By Noah Hubbell
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At last year's Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Boulder-based multi-instrumentalist Tony Furtado appeared between practically every act on the bill. What was his job? To provide transitions. "I would get up on stage while the sound crew was setting up," he recalls. "Sometimes I knew what I was going to play and sometimes I wouldn't. But either way, what I tried to do was connect for people what they just heard with what they were about to hear. I tried to think of myself as the glue."
That's as apt a description of what Furtado does as any. Because his primary ax is the banjo, he's generally lumped into the bluegrass category--and the fact that the folks at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival have asked him to serve as a one-man link again this year means that's unlikely to change anytime soon. But on his latest solo disc, the first-rate Rounder release Roll My Blues Away, he dabbles in the blues stylings referred to in the title as well as a musicology course's worth of other influences, including old-time mountain music (the precursor to bluegrass), jazz, country and Celtic. Just as important, the cuts on the offering don't seesaw between Furtado's various inspirations. Instead, "The Ghost of Blind Willie Johnson," "The Stark Raven," "The Knave's Bane" and the rest display so much eclecticism that distinctions cease to matter. To Furtado, that's part of the point.
"My taste in music jumps around a lot," he admits. "But when I'm writing, I try to put myself in a listener's mind frame. I mean, after I've recorded something and I want to check it out, I'm a listener, too. And I want to make sure that what I do is listenable and moving and has got something behind it. I don't want to get into some self-indulgent musical form where people are listening to a bunch of noodling--but at the same time, I don't want to only play stuff that people have already heard. I may play things that a lot of mainstream listeners aren't used to, but what I try to do is combine these forms into something that's very lyrical and musical to my ears. And it seems to have an effect on people."
A native of Pleasanton, California, a community not far removed from San Francisco, Furtado knew from an early age what he wanted to do with his life. He picked up the banjo when he was twelve, and eight years later, in 1987, he won the National Banjo Championship at the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kansas. (He took the prize again four years later.) He toured extensively with Grant Street, a popular bluegrass act fronted by Laurie Lewis, and put out a series of recordings under his own name and with his band, Sugarbeat. He also became enough of a banjo guru to earn a slot on the Rounder Records Banjo Extravaganza alongside Tony Trischka and Bill Keith.
So it may come as a shock to boosters that Furtado is pictured on the cover of Roll My Blues Away and his publicity glossies holding a guitar, not a banjo. However, Furtado insists, "I'm not turning my back on the banjo. I'm just trying to do other things, too. I still love the banjo, and I play it a lot on the record. But nowadays I'd rather be considered a musician first, not a banjo player."
According to Furtado, he has been wanting to improve his skills on other stringed instruments for a long time. "I grew up with a guy named Rob Ickes, who plays dobro with a band called Blue Highway," he relates. "And when we'd get together and play, I'd listen to the tones he'd make and go, 'Man, I need to do that someday.' And it was the same thing with the slide guitar--maybe because it's the sonic opposite of the banjo. When you're playing banjo, it's mostly attack with hardly any sustain, whereas slide guitar is less attack and mostly sustain." He adds, laughing, "I love balance. I'm a Libra."
He is also something of a perfectionist--so much so that he practiced the slide guitar several hours a day for a solid year before deeming himself sufficiently competent to play it on his latest platter. "It took me a while to get a grasp of it," he says. "But I kept trying--and I kept listening to Ry Cooder and Blind Willie Johnson and Fred McDowell and David Lindley to remind myself how to do it right. And I finally got comfortable with it. So now I see the banjo, the dobro and the guitar--all of them--as vehicles for what I'm doing. When a song in my head sounds like it should be played on guitar instead of banjo, I can play it."
To accentuate the greater musical variety on Roll, Furtado recruited players from a variety of disciplines, including bluesy guitarist/vocalist Kelly Joe Phelps, who sings on "Willow Tree," and percussionist Brain, who was recently chosen to fill the drum chair for Primus. "He also played on the Tom Waits album Bone Machine, so he's a really interesting guy," Furtado notes. "And he doesn't have the same background as some of the other people on the record--which was good, because when we went into the studio, we didn't rehearse. We just tried to create something from the songs I'd brought in. And doing it that way brought out the best in everyone."