Banjo-schooled fingers

  • November 25, 2012

By Cory Frye

When Tony Furtado hits the Majestic Theatre stage at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 25, it’ll have been exactly one year since that night in Portland when, remnants of a cold still clinging to his voice, he led his band through a pair of sets that became the “Live at Mississippi Studios” CD/DVD.

Furtado was nervous but confident. The Devious Goldfish film crew was stationed about, aiming its gear at the action, capturing other angles from the balcony. The reliable Rob Stroup supervised the sound. Aesthetically, the venue was perfect: visually warm, not too large, yet with ample space for cameras to venture. And the audience, as evident, knew its part by heart, showering “Toe the Line’s” dexterous acoustic tumble — essayed as flawlessly in concert as it was on record — with gusto.

As well they should. Those nimble tangles spilled from banjo-schooled fingers that learned to play at racecar speeds. Furtado didn’t add guitar to his arsenal until his 20s, when he was already a recording artist. Fascinated by Ry Cooder’s slide work — “Boomer’s Story” (1972) was particularly influential — the Portland-based Furtado likened this discovery to a religious experience. Floods of names and epiphanies followed: Mississippi Fred McDowell, Blind Willie Johnson, David Lindley, Taj Mahal, Richard Thompson — all informing the artist’s already distinctive touch.

“Once I picked up the guitar,” Furtado said, “it made complete sense for me to be a finger-style guitarist, although my finger work is different. I emulate the flat pick in a way with my fingers — it’s hard to explain without showing and doing it. I can also do the straight-up Travis (named for country picker Merle Travis) or Delta blues style that’s wrapped up in my playing. A lot of times I can get a little more fast and furious, because one thing you can do when you play banjo is get fast and furious.”

Although he’s previously joked of being “doomed” to dabble in multiple genres, he’s never really known musical confinement. Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area — Pleasanton, specifically — Furtado was engulfed in myriad sounds. As a child he rode in his mother’s car, recipient to streams of mixed-format FM, where Glen Campbell moved in the same circles as Fleetwood Mac and the blues. The score at home was just as diverse, vinyl collisions of Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Who and the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, among others.

Even television served curious meals in those years before compartmentalization. The young Furtado was especially enchanted by a wiry variety-hour fixture named John Hartford, whose visual presentation — long hair, bowler hat, black vest, a 19th century troubadour reborn — was as vivid as his mastery of fiddle, guitar and banjo. “Later in life I actually got to meet and play with him, and he was one of the sweetest guys,” Furtado recalled of the late icon. “He was one of the best entertainers, with a good mixture of sound and genres. That was a big impact on me.”

He found the banjo in the sixth grade — or, rather, it came to him in a vision. His “Introduction to Music” instructor assigned reports on instruments with an added creative component: students had to then construct their subjects using household items. Furtado, also a budding artist (he’d later study art and music at Cal State East Bay), began gathering materials in his mind. Pie tin. Glue. Paper. Latex stain. Rubber bands. Stick. Thread. Nylon fishing string.

“The funny thing was that when I was dreaming it up, I was thinking it would be a violin,” he recalled. “Then I remembered seeing ‘Hee Haw’ at my grandparents’ house and said, ‘You know what? That’s a banjo.’ It was more for the visual aspect: ‘I’m going to do this report on banjos.’ So I read about where it came from, that it had this cool history through classical music, Irish music, something called bluegrass, Appalachian folk music, even blues. I said, ‘I want to play this. It’s different. It’s weird. I don’t know anyone else who’s doing it.’ So my parents got me a banjo for my 12th birthday and I dove in headfirst.”

Furtado proved such a natural that seven years later, at a friend’s suggestion, he took his first airplane trip (a high-school graduation gift) to Kansas for the 1987 Walnut Valley Festival’s National Bluegrass Banjo Championship in Winfield. With his required four tunes primed for performance, he wasn’t expecting much, just a good time and some valuable experience.

“I wasn’t feeling super-competitive with it,” he explained. “There were some really good players that year, maybe 26 entrants. The guys who do it year after year were looking at me with competitive teeth. I didn’t realize it at the time, but now I do.”

His rivals had reason to feel the heat, because this 19-year-old kid breezed in from the coast and somehow beat the field.

