to memorize every word. This gave me lots of time to stare at the underlying photo of the Beatles in their psychedelic, neon satin military-style uniforms, and ponder the significance of Paul McCartney’s back being turned.
Rumours were circulating that he was dead, but I wasn’t falling for that.
Tony Furtado remembers an album that greatly affected him when he was 12, too, but it wasn’t anything as monumental as Sgt. Pepper’s. For him, there was magic to be found in the grooves of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1970 LP, Uncle Charlie and His Dog Teddy. And it wasn’t the band’s hit cover of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles” that got the preteen Furtado all excited, either. He was more impressed by “Some of Shelly’s Blues”, a pretty ditty penned by the Monkees’ Mike Nesmith, which Furtado re-created on his new CD, American Gypsy.
When the Straight reaches the songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and sometime vocalist on his cellphone at a fleece shop in Salida, Colorado—where he’s waiting on the production of a nice, warm hat—he recalls how his first music teacher recommended he take a listen to the NGDB. “I started playin’ music when I was 12,” he says, “and banjo was my first instrument, so my teacher said, ‘There’s a great banjo player on that album.’ I went out and got it, and I used to listen to it all the time when I would get bummed out. I’d flip on the LP and get happy!”
Of course, dedicated roots-music practitioners such as Furtado are expected to go further back than the ’70s for inspiration. On American Gypsy he follows a well-travelled route—famously taken by the likes of Woody Guthrie, Mississippi John Hurt, and the Grateful Dead—with a performance of the traditional blues number “Stagger Lee”, first recorded by Ma Rainey as “Stack O’Lee Blues” in 1925. Furtado is so enamoured by the tune that, as well as a vocal version, he reprises it at the end of the disc with an impromptu instrumental take. Both renditions showcase his tasty slide-guitar-playing, which is prevalent throughout American Gypsy.
Furtado also handles banjo on four tracks, including the self-penned “Hartford”, which the liner notes describe as “dedicated to the memory of musician, riverboat pilot, and good friend to all, John Hartford”. He’s the fellow who wrote “Gentle on My Mind”, which became one of the most recorded songs in the world—and helped Glen Campbell pay off his house. Hartford was also one of the first famous people Furtado got to jam with as a kid.
“John was just a great kind of Americana musician,” he explains. “He took influence from lots of old-time and blues and Appalachian and bluegrass music, and he played all kinds of instruments. He was just a full entertainer, and one of the sweetest guys you could meet. And always good for a dirty joke.”
Although much of the material on American Gypsy finds Furtado accompanied by such stalwarts as drummer Tim Brechtlein (Chick Corea, Robben Ford), bassist Myron Dove (Carlos Santana), and woodwinds ace Paul McCandless (Oregon), it’s when he goes it alone—as on the ghostly “Kentucky Stripmine”—that the heart of his music is laid bare. That off-the-cuff track was captured by producer-engineer Cookie Marenco at 3 in the morning after a particularly draining recording session.
“I was pretty wiped out at that point,” recalls Furtado, “but we still needed a coupla cuts. I was sittin’ there messin’ around with tunings on my electric guitar, and Cookie just said, ‘Play,’ so I started playing, and that tune came out uncut, just like that. And I have no idea what tuning I was in—I haven’t sat down and tried to figure it out. When we played it back I was like, ‘Oh wow, that sounds like some moody stuff I’ve heard.’ I used to listen to Ry Cooder a whole bunch, and it kinda reminded me of that.”
Anyone else with a hankering for slide-infested, Cooder-style roots music should consider visiting Richard’s on Richards on Friday (December 6), when Furtado performs in the company of Brechtlein, second guitarist Gawain Mathews, and bassist Patrice Blanchard. He’ll be mixing up material from American Gypsy with new, vocals-enhanced songs that he’s written lately. It turns out that a recent move to Portland, Oregon, has inspired the mainly instrumental artist to branch out into the singer-songwriter mould. “I’d never written lyrics before I moved to Portland,” he relates, “but once I got there the words just started coming.”