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John Reischman and the Jaybirds

(Nick Hornbuckle, Greg Spatz, Trisha Gagnon & Jim Nunally)

Interview Questions for Rogue Folk Review, November 2004 by Sue Kavanagh

Part 1. John Reischman (mandolin)

Kavanagh: What made you choose the mandolin over the guitar? Did it have anything to do with portability or was it all to do with sound?

Reischman: I found that playing the mandolin gave me my own identity. When I first started, it seemed that everybody played guitar. Also, I associated the mandolin with bluegrass music which I was becoming quite interested in. I did start on guitar and still play it at home

Kavanagh: Could you please tell us about your mandolin collection if there is one?

Reischman: I currently have two mandolins. The main one I play is a 1924 Gibson F5. I have played this mandolin almost exclusively since 1981 when I bought it. It is considered by many to be one of the best mandolins in the world. I feel very fortunate to own it. It is an inspiring instrument to play. My other mandolin is a 2001 Michael Heiden F5. It is more or less the same design as the Gibson. It is also a great instrument and I have played it on stage and on recordings. Michael is a wonderful builder of mandolins and guitars, and he lives in Chilliwack. His work is world class.

Kavanagh: I understand that bluegrass legend Bill Monroe was and is a big inspiration for you, (so much so that you have composed and played tributes to him). Did you ever get to meet Bill?

Reischman: I was lucky enough to spend time with Mr. Monroe on several occasions. I remember one time when I was living in San Francisco, about 1982, I was playing at a bar called Paul’s Saloon. Paul’s featured Bluegrass Music 7 night s a week, so out of town musicians would often stop by to jam. Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys were playing at another venue in town that same night. I have a vivid memory of Bill Monroe, David Grisman, and Frank Wakefield walking through the door while I was playing on stage, It was pretty nerve racking, but I got through the set, and we all ended up playing mandolins together off stage. While Mr. Monroe was not particularly engaging, he was always polite and generous whenever I was around him. I feel fortunate that I got to spend time with such a great and influential musician.

Kavanagh: You also draw inspiration from Django Reinhardt. What question would you ask Django if you could talk to him?

Reischman: I think Django was one of the greatest musicians of all time. If I ever was in a situation where I could ask him a question, I would probably be speechless! I guess I would just hope that he would play a tune so I could witness his genius in person.

Kavanagh: Your musical career has found you playing with many musicians/bands. Which groupings forced and/or nurtured your biggest musical leaps?

Reischman: I guess playing with Tony Rice gave me the biggest boost to work on my playing. The mandolin players he had played with before me, like Sam Bush and David Grisman, were my heroes. Tony is an incredible musician and I felt that I had to improve just to walk on stage with him. He was always very supportive of me and did not give too much direction. As long as everything was in tune, and in time, it was cool with him.

Part 2. Trisha Gagnon (bass, vocals)

Kavanagh: Some of your work with former group Tumbleweed ended up in the film "Leaving Normal". How did that come about?

Gagnon: The Director inquired about getting a band to perform and act in a movie he was doing. The Vancouver Musicians' union put them in touch with us along with a few others. We were sent two songs on tape previously recorded, one by Brook Benton, the other by Patty Page. There was no explanation of what to do, so we did our versions of the songs, sent them back to the Director, and he loved our renditions and hired us. That was a great gig! A really good days work!

Kavanagh: Did that experience open a lot of musical doors for you?

Gagnon: That was the very beginning of the band so it really started us off well.

Kavanagh: Tell us a little about the path that led you to your current career as a musician and singer.

Gagnon: I didn’t grow up in a musical family, and never knew I was a musician until my late twenties. My doorway in was hearing Bluegrass music in my early twenties. I fell in love with it and searched out were to find it, which led me to the Pacific Bluegrass club. The people were so welcoming and I could see they encouraged others to learn. At best I hoped for an open stage appearance and a chance to sing a little. Then I met up with Chris Stevens a few years later. He recognized both my sister and my raw talent and we formed Tumbleweed. From the first time I stepped onto a stage, I knew I was home.

Kavanagh: How is it being the bird amongst (Jay) birds?

Gagnon: The guys are the best in all ways. They are amazing and inspiring musicians and every one of them are really great people. All are family oriented, respectful, and I am blessed to have their friendship.

Kavanagh: How long have the Jaybirds been together?

