There are many great instrumentalists in the world, and as many great singers. But rarely do they come together in the same person. There are plenty of great singers who can hold their own on guitar, and guitarists whose technique is so breathtaking that you can ignore the faltering faults in their singing. Maybe they even have a good voice. And there are even some who are good, or really good at both. And notable singer-arrangers (Geoff Muldaur, Sam Cooke), instrumentalist-composers (Fahey, Mingus), singer-songwriters, etc. People who could deliver an a capella song that would raise your hairs, and pick an instrumental that would set them on fire. But very few GREAT singer-instrumentalists.
In the field of blues you have Blind Willie Johnson, Son House, Skip James, Bukka White, Lonnie Johnson, Robert Johnson and a handful of others. Bluegrass has Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, Ron Thomason, Peter Rowan, and others who are equally great but less distinctive. Anglo- and Celtic music has Dick Gaughan, Andy Irvine, and Nic Jones (and almost Martin Simpson). In the world of Folk music you have Dave Van Ronk (yes, he was a great singer, despite a raggedy voice), Leadbelly, Jazz has Chet Baker and, um, probably others (I haven’t heard enough of Nina Simone’s piano-playing or Fats Waller’s singing to judge). Leon Redbone sits comfortably in-between the genres, and underplays his greatness considerably. Rock and Pop music have had a handful, probably beginning with Fats Domino (though I don’t know that I’d call him really GREAT), and Jeff Buckley probably would qualify if he’d lived long enough to develop his guitar prowess just a bit more. Indian Classical music has Z.M. Dagar. And there are others from Africa, Cuba, and elsewhere that I’m not familiar with. (Feel free to inform me of others you think should be on the list!)
There are two who are great singers and multi-instrumentalists who also span most of the genres listed above. One is Tim O’Brien, and he’ll get a post later. The other is my favorite musician of all time.
What can I say about Jody Stecher? Superlatives come up short. It would not be enough to describe his instrumental capacity, though he can make every instrument he plays sing like morning birds. He sings with such emotional authority, restrained power, subtlety, and unassuming humanity, that every song he covers becomes indelibly associated with him. You don’t need to hear any other versions once you hear Jody’s. But descriptions really do no good. Even professional reviewers find themselves at a loss of words:
Biography by Don Stevens
Jody is one of the finest musicians in the world. He has recorded with Alasdair Fraser from Scotland, Krishna Bhatt from India, and with many of Americas best traditional musicians. Kate has played with many west coast groups. Jody plays mandolin, guitar, fiddle and banjo. Kate plays banjo and guitar. Both are terrific vocalists, and as a duet are unbeatable. When Ron Thomason is at a loss of words to describe the beauty of their playing and singing, how can a mere mortal attempt to describe it. Buy Blue Lightning. Listen to it, and read Ron’s liner notes. There is nothing I can say to add to that! You won’t quit until you find all their recordings.
Yes, I too have the feeling that when Jody gets up in the morning, he has Music for breakfast. I’ve never met him, but from everything I’ve read he seems like an amazing human being as well. And I think I know how he approaches music, and why his approach is so much deeper than everyone else’s. You see, in the late 50s and early 60s city people began to discover ‘folk music’, and latched on to it because it was so much more vital and exciting than the schlock that had become their musical diet. But for the most part, they just butchered it, because they cleaned it up, set it to straight, bouncy tempos, and they never noticed all the small notes hiding in between the big notes. The instruments were mostly used to provide pitch-reference and rhythm. And you never got the sense that any of these people actually understood a word of what they were singing about.
