Jorma Kaukonen is a student, teacher, and master of the guitar. He has been practicing his craft since 1956, first learning to play the bluegrass of Flatt and Scruggs and the folk of Woody Guthrie as a Washington D.C. high schooler, and then studying with classical guitarist Sophocles Papas. Kaukonen came into his signature finger-picking style in 1959 at Anitoch College after meeting fellow-student Ian Buchanan, a protégé of blues legend Reverend Gary Davis. College life led Kaukonen to the University of Santa Clara in 1962 and he jumped into the San Jose folk scene, joining the likes of Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia, Paul Kantner, David Crosby, David Freiberg and David Nelson in working through that “old-time” musical form.
In co-founding Jefferson Airplane in 1965, Kaukonen and his other folkie compatriots — Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Grateful Dead, Buffalo Springfield, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and New Riders of the Purple Sage — soon found themselves the headliners of a front-page cultural awakening that shifted “normal” and revolutionized the making of rock ‘n’ roll. Seeking to escape the constant maul of the pop-star hit machine, Kaukonen formed the blues roots band Hot Tuna in 1969 with D.C. pal and Jefferson Airplane bassist Jack Casady. That musical collaboration has lasted over 50 years, the pair further investigating their musical kinship via original compositions and a revisiting of the blues, country and jazz forms that first brought them together.
All the while Hot Tuna has kept touring, Kaukonen has been playing on his own and giving guitar lessons. He originally started teaching as a college student, at the suggestion of Paul Kantner, and continues to do so today, leading one-on-one sessions, retreats and workshops from his southeast Ohio home, a one-time farm, now known as Fur Peace Ranch (as in “it’s a ‘fur’ piece from anywhere”). Over the last 30 years, Kaukonen and his wife, Vanessa, have transformed a series of dilapidated barns and out buildings into a guitar-player paradise, complete with a theater, a café, an art museum, cabins, and performance spaces. When the pandemic cut short Kaukonen’s touring and teaching this spring, he went into the Fur Peace Station Concert Hall and started using YouTube to broadcast weekly Saturday night shows. That “Quarantine Concert Series” is currently at number 26, with the show building a steady audience of 5000-or-so live viewers each Saturday night.
Quarantine Concert Series
Those homey concerts — which typically have daughter Izze behind the camera and Vanessa directing the action — reveal a Kaukonen who’s eager to talk about anything and glad to share the stories behind his music. An avowed gear-head, especially when it comes to cars, motorcycles, musical instruments, microphones, amplifiers and guitar pick-ups, Kaukonen is known to go deep into a geek language that few speak, one his fans thoroughly enjoy. In a recent on-stage question-and-answer session, Kaukonen went into the story of a cross-country motorcycle ride he took at age 60. That re-telling led AGEIST to reach out to Kaukonen to talk about the importance of being on his bike, playing music, and adjusting to life as it is today.
As it happens, the week we caught up with Kaukonen, who turns 80 in December, he was playing his first outdoor gigs of the year, driving up into New England in his new RV. He responded by email and we kept the conversation going that way.
“There’s nothing like a motorcycle trip, where all you have to think about is your machine and your destination”
What inspired that bike trip when you were 60?
Actually, I was 62. It was something I had wanted to do all my life. I never took the time to make the time before…until then. And I’ll probably never get to take a month off like that again, ever. There’s nothing like a motorcycle trip, where all you have to think about is your machine and your destination.
Who went with you? Where’d you go? What’d you see?
I went with one of my local riding buddies, a guy named Jerry Bayha. Jerry is also a superb mechanic so he’s a great riding pal. We rode from Ohio, where I live, to Northern California in four 600-mile days. I’ll never be able to do that again. We then rode down Route 1 to LA, and from Santa Monica we followed Route 66 to Lakeshore and Jackson in Chicago. Riding east, we only did 150-mile days so we had plenty of time to enjoy the majesty of the trip. Route 66 is an awesome trip I would recommend to anyone!
On any trip, you learn something. What’d you come away with?
I learned that to have a month where your sole responsibility is to just enjoy the ride is an experience not to be taken for granted. I also learned that proper motorcycle maintenance is de rigueur.
Where do you ride now? How often?
Interestingly enough, being at home since March, thanks to the virus, I have ridden 5000 miles. What’s not to like?
What are you riding?
I’m riding a 2016 Harley Davidson CVO Pro Street Breakout with a 110 Screaming Eagle motor!
If you were to take a long-distance trip now what would it look like?
Anywhere with great roads! Staying away from urban centers, of course.