Gagnon: Officially, just over four years, that is when Jim joined the band. We started playing some for about a year before that casually.

Kavanagh: Acoustic Guitar Magazine (February 2004) describes the Jaybird CD "Field Guide" as follows: “Top-notch musicians and singers deliver an unusual repertoire of originals, bluegrass classics, and old-time music" and names it amongst the Top CDs of 2003. The statement gets me wondering (oh yes, and congrats on the acclaim by the way) how on earth, with four of you in the band, do you come to decisions about what mixture of originals and classics etc. to include? There are so many songs out there!

Gagnon: It's easy, The band is called John Reischman and the Jaybirds, the band sound was his creation initially. We respect his final word and understand the sound we are after when writing and looking for songs.

Kavanagh: Describe, if you will, where you’d like to see yourself musically in ten years.

Gagnon: Always learning, and writing, and teaching, and lots of performing !

Kavanagh: The Jaybirds have a brand spanking new CD out – The Road West – how long was it in the making and where was it worked on?

Gagnon: We had been thinking of our third CD just after recording our second CD. So the song writing and gathering started there. The actual studio time was about a week or so, and we had a really comfortable studio to do it in. The setting was a very private estate in the country, south of the border. We all lived there for the duration, and had no distractions.

Part 3. Jim “Mr. Snoopy: Nunally (guitar)

Kavanagh: Please share a little something about your involvement in the CBS television Peanuts special, “Snoopy’s Reunion.”

Nunally: Well this was a very interesting recording session. There was a television special made called Snoopy’s Reunion, which was about Snoopy and his little puppy brothers and sisters who were raised on the Daisy Hill Puppy farm; They had a bluegrass band. Snoopy plays bluegrass guitar, in fact he plays a guitar exactly like mine. The other musicians on the soundtrack are Mike Marshall and Kaila Flexer on fiddles, Todd Phillips on bass, which later became jug, Rob Ickes on dobro, Tony Furtado on banjo, Snoopy (me) guitar, and Mike Marshall mandolin. It aired in 1995 but I think it is still available on video.

Kavanagh: Your “Brothers at Heart” (with Jim and Dix Bruce) CD was nominated for “Outstanding Country/Alt Country Album of 2004 by the California Music Awards. Since being nominated like this quickly makes your name familiar to more people, I suppose it’s possible some folks think you are an “overnight success!” If you ran into this sort of reaction, how would you respond to it?

Nunally: Well it is more like 30 years worth of nights, and some very long ones.

Kavanagh: I understand your father taught you guitar at a very young age. Describe “lesson time” for us.

Nunally: My father was a very patient person with me and my brother, Jack. We would learn a song, play it with dad, and then he would show us another. It was a real special time for me and I became very close to my father and mother at that time, they loved the fact that I was interested in music and were very supportive of it. It was so informal that I would hardly call them lessons, but at the same time that is what they were. I would watch him play and ask him to show me, or he would suggest things for me to learn and show me those. I mostly watched, asked questions, and practiced what he taught me.

Kavanagh: You teach guitar as well as play professionally. What do you learn from your students or learn about yourself as you teach?

Nunally: Teaching is a very good way to analyze your own playing technique, think about the theory behind what you do, and try to convey it in an understandable way. This is very helpful in understanding what you are really doing, I enjoy that.

Kavanagh: How long have you been a member of the California Bluegrass Association and what role has it played in your career?

Nunally: I’ve been a member at least 25 years, probably more, member number 625. I guess the biggest role the CBA has played would be organizing the Fathers Day Festival and many other bluegrass events since about 1976 or so. I’ve attended as many of those events as I could make, they have always had a special place in my heart. I really grew as a musician attending those events, seeing exceptionally talented bands perform, and then go out and jam after the shows, all inspired from seeing such great music, that really is a wonderful experience, I was just a teenager when I started attending those festivals. I have made some very dear friends from those CBA events. I have since performed there with many different bands but mostly with Heartland and Due West. Heartland last performed around 1989. Due West still plays.

Kavanagh: Tell us about your work with Due West.

Nunally: Due West is a band that was formed around 1990. It included Rob Ickes, Greg Spatz, Erik Thomas, Steve Carlson, Robert Bowden, and myself in the original band. The group is still active, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area where we are based, but does tour as well. It is a more progressive, modern style band than the Jaybirds.