But there were a few good ones, and when they were broadcast on the radio it woke up young Jody to the wonders of folk and bluegrass and cajun music, and made the world a better place. Of course, Jody didn’t stop there. Like Fahey a decade before, he went to the source. He discovered the real roots, the depth and breadth of American music. And not content to stop at that, he went on to discover Indian classical music, Celtic music, Cajun music, and a host of traditional musics around the world. He learned as he listened, starting on fiddle, mandolin, guitar and banjo pretty much simultaneously at the age of 11. Later he learned Oud, studied the Sarod under Ali Akbar Khan, and finally mastered the Sursingar (a cross between a sarod and a veena) under the tutelage of the late master of Dhrupad, Z.M. Dagar. And he studied the old singers in depth, until he could hear and sing all the microtones that you’d hear in a Texas Gladden ballad or a Hindustani vocal raga. And he always learned the tradition of what he was doing, so that he could approach it in a holistic and respectful manner rather than an exploitative, touristy one. And he played all the styles and all the instruments, and mixed things here and there but always made it sound natural, rather than exotic.
His tone is universally sweet, no matter what instrument he’s on, and I have the sneaking feeling that he intentionally plays a hair behind the tempo to help you hear his work without making it flashy (the opposite of the Earl Scruggs style, which pushes in front of the tempo). He has pioneered a number of techniques such as Clawhammer Guitar and Flatpicking Celtic guitar, but perhaps more astounding is the way he’ll slip an Indian rhythmic pattern into a bit of guitar or banjo accompaniment without anybody noticing. He (together with his musical partner Kate Brislin or his various bands like Perfect Strangers) rehearses tirelessly, trying every arrangement until he finds the right one and it becomes integrated into his subconscious and his body memory. And then, then he drops it completely and just improvises! So the arrangement always sounds just perfect, impossible to improve upon, and yet it lives and breathes, and never gets stuck in the uninspiring dead stasis of so much technical perfection. His playing is proof that tone and timing are ultimately more important to music than speed and flash.
And then there’s his approach to the songs themselves. Like Ron Thommason, Jody never sings a ditty. Whether its joyful or mournful, every song is a testament to the depth of human experience. That’s part of why most of the songs he sings are old, traditional songs: all the extraneous elements have fallen away, only the essential and universal (though never generic) remains. And like Martin Carthy, Jody does his research. Sometimes he physically goes out and makes field recordings (the fantastic set The Real Bahamas, featuring Joseph Spence and the Pinder Family, was his work – learn more here). He listens to as many versions of the song as he can, particularly the old versions, and then – and this is what makes his approach so special – and then he inhabits the song, until he is living in it and singing from the point of view of the protagonist or songwriter. And this is what gives his singing such humanity. It’s not just that can make his voice quiver as it slides up, or make his voice draw inward while projecting out like an opera singer, but he knows WHEN to do it, so that each vocal inflection corresponds to an emotional state. And then of course, having immersed himself in tradition and story, he forgets all of it, just sings from his heart and above all has fun! In this way, all the facets of life come through Jody’s songs, and you have the rarest of rares, a complete art.
Even though you’ve likely not heard about him, you can bet that other musicians have. David Bromberg once said, “Jody Stecher was basically my teacher. He opened my ears to more beautiful music than anyone else ever did… more than I ever knew existed. He is also one of my favorite musicians on Earth to play with. I have never known anyone so intensely and completely enveloped in music. It’s my suspicion that if you drained all the music out of Jody, you could carry what was left around in an eye dropper.” His recordings have served as a primer for a large and diverse group of musicians, including Jerry Garcia, David Grisman, Peter Rowan, Martin Simpson, Seldom Scene, Laurie Lewis, Kathy Kallick, and the group, Hot Rize. In other words, they listen to him and say “Holy Shit! What an amazing song Jody’s unearthed!” and then they make a version of it, which usually doesn’t quite hold water compared to Jody’s version, but they spread it to many more people, so I suppose it’s good.
Of course, Jody would probably feel a little bit queasy with me lumping so many praises on him. Because another quality that emerges from his music is humility. He gets so into the songs and the music, his ego almost totally disappears. There’s no separation between him and the music, and he never draws attention to his considerable skills. And when you listen, you undergo a similar transformation (especially if you sing along, which you’ll almost certainly want to do). [after writing this I found out that he is in fact a very nice guy and a practicing Buddhist. So my theory of music-to-remove-ego holds true! See what you can learn by listening closely?]
