What do you call the sound that comes from a Martin acoustic guitar that emulates bluegrass, grunge, prog, metal, Chuck Berry, a healthy dose of jazz, and more? Well, Jon Stickley of course.
The Jon Stickley Trio out of Asheville, North Carolina, is a band’s band. The musical compositions are astounding to the average listener, and those who play and understand music will undoubtedly be impressed with their off-the-charts range, rhythmic patterns, and precision.
Initially when one might read all those genres they may think to themselves, “Well shoot, just pick a genre man, it looks like if The Cheesecake Factory menu was a band.” But when you put them on and listen, you’d better be ready to pick your jaw up off the floor and scold yourself for making unjust presumptions. For example, I’d recommend checking out Echo Sessions 14, which is a bit dated (2015), but a stellar example of what they’ve got cooking.
Joining Jon are Lyndsay Pruett on fiddle and drummer/percussionist Hunter Deacon, who are also masters of their craft, and are the perfect accompaniment to Jon’s fast flatpickin’ ass kickin’ guitar playing.
The trio just released their latest album, Scripting The Flip, which just hit streaming services in early April. I had the pleasure of chatting with Jon on the telephone about the album, his musical composition, favorite Jamaican restaurants, and much more.
Music Mecca: So who or what got you interested in playing guitar?
Jon Stickley: Probably the music of the nineties. I started really getting into the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Kurt Cobain.
MM: When did the light bulb go off when you knew that you were going to dedicate your life and career to music?
JS: You know I don’t think I ever had a light bulb moment honestly. I never really considered it something I could do for a living. I followed the natural path, and I’ve always been in bands, and went to school- I studied Parks and Recreation in college. I wanted to be a Park Ranger, but the whole time I was in college I was in a bluegrass band, and I just joined a full-time band after college, and here we are.
MM: Your music is very unique and you traverse all kinds of sound scapes without an over-abundance of instrumentation, but how would YOU describe your music?
JS: I would say the point you just brought up, how many different places we go with what limited means we have. I think our limitations really push us into new directions and forces us to experiment and make new music if that makes sense. We don’t have a lot of pieces to work with, and so we try a lot of different compositional tools and work to make our instruments sound as diverse as they possibly can.
MM: In listening to different songs of yours, I realize they’re mostly instrumentals. Is this something you’re content with, or do you foresee adding vocals to songs?
JS: We’re still pretty into the instrumental side of things. The Jon Stickley Trio is officially an instrumental band. We kind of pride ourselves on that. That’s where our focus is, but Lindsay, our violinist, and I both really enjoy singing, and we sing in other projects and in other settings.
MM: So you just released your latest album Scripting The Flip, and I was wondering how you landed on the title and what it means to the album?
JS: So obviously it’s a pun on “flipping the script,” and “scripting the flip”- so basically there’s a thing that happens in bluegrass when you’re jamming, and if someone gets lost, they can end up playing the bluegrass rhythm on the opposite beat. So instead of 2 and 4, they’re playing on 1 and 3. So when that happens in a jam, it’s really kind of confusing and hilarious sounding, and I actually wrote a tune called “Scripting The Flip,” based on that idea of switching the bluegrass rhythm around and playing with it, and doing it on purpose. That would be the scripting element of it. In a way, our band is always trying to solidify these happy accidents and turn them into music, and think outside of the box. So in that sense we’re kind of “scripting the flip.”
MM: What are some primary themes or influences behind this particular album, whether it be musically or otherwise?
JS: I would say that the songs have more of a rhythmic focus than anything we’ve done in the past. One of the new directions we were taking was working our new drummer into the mix. This is his first album with us, and he is a master percussionist and has played so many different styles. He can pretty much play any abstract rhythmic idea you throw at him. So we really tried to work that in musically. And a lot of the songs are just inspired by places we’ve been. We’ve been playing so much live over the past four years, that the road and places we go are really starting to inspire the music more.
MM: How would you say this album might differ from your previous releases?
JS: I would say in a way it’s more cohesive than anything we’ve ever done. The band unit is stronger, so we’re playing really well as a group. And kind of like the last answer, we’ve taken it in some new rhythmic directions and experiment a little bit more with the form of the music. It’s tighter than ever before, and also more different.
MM: Where was it recorded, and who was involved in the recording process?
JS: So this was our first album with Organic Records. They were our label for the project, and we recorded at their studio here in Asheville called Crossroads Recording Studio. And their team helped us engineer it and mix it, so it’s pretty much an in-house operation at Organic Records. They specialize in capturing acoustic tone, and they produce a lot of traditional bluegrass music. So we were excited about getting in with them because one of the things we really wanted to focus on with this album was really capturing the quality of our acoustic instruments, and I think we pulled it off pretty well.
MM: As a professional musician, how have you been dealing with the current pandemic as far as trying to maintain momentum with your music?
JS: I’ve been really working hard on getting practice time in. When we’re touring, a lot of our chops develop quite a bit, my hand strength increases, and you get really warm, but it takes a while of solid touring to get there. But now that we’re not on the road touring at all, I’m trying to get a few hours in every day on my instrument. And otherwise always working on material. There’s never a dull moment if you’ve got more recording projects coming up, and we plan on getting started on our next one right away.
MM: So what would you say makes Asheville special and a “hidden gem” of a city?
JS: I would say it’s always had an artistic leaning. Back in the day, I think it was the site of one of the first ever mountain music festivals. There’s a deep tradition of music here, and it’s just a vibrant community of artists. So that has attracted a lot more people to come, and it’s definitely exploding for its charm. It’s what brought me here. I moved here to join a band, then I started going to different jams. The way people play music together here is very collaborative and social. It’s kind of how I met all my friends. Also stylistically people have a very rooted old-timey style where everyone has respect for the music that came before. That helps everyone have a unified respect, and the rooted playing got me inspired and got me thinking about playing in a more old-timey classic style. I don’t know, I could go on about that forever.
MM: What is one of your favorite cafes or diners that you might love to get your day started at?
JS: Oh that’s a good question! You know, I live in West Asheville, which is kind of like its own small little town where you have a main street with a lot of bars and coffee shops. The Universal Joint is my bar, and Odd’s Cafe is my coffee shop. Actually let me switch and pick BattleCat as my coffee shop instead.
MM: There can be no switching, Jon. Just kidding. Now do you usually get the same drink every time, or do you like to switch it up?
JS: I usually get a large black coffee with two shots in it.
MM: Now what is one food establishment Jon Stickley can not live without?
JS: I would say Nine Mile. It’s a Jamaican restaurant.
MM: What lesson or lessons do you hope the world, or at least the country, will take away from this pandemic?
JS: I would say the main thing that keeps popping into my head is just how much it helps if you take care of the people in your community, everyone is better off. If you don’t take care of the poor people, it hurts the rich people too. You can’t just live in a bubble. We are all one, and I think this is really exposing a lot of that.