Kavanagh: How did you end up being a Jaybird?

Nunally: I was recommended to teach at the BC Bluegrass Camp by John Reischman. I performed at BCB camp with the Jaybirds, filling in for Rich Jones on guitar. Not long after that camp I was asked to join the band. John and I had some music history together. I had played with him in a band with Sally Van Meter and Tammy Fassaert. I played on John’s first album, North Of The Border. He asked me to co-produce and engineer his second recording Up In The Woods, I played on that project too. So John was very familiar with my playing. I think the Jaybirds were gearing up for more touring and needed a guitarist who was available for that and who fit the sound, I met both those conditions, and I think they like me too.

Part 4. Nick Hornbuckle (banjo)

Kavanagh: Who were your major influences?

Hornbuckle: My influences run from The Beatles to Led Zeppelin to Johnny Cash to Earl Scruggs to Burt Bacharach to Jimi Hendrix to Sly Stone to Booker T to Beethoven to the Police and beyond. I like listening to a lot of different kinds of music, my only requirement is that it be good.

Kavanagh: You are described as a prolific composer. Please describe yourself at work composing. Share anything you’d like to, perhaps your favourite work setting, your inspirations or your methods.

Hornbuckle: I have had dreams where I’ve been somewhere, heard some great music and realized that I’d never heard this particular tune before. My job then is to basically transcribe them as accurately as I can. I’ve also written tunes that just materialized out of a particular tuning and I had to make sure that all the pieces fit together correctly. I’ve also found a little bit of a melody and expanded on it, added and subtracted until I had something that I thought sounded good. There are also tunes that just appear in my ear and I have to find the melody as quickly as I can, before I lose the tune.

Kavanagh: Though you are a composer, do you sometimes suggest cover tunes that the band might do together because something strikes you as irresistible or perfect for the group?

Hornbuckle: No, I really don’t. I think that the more original material we can do, or original arrangements of other material, the better opportunity we have to get our sound across. I’ve played in a lot of cover bands, and that is a good place to learn certain things. But I really think doing original material is the best place to find your voice, what you think sounds good.

Kavanagh: You worked (along with John) on Jenny Lester’s CD Friends Like You. Could you please tell us a little about this project?

Hornbuckle: I had known Jenny for a couple of years and was very flattered to be asked to be on those sessions. I think that the album turned out quite well. We tracked in a couple of different studios in and around Vancouver. I think that she and John did a great job on the album.

Kavanagh: What other projects have you worked on away from the Jaybirds?

Hornbuckle: I get calls for studio work now and then. I was in a rock and roll band for several years here in Seattle. I played bass guitar. We were called Son of Man and were a really great punk/metal/pop/grunge band. I got out of that while I could still hear.

Kavanagh: Close your eyes and put yourself on stage. Now tell me something about switching emotional gears on the spot in order to produce different musical feelings for listeners. Does the switch start inside you or with your fingers and ears as you play and hear the music?

Hornbuckle: I guess that I try to feel it first and then do my best to play that feeling. If it’s a tune like “The North Shore” I really think about John sitting in his kitchen, looking at the North shore of Vancouver writing that melody. I try to “ honour” the memory of Bill Monroe in my way, as much as John did in his way by writing the tune. If it’s an upbeat tune like “Don’t Wake Me Up”, I just try to rip it. I mean, despite the words, it is an exuberant, playful song and I try to tap into that and put that across in my playing.

Kavanagh: Field Guide was a 2003 Juno Award nominee in the Best Roots Traditional Album (Group) Category. Do you feel that nomination clarified anything for you or other band members?

Hornbuckle: It reminded me that we have a lot to be thankful for. We have a great band, we have great friendships, we play great music and we are lucky enough to be recognized for it all. Playing music is a lot of fun, and touring is fun, if a bit challenging sometimes, so to be nominated is really icing on the cake. I play music because I can’t not do it, but I’m still grateful for the recognition the nomination represents.

Kavanagh: How would you compare the making of The Road West to the making of other CD’s the Jaybirds have done together?