And I haven’t said much about his wife and musical partner Kate Brislin, but let me just say that she has a voice like an angel and a musical grace to match (do angels play banjo?). Her high, crystalline voice is the perfect foil for Jody’s robust tone. Together they make music that will last for centuries to come as a high watermark of American traditional music.
Jody Stecher and Kate Brislin – bio by John Lupton
“Our favorite music is from the time when old-time music was becoming bluegrass.” When he wrote those words for the liner notes of A Song That Will Linger, the 1989 debut Rounder release by him and his wife and duet partner, Kate Brislin, Jody Stecher probably didn’t expect that the next decade would see four more albums that would establish them as the preeminent old-time country duet singers on the scene, but that’s pretty much how it turned out. Although both Stecher and Brislin would likely disagree with that assessment, preferring to point in the direction of friends and colleagues like Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, or Kay Justice and Ginny Hawker, the ’90s saw them carrying the beauty and simplicity of vintage old country music to a wider variety of folk music stages and audiences than probably anyone else. To some, it seemed as if they appeared on the scene out of nowhere, but both had been involved in folk music for several years prior to their meeting in the mid ’70s. To paraphrase the old one-liner, if there’s a dictionary with the term “music junkie” in it, look it up and you’ll find Jody Stecher’s picture next to it. Like many of his fellow New Yorkers born in the ’40s and raised in the ’50s, Brooklyn native Stecher was caught up as a teenager in the so-called Great Folk Music Scare of the ’50s and ’60s. After getting his first guitar at age 11, and a banjo at 12 (after hearing Dock Boggs on record), he signed on with his first bluegrass band, the New York Ramblers, in 1963, while still in his teenage years. (That band also included Winnie Winston and David Grisman). From bluegrass, he progressed to blues, Irish, Bahamian music and whatever else caught his fancy — even an ongoing fascination with Indian sitar music under the tutelage of Krishna Bhatt. Along the way he made a number of albums, both solo and with others, and in 1974 he found himself playing in a Seattle-area band called Houseboat Music, while working in the Folklife department of the World’s Fair in Tacoma. Also employed at the fair was California native Kate Brislin, who was familiar with Stecher’s recently recorded first album of old-time music, and trying out a few songs together off-stage one evening, they found they clicked right away, beginning a musical association and friendship that eventually led to their marriage but not right away. As Stecher would later write, “We circled each other for years.” During those years, Stecher continued to tour as a solo act, as well as with people like Bhatt and fiddler Hank Bradley. Brislin joined the Any Old Time String Band, moving on later to join the Blue Flame String Band. Stecher did ask Brislin to sing on his next two albums, along with notables such as Peter Rowan, Mary Black, Jerry Garcia and the Watersons. In 1985, they began getting serious about singing old-time duets of the classic songs that were the bedrock of bluegrass and country music — “Lover’s Return,” by the Carter Family, for example, and Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times.” As one album led to another during the Rounder years, they also delved into interpretations of material that wasn’t quite so old, such as Jean Ritchie’s “Blue Diamond Mine,” or the title track of their third Rounder release, Iris DeMent’s “Our Town.” Instrumentally, both Stecher and Brislin were classic examples of the advantages of timing and tone over sheer speed. Whether on guitar, banjo or mandolin, both were always tasteful and careful to never allow the instruments to overshadow or diminish the fragile beauty of a mountain ballad. It was a trick they were also able to pull off nicely with the vocals. The delicate and direct quality of Brislin’s voice was a near-perfect match to the plaintive yearning of Stecher’s. It has been said by some that the old country and mountain music of the American south (and points beyond) is as worthy of the description “soul music” as anything that’s come out of Motown over the decades, and there’s precious little better evidence of that than the music of Jody Stecher and Kate Brislin.
there’s a few interviews on the web, all very revealing.
