A talented multi-instrumentalist, cross-pollinating rambler, and budding songwriter, Tony Furtado is an eclectic musician with a knack for mining musical gold from the American folk tradition while also incorporating the best of contemporary rock music. He's lived in Washington D.C. and Boulder, Colorado as well as in a few different cities scattered across his home state of California, and his accomplishments include winning the Grand National Banjo Championship twice(1987 and 1991) and recording with roots luminaries such as Alison Krauss, Laurie Lewis, Jerry Douglas, Grant Street, David Grier, Tony Trischka, Mark Schatz, and Kelly Joe Phelps. Tony's 15-year recording history includes a variety of studio efforts (Swamped, Within Reach, Full Circle, Roll My Blues Away, American Gypsy) and two live releases (Tony Furtado Kelly Joe Phelps Band and Live Gypsy) as well as a freshly minted songwriting/vocal debut titled These Chains (see TonyFurtado.com). He now resides in Los Angeles, where he recently participated (along with Keith Richards, Lucinda Williams, and a host of others) in A Tribute to Gram Parsons, a live homage to the late father of the alt-country tradition. The tribute shows played to full audiences at the Universal Amphitheatre in July.
JamBase: So Tony, I remember you from Boulder. I interviewed you back in 1997 for a grassroots paper called the Boulder Planet. I still have the clip. But unfortunately the paper no longer exists.
TF: That doesn't surprise me.
JamBase: I think you had just released Roll My Blues Away, which is my favorite work of yours. That album has a great acoustic sound. Lots of gorgeous nooks and crannies on that one.
TF: Thanks. A lot of people tell me that's their favorite release of mine.
How'd that project take shape?
Leading up to Roll My Blues I had been studying the music of Ry Cooder. I remember picking up one of his albums (the 1974 classic Paradise and Lunch) and it blew my mind. At that point I was doing mostly instrumental music with a focus on slide guitar and banjo and that's pretty much where I was at for the disc. I had been influenced by Ry and a few other artists like Blind Willie Johnson, Fred McDowell and R.L. Burnside. Most of the tunes on that album were done in the classic Mississippi acoustic style. I bought up a lot of old records around that time, including a lot of Cooder's stuff. It impacted my slide playing a lot and I think it came across on that disc.
It certainly did. That was some really tasty playing. How'd you like living in Boulder?
I liked it. I was definitely influenced by the Boulder music scene. I was playing mainly to dancing crowds, ski audiences and college kids. I was doing the jam thing, which was my kind of rebellion to the bluegrass niche that I had fallen into prior to moving to Boulder [Furtado released a handful of bluegrass-influenced albums over the first part of the '90s. See his discography at TonyFurtado.com]. I had gotten a little frustrated playing a form of music that I really wasn't listening to all the time. So at that point (1996-1997), I was trying to educate myself more about pop and rock as well as traditional folk and blues.
You're pretty eclectic in your taste.
Yeah I don't like to limit myself to one thing and I like to take in as much as I can. As a young kid I had pretty varied taste and listened to a lot of popular stuff on the radio while riding around with my mom in her car--an old Mustang. So I got an early rooting in rock, soul, blues, folk, and even some jazz music. But around the time I left the east coast/D.C. area and moved back to California for a couple years before heading to Colorado I started buying old albums and really paying attention to the work of certain artists. I was getting into stuff from the '70s and checking out songwriters like Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, David Lindley, and Tom Waits. It was stuff that I had never realized that I liked (laughs). My new work continues to reflect my rediscovery of popular music.
Do you still play a lot of slide and banjo?
I'm definitely playing slide guitar but hardly any banjo these days. I'm also doing a lot of singing and songwriting. I've shifted to what I've always wanted to do, which is to write tunes and sing them myself. Now I'm trying to relate artistically with words and lyrics instead of just instrumental notes.
I'm sure that will prove to be fun. What's your history with songwriting?
I started on the songwriting thing a few years ago. I wanted to learn to relate in a lyrical way, like a John Hiatt or Bob Dylan, while at the same time going deeper into American roots music--or Americana, as the genre has come to be known.
So how's the tunesmithing going?