Hornbuckle: I guess that the biggest differences with this album are that we’ve had quite a bit of time to play a lot of the material over the last year or so, and we recorded to analog instead of digital. I honestly don’t remember a lot about the latest sessions. I remember a few very intense, long days in the studio, and not being sure how it all really sounded. When I got a rough mix from Jim a couple of weeks later, I was really pleased with the way it turned out. It’s our best yet. I think that as time goes on, we are getting to the heart of the “Jaybirds sound”. This album finds us in a place where all the different elements; our material, our individual styles and our overall sound just fit together and feel more at home than ever before.

Part 5: Greg Spatz (fiddle)

Kavanagh: Who were your major influences?

Spatz: For bluegrass: Bobby Hicks, Kenny Baker, Stuart Duncan.

Kavanagh: Tell us a little something please, about work you’ve done on some other projects such as Seven Sisters and Everyday Heroes and Heroines.

Spatz: Every now and then I’ll get a call to come in and record some fiddle tracks on a project, either a bluegrass project, or not. Usually it’s someone I know, or someone who knows someone that I know -- that kind of thing. The Seven Sisters cd was a project that Jim Nunally was producing and recording. I happened to be in the Bay Area for some other work around the time he was scheduled to do the recording, so it worked out easily for me to play on it. It was a pretty rewarding experience, overall – great songs, good people to work with. I think a number of the songs from that CD have gone on to be well recorded by various bluegrass artists etc. Lisa Aschman is a terrific song writer.

Kavanagh: I read you once participated in something called the Fiddler’s picnic. Just the name conjures up all sorts of images (a few hours past lunch I admit many of these are to do with food – check picnic cloths, baskets, chicken and pies, oh yes …… and ants) but tell us what that name means to you.

Spatz: The Fiddler’s picnic is an annual event in Iowa City, IA. A lot of fun. I lived in Iowa in the mid-nineties for three years while I was on a fellowship at the Iowa Writers Workshop. Between classes and writing I also played in a band with Bob Black and Al and Aleta Murphy (formerly from Kenny Baker’s band) and a mandolin player named John Purk. We toured around a fair amount in that part of the country – mostly festivals in Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, etc. It kept me sane, playing with those guys. They’re wonderful people and great players. The Fiddler’s Picnic was just a kind of fun hootenanny type of thing that happened sometime in September, every year – which is about the only nice month in Iowa, weather-wise. It never failed, that weekend would be the last nice weekend of the year – sunny and nice. Everyone from the old time and folk music scene in Iowa City (which is a pretty vibrant community, by the way) would be there and there would be as much picking in the parking lot as on stage. Usually some folk luminaries would show up as well – Greg Brown, if he was in town, etc. Just a great time.

Kavanagh: Could you share some sort of tour or concert disaster story with us? If you don’t have a disaster, how about a boo boo?

Spatz: We’ve never had a bona fide disaster, I’d say. Sometimes it’ll feel, on a particular weekend, like the forces that be are all somehow aligned against you (your name gets left out of the program, it starts to storm right before you walk on stage, someone’s flight is delayed, etc.) – everything just keeps working out wrong. But never disastrously. There was one tour when Jim forgot his stage clothes, twice – left them in a hotel. That was kind of a drag. I still remember him trying to get a pair of John’s pants to stay up, right before we went on stage. That was pretty funny. The pants were huge on him and too long and he had the belt tightened up to keep them in place, the cuffs rolled way up, but still, it just wasn’t very flattering. We managed to make a joke out of it and work it into the stage banter. Actually, come to think of it, the worst disaster happened on this one California tour way early on, like in 2001, one of our first tours with Jim: Trisha got detained at the US border (and denied entry) and we had to do the whole thing as a four-piece. There was nothing funny about that, though – everything was just a lot harder. It was a huge hassle and really upsetting to Trisha. For the bigger venue gigs we had to get friends of ours to come and fill in, learn some of Trisha’s songs, etc. We had a couple of different bass players to do the job and Kathy Kallick sang a few with us. That whole trip was just a bummer. We just never hit our stride.

Kavanagh: You have taught workshops for fiddle players. When you’ve taught, how has it affected your own playing?