“It was a good time,” Furtado said, “and it was a way to prove to myself and to my folks that I meant business.” If no one got the message in ’87, he returned in ’91 and took the title again.

By then Furtado was no dark-horse unknown. He’d toured with Laurie Lewis, who then backed him on “Swamped,” his 1989 Rounder Records debut. He was friends and label mates with the young Alison Krauss, then riding her own momentum with Union Station; she contributed to his 1992 follow-up, “Within Reach,” and released her own “Every Time You Say Goodbye,” which signaled a bluegrass sea-change. The genre was gathering mainstream steam, invading country radio and preparing its pop crossover.

“That’s about the time I fell out of that scene,” Furtado said. “I was getting into Ry Cooder, playing guitar and starting to sing. I remember having to come up with some kind of term for the music I was playing. I chose ‘New American Roots.’ No one was using ‘Americana’ much. Ten years later that label started popping up all over the place. To me, it’s a roots-based type of approach, but original. Maybe it’s a singer-songwriter who borrows from older traditions to come up with something new.”

Furtado has plumbed these abundant realms — rock, country, folk and all of their shadowed valleys — ever since, never at ease with concrete classification. He’s recorded with Dirk Powell, Michelle Shocked, Josh White, The String Cheese Incident, Kelly Joe Phelps and Billy Ray Cyrus. In the early 2000s he formed the American Gypsies, an exotic sonic buffet with a roster that featured bassist Myron Dove (Santana), drummer Tom Brechtlein (Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea), keyboardist John R. Burr (Alison Brown Quartet) and horn player Paul McCandless (Jaco Pastorius, Pat Metheny). “That was a trippy version of the band,” Furtado said. “We got into some pretty sick grooves and a lot of explorations of the instrumental side. I’ve moved around a bit with what I do.”

Fourteen albums after his banjo-laden bow, 2011’s “Golden” — its cover adorned with a Furtado double-rabbit sculpture (“It’s like a push-me, pull-you,” he explained) — imbibes of an acoustic/electric frontier. With its clean, rampaging layers, opener “Toe the Line” certainly commands attention. “Can’t Lie Down” boasts a middle-section rave-up paragraph, and “Angelina” drenches its palpable ache in slide and mournful horns. Furtado’s generous production enhances this comfortable expanse. It’s hard to believe that “Golden” marked his first time producing alone.

“I thought it would be more difficult, but it felt completely natural,” he said. “I fell right into it. I think that’s the way I’m going to be doing it from now on. It was stress-free, whereas in the past I would try to micromanage my producers and drive them nuts. At the same time they would try to get me to sing or play a certain way, and sometimes it wouldn’t work out. Going back to certain albums, I can hear the restraint and constraint. ‘Golden’ is much more free-sounding, a much more solid statement.

“And ‘Live at Mississippi Studios’ was an easy journey. It worked, except for the night of actually doing all the preshow stuff and then getting onstage. It was halfway through the show that I kind of relaxed.”

Jitters aside, the stage remains one of his favorite places. He’s logged about 120 dates this year, and his Majestic show completes a three-day run that finds him back at Mississippi Studios, followed by a performance at Cozmic in Eugene. (Tickets for the Corvallis show are $10 in advance or for Majestic Theatre members, $12 at the door. For more information, call 541-738-7469 or visit www.majestic.org.)

“That’s just my love for playing music live,” Furtado said. “It’s definitely a roller coaster, you know, for the past 25 years. Sometimes it’s tough to keep the energy going. But when you have good shows, it’s such a jolt. That’s why I like to keep doing it.”

“Live at Mississippi Studios” was financed using Kickstarter. What are your thoughts regarding this means of production?

Well, I have mixed feelings about it. I ended up doing it because it was part of an exit deal with the label I was on, to fund the recording of it through Kickstarter. Normally, I think a Kickstarter project would be more in line for someone who’s putting out and owning their own album. This was a slightly different deal.

I think it’s a great way to do it, because you’re connecting with your fan base and building up more fans. You’ve got your fans and friends and family sending out the pitch video to all kinds of other people. It’s a good video; it’s going to get passed around quite a bit, and you’re going to make some new fans, or at least people are going to be interested. And for me, that’s what happened. It got bounced around quite a bit and it got funded really easily.

