Catching Up with Hot Tuna’s Jorma Kaukonen
“When you're in your twenties and thirties,” Jorma Kaukonen says while on tour this winter, “it’s hard to imagine that one day you’ll wake up and go, ‘Wow, I’m 73 years old! Isn’t that something?’” It is something indeed, but another factoid seems even more impossible to fathom: Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the formation of Jefferson Airplane, the seminal San Francisco band that first brought Kaukonen’s guitar playing, singing and songwriting to a mass audience. That group, for all of its seismic cultural and musical impact, was over and done with after seven years, but Hot Tuna, conceived as a spinoff by Jorma and Airplane bassist Jack Casady to fill some down time, is not only still going strong, but is also still evolving and creating. As a mainstay of Relix since its inception, Kaukonen has witnessed the scene’s evolution since the magazine printed its first issue in 1974.
“Things were wacky back then,” he says with more than a hint of understatement— but without regret—in his voice. “In some respects, my life is more predictable now and on some levels it is less. We’re homeschooling our daughter now and when I’m home, I’m part of that. That’s something I wouldn’t even have been able to comprehend back then—I wasn’t able to comprehend having a daughter back then, much less actually taking responsibility for her education! I’ve also got a son who’s almost 17 years old and I couldn’t have comprehended taking a motorcycle ride with my son, or even having a son. Basically, it has to do with growing up in spite of myself, and I like it.”
Of course, no one, Kaukonen included, could have foreseen the longevity of Hot Tuna—or any rock band—four decades ago. There simply wasn’t a precedent. The reason that he and Casady have lasted this long, Jorma says, is because “We’re both incredibly tolerant of each other. It’s always been there but when you’re young you don’t think about that kind of stuff. Jack and I have an inherent respect for each other as men and as artists, and I think we’re consciously aware of that today. We’ve certainly busted each other’s balls over the years, but we don’t do that anymore. We let each other be each other.”
Tuna today is, by necessity and design, a considerably different entity than the mid- to late-‘70s model. While they’ve recently revisited some of the long abandoned material from that era, the ear-bleeding volume and power trio format of those days has long since given way to a more nuanced and tempered ensemble approach. “It all had its place in history,” Kaukonen says of ‘70s Tuna, “but it really was a younger person’s music. You have that frenetic energy and that’s just how it is. I remember talking to Eric Clapton right around the time that Music from Big Pink came out. I loved Cream but that wasn’t his favorite music he wanted to play music like The Band. I didn’t get it at that time, but I get it now. At some point, you have to move on.”
In 1974, at the same time that Hot Tuna was regularly playing multi-hour marathon concerts at ear-splitting volume, Kaukonen released his debut solo album, Quah, an all-acoustic collaboration with the late, little-known singer- songwriter-guitarist Tom Hobson. A true gem, it holds up remarkably well today—Jorma still performs several songs from the album. “Jack produced it and it’s a project that he and I are still proud of,” he says. “At this point, I consider all of my songs that are still relevant to be part of the soundtrack of my life, and if the stories are still interesting to tell, then I still like to tell them.”
Since Quah, Kaukonen has maintained a prolific solo career alongside that of Hot Tuna’s music. His three most recent recordings—Blue Country Heart (2002), Stars in My Crown (2007) and River Of Time (2009)—are stunning, acoustic- dominated creations that balance his lifelong love of the blues, country, folk and gospel through both original compositions and choice covers. In today’s vernacular, Jorma’s solo music falls squarely into the Americana camp—a genre that certainly existed but hadn’t yet found its name back in ‘74. “I started out with that kind of stuff, and I always enjoyed listening to it,” he says, “but to me, the thread has always been unbroken. On my solo albums, it’s more about the songs than the magic that happens in the interaction between myself and Jack.”
For all of the enduring music Jorma Kaukonen has created, his full legacy can’t be considered without noting Fur Peace Ranch, the guitar camp that he and his wife Vanessa created and operate on their land in Meigs County, Ohio. Founded in 1989, FPR has evolved into a thriving destination where Jorma and other ace musicians lead workshops, put on intimate concerts and much more. There’s a library, and they recently added the ‘60s-themed Psylodelic Gallery.
“It’s small but it’s the real deal,” says Kaukonen about the gallery/museum, “and for people who happen to be going through southeast Ohio, it’s a lot more interesting than the world’s largest ball of twine.”
At the moment, Kaukonen is gathering songs for his next solo project, which he hopes to record later this year, and that will be followed by a new Hot Tuna album in 2015. One wonders what the wiser, older Jorma Kaukonen would tell his younger self if he were able to confront him. He laughs heartily, thinks for a few seconds and says, “You have no idea what’s in store for you!”