Spatz: When I teach a workshop class I usually have to go back and figure out one good way of playing something – a tune or a song break or a few pieces of instrumental fill. Typically, left to my own devices, I don’t play things exactly the same way from one day to the next. But that makes it hard to teach. So, the first thing is, I’ll go back and figure out one good version of something to teach, and I’ll make myself commit it to memory well enough so that I can break it down piece by piece, slowly, so it’s teachable a phrase at a time (by ear). I don’t read or write music well, at all, so this is kind of essential. Sometimes, too, if I have time, I’ll have my wife Caridwen (also a fiddle player) help me to transcribe a few things onto the page, in advance of the class. That helps. But still, I’m forced to do the same thing: slow down, figure out one good way to play something, commit it to memory. I’m big on learning by ear, anyway. I think it’s a much better way to go about getting a handle on this music – to hear and try to capture some of the nuances and so on that go into traditional fiddle playing.

Kavanagh: Please tell us about the compositions on The Road West. How many are original, how many are covers, who penned them etc?

Spatz: John contributed two new instrumentals (Crowberry, Allen’s Creek) and wrote the melodies for two of the vocals (In the Fall, and Home Sweet Home). Nick contributed two new instrumentals (The Homecoming and Deep Dark Sea). Trisha wrote words for Home Sweet Home and wrote both words and melody for Blackberry Bramble. Jim wrote Travelin the Road West. The rest, I think, are traditional, from various sources.

Part 6. Back to John Reischman again

Kavanagh: When you were growing up in the sticks in Northern California, you used to go play up in the woods (inspiring the album name “Up in the Woods”) near the house where you lived. Did you simply enjoy the solitude or were you that bad when you were young?

Reischman: I never played music in the woods, I just played! You know, make believe stuff, Tarzan and Wild West! It was an incredibly beautiful place to live. The woods were right out my back door.

Kavanagh: Your band is of course The Jaybirds and you have an album called “Field Guide”. I’m guessing, of course, that you started to love the musicality of birds while you were out there in the woods, (correct me if I’m wrong) but I’d like to know more about their importance in both your earlier and current life.

Reischman: I am not much of a birder, I just think they are interesting. The name Jaybirds comes from being on Corvus records. Corvus is Latin for Crow, and Jays are in the same family. There are lots of references to Jaybirds in old time music.

Kavanagh: I always wonder what individual performers do to prepare themselves immediately before coming on stage so when I noticed one of your promo photos shows you wearing a tie with a big coffee cup on it, I started to wonder if caffeine plays an important roll in your energetic playing which I’ve seen often described as “powerhouse” playing?

Reischman: I do like coffee quite a bit, but I find it quite counter-productive to giving a relaxed performance, so I avoid it before playing. It does make your fingers move fast, though.

Kavanagh: Picture yourself about to head out on a chilly autumn day in B.C. for a long drive to a performance or just for a day out. Tell us about some current choices you might grab to bring along for your CD player.

Reischman: I like old time music a lot, so I might bring some cds by Bruce Molsky or Dirk Powell. They are a couple of the best contemporary old time musicians. I also like Latin Music, especially from the Caribbean and Brazil. I might bring something by Cuarteto Patria, from Cuba, or Ramito from Puerto Rico. There is a Brazilian compilation that I love called Brazil! Roots! Samba! Great singing and playing with an infectious groove.

Kavanagh: Now step back in time and turn up the heat -- back to the eighties when you played music in California with the Tony Rice Unit and the eclectic Good Ol' Persons. Again you are driving and you are listening to music. What would be playing on your cassette, eight track or radio?

Reischman: When I played with Tony I listened to a lot of Jazz, so it’s likely that I would have included something by sax players like George Coleman, Albert Heath, John Coltrane or Benny Carter. I also liked the Police, and David Lindley with El Rayo X.

Kavanagh: Please tell us about the Alaska Bluegrass Cruise.

Reischman: The Bluegrass Cruise is a theme cruise for Bluegrass enthusiasts. We had a great time on the last one, and are glad to be going again this year. Beautiful scenery, great music, and delicious food whenever you want it! I had never been interested in going on a cruise before this, but I had a great time.

Kavanagh: Can you share with us any news of projects you are working on or planning now?

Reischman: I am really excited about our new cd, The Road West. I think is our best yet. We had plenty of time to let the tunes develop and had the luxury of performing most of them on stage before we recorded them.
I have just been thinking about a new solo project that incorporates all the different music that I like to try and play, like Bluegrass, Old time, Jazz, Latin etc. I am not a big fan of cds that are all over the map stylistically, but I think the common thread for this project would be I would only use a few musicians on each track. Keep things intimate, rather than big productions. I would like the music to sound like something that could happen in the living room.