Read Michael Parrish’s interview for Dirty Linen, 1991
and an interview on Jody’s take on Indian music from 2006
And read Jody’s memoir for Z.M. Dagar
[and this account of his trip to China as an ambassador of American music. awesome photos]
This is a music for all ages; those who are young and excited by life will enjoy it no less than those who are old and weary of it. Perhaps the cynical will dismiss his music because of the apparent romantic, nostalgic or devotional aspects inherent to the traditional songs he sings. But even cynics may find, if they allow themselves to listen openly and without prejudice, sympathetic strings resonating within themselves, responding to the encompassing love and deep, holy solitude that carries those romantic, nostalgic, and devotional lyrics. Their album of Utah Phillips’ music made me cry on 4 out of 10 tracks. And I’m a Pirate! Like Gadaya, “every time i listen to [Leela, Leela], it makes me want to sing and dance and go live in an ashram”. And I’m a PIRATE!
But even I didn’t ‘get’ his music at first. I downloaded the ‘Going up the Mountain’ cd as part of a bluegrass torrent. I’d never heard of him before and the music didn’t seem too distinctive at first. But I was hooked on his version of Turtle Dove, the song introduced by the Georgia Sea Island Singers, which my dad sang on many occasions. So gradually I listened to the cd more, and it really grew on me. I discovered Heart Songs: the Old-Time Country Music of Utah Phillips at my local library, and got it despite the too-sweet-looking cover (his dumb grin and balding head are the antithesis of the 99% of musicians who try to look ‘cool’ on their albums). Then I couldn’t stop listening. And I went and bought and sought every other recording of his that I could find (see, piracy can be good for the music business), and he basically singlehandedly made me start learning how to sing. And hopefully, the same will happen to you. But if it doesn’t grab you at first listen, give it a few more spins in the weeks to come. Something will awaken, I promise.
This is a little compilation I put together to give you a taste of his work. It took me months to narrow it down to 80 minutes… every song was too good, I hated to leave any of them out. I intentionally left off the songs from Rasa, his collaboration with Krishna Bhatt, which you can find at Times Ain’t Like They Used To Be. Gadaya has more recently posted Jody’s first album, also called Snake Baked a Hoecake, which I wasn’t aware of when I compiled and named this cd.
If you like what you hear you can check out related projects such as Fred Sokolow’s Bluegrass Banjo Inventions and The Delta Sisters.
Anyways, it’s a labor of love. Enjoy!
1. Turtle Dove
2. Oh the Wind and Rain (version 1)
3. Red Rocking Chair
4. The Bramble and the Rose
5. Blue Diamond Mines
6. The Freize Britches
7. Henry and the Machine (composed by Jody!)
8. Country Blues
10. The Hills of Isle au Haut
11. Queen of the Earth and Child of the Stars / Roving Gambler
12. Love Farewell
13. Paul and Silas
14. Miner’s Lullaby
15. Snake Baked a Hoecake
17. Golden Mansion
18. Oh the Wind and Rain (version 2)
Now I want you to understand something as you download and listen to this beautiful music.
Jody Stecher is tragically under-recorded. Because his music isn’t flashy or exotic, and because it’s too eclectic to be pigeon-holed. He had some success in the 90s playing old-time bluegrass with Kate Brislin, but there are so many other facets of his music that he hasn’t recorded because it’s too hard to market. This sampler will give you a glimpse into some of those facets; others you can hear in Gadaya’s posts. Now, like Max Ochs, Jody will be playing music for the enjoyment of it, for his dog, whathaveyou, probably till the day he dies. But if you want him to shell out for the recording expenses so that you and the rest of the world can enjoy and grow from this music, then we’d better shell out and find some way to support him. I don’t think you could find a musician more deserving. If you know music promoters, record shops, libraries, collectors, or just plain open-minded people, spread the word. I’ve noticed there’s hardly anything on him on the internet. You folks can blog, twitter, e-review, etc. Spread this post around. Or if you want to support him the old-fashioned way, you can buy his records from CD Baby, Acoustic Disc, and Rounder.
[Or, as Gadaya points out, “You could add maybe a word about his instuctionnal videos he made for Stefan Grossman’s guitar workshop, really some great things to learn for guitar players… “]
check them out here
Or preview on youtube