Jon Stickley Trio turns bluegrass on its head
FARMINGTON — Jon Stickley wishes he had a more compelling story when it comes to the origin of his band, the Jon Stickley Trio. But he doesn’t.
“I had nothing else to do,” he said almost apologetically, describing how his genre-bending, instrumental bluegrass threesome was born in 2010 in Asheville, N.C. “I needed a gig, and there wasn’t anything available.”
The band’s story may lack a glamorous beginning, but it gets considerably more interesting, thanks to its adventurous approach to making music. Even in an era when you seemingly can’t stumble into a live music club anywhere in the country without finding a group of seven or eight skinny, bearded, twentysomethings tearing their way through an amped-up version of a decades-old Appalachian murder ballad, the Jon Stickley Trio sticks out — partly because of its comparatively modest lineup but also because of its incorporation of musical influences ranging from Gypsy jazz and hip-hop to surf and ska.
“I see things through this lens of bluegrass flat-picking guitar,” Stickley said by phone from Portland, Ore., last week, as his group took part in a swing through the West that will bring it to Crash Music in Aztec on Thursday, July 21. “But I borrow elements from all this stuff. Some experiments work better than others, but we’re trying to blend styles in a way that’s not bad.”
As Stickley said, it doesn’t always work, and some bluegrass traditionalists — of whom there are plenty in Asheville — balk at any tinkering with their beloved musical style, which has attracted no shortage of those eager to reinvent it in recent years.
“Some people kind of turn their nose up at it,” he said. “But the response we get from a lot of people is, ‘I like it, but I don’t really know what it is.’”
The band consists of Stickley on guitar, Lyndsay Pruett on fiddle and Patrick Armitage on drums. The group only occasionally has a bassist sit in, but it has found ways to keep the bottom end covered even when it doesn’t, Stickley said.
“We do a lot of things to compensate for it,” he said, explaining that he and Pruett both employ a pedal that can drop the sound of their instrument one octave or even two.
“So we can back each other up,” he said. “That was a huge step in the evolution of our sound.”
Stickley said he likes the trio format, explaining that having four people on stage at the same time almost seems like too many to keep track of.
“I do like the idea of adding someone, but at the same time, I like the intimacy of the trio,” he said. “Adding someone else can be a cool, different thing, but I think there’s a small element of (connectivity) that gets lost.”
Stickley has certainly put in his time playing in larger, more traditional bands. After college, he spent two years living in Durango, Colo., playing in the five-piece bluegrass outfit Broke Mountain and living in a trailer behind WalMart on the banks of the Animas River. When that group splintered, he moved back to Asheville in 2006 and was taken in by an all-female bluegrass group called the Biscuit Burners. Shortly afterward, he met Pruett, and though it would still be some time before the two officially combined their talents in a band, they quickly found common musical ground.
“I jelled with Lyndsay instantly,” Stickley said. “The first time I heard her, I said, ‘I want to play more with her.’ Even within a big jam where she would take her solo, I could feel the connection, much more so than when the next person would go.”
It took a little longer for Stickley and Armitage to form a musical bond. Armitage joined the group in 2012, replacing the original drummer, and Stickley said their styles didn’t exactly mesh at first.
“It required some meeting in the middle,” he said. “He was used to this laid-back, pocket groove, whereas I was doing this bluegrass, fast flatpicking. Those two styles didn’t exactly work together. But he learned to play quieter and faster, on top of the beat, and I’ve filled out a little more, adding more groove to what I do.”
Stickley said the trio has come to reflect the personality of each of its members, not just his own.
“I try to include elements of all the music that’s had an effect on me, but Lyndsay and Patrick also bring a ton of their own personality to the table,” he said. “I want them to do what they like and feel.”
That approach is reflected in the group’s 2015 disc “Lost at Last.” Stickley regards it as a far more fully realized effort than the band’s 2012 debut album, which he said was recorded when the trio was still very green.
“By the time we went in to record this one, the band had grown and developed a distinct sound,” he said. “It’s much more developed and much more mature. But even now, as I listen to it a year and a half later, it sounds old to me. The band is changing so rapidly.”
“Lost at Last” is heavy on original material and is anchored by the catchy “Darth Radar,” but it also features its share of cover material, including Tim O’Brien’s “The High Road” and the Gypsy waltz “Valsa de Wasso.” Stickley said he’s careful about the songs he chooses to interpret.
“There’s got to be a degree of recognizability, but we don’t want to do covers that are way too obvious or that have been overdone,” he said. “So we look for stuff that’s off the beaten path, B sides. It also has to have the ability to be played by a trio. There are certain songs that I love, that I wish we could play, but I just don’t see how that would be possible, even though I love them.”
Those tunes are much more than just filler, he said.
“I think they’re really important because the crowd really connects with (them),” he said. “Once you’ve gotten them to commit to listening with that song, they’re more open to hearing other stuff. Even with the best music that’s all original, I get lost in it sometimes. I want to hear just that one thing I know that I can latch on to, and then it’s like, ‘OK, now I’m ready for more original stuff.’”
“Lost at Last” was produced by Dave King, drummer for the Minneapolis jazz trio The Bad Plus. Armitage studied under King for six years, and when Stickley, Pruett and Armitage were talking about who they wanted behind the console for “Lost at Last,” his name drew an excited response from all of them.
“We wanted someone to help us figure out what our sound was, what should we do more of and less of,” Stickley said. “Dave King’s name popped up, and we all said, ‘OK, that’s an idea.’ I said, 'That’s the first person’s name I’ve heard yet that, if he had the availability to do it, I’d want him to do it.’”
Armitage sent King an email asking if he’d be willing to consider the idea, and King quickly agreed. The resulting experience in the studio validated the band’s decision to place its trust in King.
“Dave did exactly what we hired him for,” Stickley said. “He helped us figure out what we are as a band, and supplied a lot of constructive criticism and great ideas. He turned us into the band we are, along with being a source of endless energy.”
The trio’s experience with King was such a positive one that band members quickly agreed he should produce the group’s next disc, as well.
“The first time was such a getting-to-know-you experience,” Stickley said. “But we had some really, really cool results. It’s really cool that he’s a drummer, because his production is really rhythm-centric. He really did not have that much to say about what Lyndsay and I do. Patrick really honed in on the rhythm with Dave, but I think next time, we’ll focus more on the harmonics between me and Lyndsay.”
Stickley said the group will try to get back into the studio before the end of the year, and he is targeting the spring of 2017 for the release of the new disc.
In the meantime, he promises a memorable performance for the audience in Aztec.
“If you’re thinking about coming, we provide a high-energy, stimulating experience, and we leave it all out on the stage,” he said.
Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.
If you go
What: Jon Stickley Trio concert
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 21
Where: Crash Music at the Aztec Theater, 104 N. Main Ave. in Aztec
Tickets: $15 at crashmusicaztec.com or 505-427-6748
For more information: Visit jonstickley.com