Where do you want to ride?
You know, I just love to ride. If had the chance to go somewhere riding… I would just go. I’ve never ridden the Badlands…That’s up there on the list.
“I still love the guitar as much as I did when I was a kid”
GE Smith says your acoustic playing is better than it’s ever been. What do you attribute that to?
Passing time, and the fact that I still love the guitar as much as I did when I was a kid.
When you hear Jack start teasing up “Funky #7” or “Bowlegged Woman” what goes through your head? Your fingers?
I usually wait until he sets the “ground rules.” That involves listening for a bit. Then I enter his musical room and look around to see what musical delights await me!
Does that happen often? And when does it happen?
Truly, it happens almost anytime we play together.
How have you adjusted to not being on the road?
Not really…and a good thing, too, since some gigs are starting to manifest themselves. I accept our current sad reality, but it really makes me appreciate when an isolated gig pops up.
“I have always loved teaching…To be able to ‘pass it on’ is such a blessing and it makes me a better player”
What keeps you teaching the way you do?
I have always loved teaching and I hope the time never comes when I can’t do it. To be able to “pass it on” is such a blessing and it makes me a better player.
How do you view “growing up”?
It’s a work in progress.
My father told me he thought of himself as the same person between the ages of 17 and 44; he also told me more changed for him between the ages of 50 and 70 than they did in the twenty years before, 30 to 50. That’s as far as we got.
70 to 80 is the game changer…but it sure beats the alternative!
Are there things your father or mother said about growing up you’ve found useful? Not so useful?
I regret that my folks and I never had this conversation. I think I should have liked that.
There are so many things no one talks about, as husband and father and human when it comes to getting older, like adjusting to menopause, seeing your priorities shift, allowing “mistakes,” knowing yourself differently, discovering you’ve been doing things for 30, 40 and 50 years or more.
“I want to hold onto my truth. I want to keep discovering it”
What is it you wish someone had said something about?
I think to be un-self-conscious about myself would have been nice to learn about at a younger age.
What do you find yourself holding onto? That you want to let go of? And that you want to pass on?
I want to hold onto my truth. I want to keep discovering it. I want to let go of any regrets I might have. As for passing something on…“To thine own self be true,” would be it.
Encore (follow-up questions)
You describe 70 to 80 as the game changer. What’s the change? What did it do to your game?
You’ll know when you get there. I’m very lucky because I’m still healthy; that’s not the case for everyone my age, or even less. I need to keep assessing my current abilities with respect to any undertaken physical endeavor. Just because I could do something last year, doesn’t mean it has to work this year. Like that great American philosopher Clint Eastwood says, “A man’s gotta know his limitations.”
“Every day must be looked at as a new beginning”
On the road, you describe seeing; playing with Jack, you describe listening; in teaching and growing up, you describe giving. Each of those “processes” has an aspect of surprise, of discovery, of new. What keeps you attuned/sensitive to that?
Every day must be looked at as a new beginning. You just can’t take stuff for granted. That said, you can make plans but you can’t plan outcomes…and that…keeps life fresh.
Each of those processes also require you recognize what’s familiar, without getting all-knowing about it. What keeps you from going that way?
The older I get, the more I realize how little I know about anything. That’s a good place to be. It keeps me ever curious. It’s hard to learn anything when you think you know everything. A state of familiarity might be a good anchor point but sometimes you just have to head for the horizon.
Is there anything you look to to keep yourself “playing,” curious, and unstuck?
I always try to keep looking for that “a-ha” moment to kick me in the metaphorical butt. It’s important for men in life but extremely so in music. That’s not to say I’m reinventing myself…ever. I just try to never cease tweaking my life and music.
“Motorcycle riding is quite simply one of those last true bastions of physical freedom for me”
What stokes you about being on the road, riding or touring? And what does motorcycle riding do for you?
Motorcycle riding is quite simply one of those last true bastions of physical freedom for me. You get to truly live in the moment when you ride. You are connected to your environment in a profound way and everything you do, physical or mental, matters!
For more on Jorma Kaukonen and Hot Tuna
Fur Peach Ranch: https://www.furpeaceranch.com/
Jorma Kaukonen: http://jormakaukonen.com/
Hot Tuna: http://hottuna.com/
The Quarantine Concert Series: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLRclpDvfXpYF60Kvdxg4I8k_Nc-vUIUvN
Jorma Kaukonen on PKM: https://pleasekillme.com/jorma-kaukonen/
Story by Benito Vila, all photos by Scotty Hall.