By doing this, too, you’re not just begging anyone for money — you’re offering the product early. You’re selling the CD or DVD early, in advance, and that’s going to help you come up with the capital you need. I also offered other things, like sculptures and online banjo and guitar lessons — just the things that folks might get anyway.

You studied art and music at Cal State Hayward. Do either of those mediums inform one another?

When I was writing “Golden,” I would go into my studio in the morning and work on sculptures. Then sometime in the afternoon I’d go home, pop into my basement, grab my guitar and banjo, and work on songs. Then in the evening I’d go down to my local haunt, which is a really cool little bar, and sit in a corner with my pad of paper, pen and a couple of books, and I’d read and write. It was a nice process, a groove that I got into. Somehow the art was feeding the music, and that was feeding the art again. It was this nice creative swirl. I think, partly, it takes the pressure away. It’s like a release valve.

I wanted to talk about that album’s “Portlandia” instrumental, which was inspired by the Raymond Kaskey statue.

When I title a tune, I’m usually looking for a cool word. I’m not necessarily inspired by something to write it. A lot of times they kind of bubble up, or I’ll construct them and then when they’re done, I’ll listen and think, “Now, what works for a title?”

It was actually my wife who brought up the idea of naming it “Portlandia” — the (IFC) show wasn’t out yet, by the way — and she showed me a picture. I’d run across it a couple of times, seeing it downtown.

It’s not so much that the tune is inspired by the sculpture; it’s more the concept of “Portlandia,” that I’ve taken Portland as a home. Over the past 10 years I’ve worked my way into the fabric of the town and the creative scene. The whole album has a bit of that seeped into it. What better word than “Portlandia”?

What brought you to Portland?

Over the years, whenever I toured through the Northwest, I would come to Portland and it always felt like home. There was something different about it. I never really though much about it until I wanted to get out of Boulder (Colo.), where I was living at the time (2002). I thought about it and said, “I need to go to Portland. I’ve got to give it a shot.” The second I got here, it just felt right. It has a good, strong music scene. It also has good, strong art and food scenes, with young chefs and some really interesting restaurants.

At what point did you decide to add your singing voice to your instrumental voice?

I kind-of always knew I would eventually. I felt like I had to have something to sing about. I think, much to the chagrin of my audience, I learned how to sing onstage. I started doing that in the late ’90s. I’ve heard tapes, and, man (laughs). It was pretty rough at first. But eventually I found my voice, and I like the way it sounds now.

It’s the same with the songwriting too. I remember trying to write songs at first and just not feeling like I was saying anything. Then I did, and I started writing songs.

I was checking out the people you’ve played with over the years, and it’s an impressive cross-genre array. David Grier, Jerry Douglas and Alison Krauss all accompanied you on “Within Reach.” You’ve opened for Gregg Allman and Eric Johnson. You’ve worked with John Doe of X and even supported a Glimmer Twin, Keith Richards, on a version of Gram Parsons’ “Hickory Wind.”

I wish they would have gone on further with that; I would have loved to have done more shows. I was part of that house band — did you ever see that live DVD (2005’s “Return to Sin City: A Tribute to Gram Parsons”)? It’s really cool. You should check it out. Norah’s (Jones) on it, Keith Richards, Lucinda Williams, Dwight Yoakam — I think that’s the only time I ever played with John Doe. I met him a couple of times. He’s a nice guy.

Having grown up in the Bay Area, I was exposed to a lot of different players. On one of my albums (2000’s “Tony Furtado Band”), Buckethead and Brain came in, because I’m friends with Brain. We handed Bucket one of my acoustic guitars and he arpeggio’d along. Also, through the network and having played with different people, I’m always looking for other folks to play with and try different things.

It’s been 23 years since “Swamped.” What do you think when you look back on that album?

When I “look” back on that album, I realize I had hair (laughter) and not much taste in clothes. When I listen to it, I hear a version of myself that’s definitely very green, but very excited to jump in. I remember working out and writing those tunes. It’s an all-instrumental album, all tunes that I wrote on the banjo. I played two of them at that first national contest. I remember working out the solos, and all that testosterone and pent-up energy, making these very note-y tunes. It was very complicated banjo-playing, but bursting with excitement. I was excited to be in the business.

Cory Frye is a calendar editor and Entertainer reporter for the Corvallis Gazette-Times. He can be reached at 541-758-9514 or by email at cory.frye@lee.net.

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