Pretty good. I have a fascination with old prison work songs (laughs). There's something about those old tunes. These guys are out there singing their butts off and they throw together these great lyrics, which usually have a double meaning. I recorded some old-timey-influenced compositions for my new release (These Chains). "Swayback Jim" is about an old nag that dreams of beating the great thoroughbred Man o' War in a race. I've also got an original instrumental, "Doc's Bogg," that is an interpretation of the traditional tune "Bet on the White Horse." I spent some time listening to an old recording of "White Horse," which is related to another traditional song "Stewball the Racehorse."
I just listened to the new disc and it's great. You were part of the Gram Parsons tribute earlier this summer right?
Yeah, I was a fan of his and I didn't even know it. I really like old Gram and Emmylou stuff. I knew some of his Burrito Brothers and Byrds material without ever realizing that I knew it as well as I did. I was a sideman for the tribute. I played acoustic guitar, electric slide and some banjo. Among other tunes I got to play "Hickory Wind" with Keith Richards. I played acoustic behind him, filling the holes when he would stop playing. I also had fun backing up John Doe of X, which was a punk band. We did a version of "Still Feeling Blue." And I played some banjo on Steve Earle's version of "Luxury Liner." Jim Lauderdale was there too. He co-wrote a song with me on my new album.
Cool. How'd you get hooked up with Jim?
We got together through my producer Dusty Wakeman. Dusty knows a lot of people in the music business, and he got us together. Jim and I put together a country-sounding tune called "Need a Friend." We ended up working over the song using the phone. He lives in Nashville. He's a good writer. You can check out the song on the album. I also have another collaboration with Al Anderson from NRBQ. We co-wrote a song called "The Prisoner." It's about being a musician on the road and some of the stuff you encounter. My manager, Mike Lembo, used to manage NRBQ, which is how I hooked up with Al.
Wow. So you have a manager?
Yes and it's a very important thing. It's kinda like having a booking agent, but even better. I used to do my own booking and managing and there's nothing harder. It consumed all my time. Mike has really helped out with all that. Now I can take the time I need to work on creating new material.
How is the new album a departure for you?
A lot of the music I played with the American Gypsies was pretty intense. The focus was all on the playing. It was more jam oriented. I had some great players with me. Guys like Ross Martin on guitar, a guy who'd played with Santana, another guy from Chick Corea, and another guy who had played with the Flecktones. We were doing mostly older songs that I would re-vamp, whereas the new album is mostly stuff that I wrote. I'm happy with the new album. Some of the songs are really strong. Dusty, who produced it, has produced everyone from Lucinda Williams and Michelle Shocked to Dwight Yoakam.
And you're singing now. I don't remember you singing very much when I used to see you in Colorado. Do you like to sing?
Actually I love to sing. In fact when I moved to Boulder is when I started singing. I took some vocal lessons and kinda worked on it. I'm more comfortable with it now and I like doing it. This is almost a polar opposite of the live album I put out a couple years ago. I mean I definitely still do a lot of playing but I'm really striving to add another dimension and focus on the songwriting. I want to start doing more of this. What Roll My Blues Away was to my slide playing, These Chains is to my songwriting. It's Americana-based music and mostly original.
How's Los Angeles? Has it influenced your music?
I'm living in Sherman Oaks near Studio City. It's a lot different than Portland, where I was living for a little while before moving down here. I don't really like the desert climate, which is why I liked Portland a lot, and there are a hell of a lot more people here. It costs more just to have a beer here. I try to ride my bike anyplace I need to go. But the people are great and the music scene is good. I know certain folks here in the music world, which is how I came to do the Gram Parsons thing. So being close to those people is a fun aspect of being here. And for being considered as a new songwriter it's a good move for me. I guess living here has influenced my thing because I songwrite more.
What's an average day like for you?
I don't really have a routine. I just got home from doing a short tour and today I have a few interviews. I'm just getting re-acclimated to being here right now. There are a lot of days when I've got to sit down and do my emailing and such. Then I like to go to a coffee shop and maybe read or write. The more you read and listen to other people the more it helps energize your creativity. I've been reading some Bukowski and some John Fante. I'm reading Fante's book called The Road to L.A.. At night I sometimes go out and see random blues bands or some other songwriters.
Sounds like fun. Do you plan on touring again soon?
Oh yeah. I'm always touring [see tour dates here]. Though this year has been one of my lightest touring years because of the album.
Will you focus on the continental U.S. or might you go farther abroad?
Right now I'm focusing on the states, but I've been known to get to places like England and Ireland. I love playing there in small folk clubs.
Interview by Nick Hutchinson
Photos by Tony Stack
JamBase | Colorado
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