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Jonathan Wilson: The Gentle Spirit Returns

by Richard Gehr on February 14, 2014

The day before I visit Fivestar Studios, Jonathan Wilson’s band is playing under the unseasonably hot early- October sun on the Santa Monica Pier as part of Way Over Yonder, a two-day Newport Folk Festival production featuring headliners Neko Case and landlord Conor Oberst. The setting suggests yet one more non-related Wilson: Dennis, whose Pacific Ocean Blue from 1977 is an additional JW touchstone. Wilson and company play a cover of Bob Welch’s pre-Fleetwood Mac weepy “Angel” before inviting another tight Wilson crony, Jackson Browne, onstage for “Moses Pain,” whose extended outro of “keep on writin’” owes plenty to the JB playbook.

Shortly before Jonathan’s set, someone emerges from backstage who I momentarily mistake for Graham Nash. He turns out to be Jonathan’s father, Al, whom I meet the next day when he and Becky Wilson show up at their son’s place just as our tête-à-tête is winding down. When I ask what Jonathan was like as a kid, his parents regale me with stories about his very early passion for music. They admit to tormenting Jonathan for the amusement of friends and family by playing “I’m Not Lisa,” a truly sad song by Jessi Colter that would invariably make their infant cry. They also have a recording of Jonathan, at age three or four, banging out Ted Nugent’s “Cat Scratch Fever” on his first acoustic guitar, stopping abruptly and declaring, “I must be Ace Frehley!”

Jonathan Wilson was born in the small North Carolina town of Spindale, but he calls Thomasville, where his family moved around 1980, his hometown. His mother was the daughter of a Baptist minister and a public school teacher; his father worked in the textile industry—at least until his job was outsourced during the ‘90s. Jonathan attended school until 10th grade, when he dropped out to play music full-time. “I got into it super early,” he says, “because my dad was fully supportive with the backline, the gear. He’d take me to pawn shops to buy speakers and PA systems.” His first real guitar, though, was nothing more than a “crappy” Squier Stratocaster. “And that was it,” he says. “The rest of it was up to me. Of course, I used to commandeer all my dad’s shit, which I still do. He’d take me to vintage guitar shows and I got deeply into gear.”

At 13, Jonathan was already playing guitar and singing in a gigging bar band. His first group was The Model Citizens, followed by The Curb Tones, who were influenced by Jeff Healey, Robert Cray and other ‘80s bluesmen. His exposure to Southern rock was late but inevitable. “My dad was like, ‘Gary Rossington’s the shit, that’s the guy you need to listen to.’ My little band used to do Skynyrd, and we did it well. That’s when I developed some of those Southern sentiments on guitar.”

In 1994, Wilson moved to LA for the first time with buddy Benji Hughes and another friend, who’d found a manager with a place in Beverly Hills where they could live. The idea was to start a band, but Wilson “was a jazz freak, Benji was a poet, and this other guy wanted to be Rage Against the Machine Part Two.” After their non-plan fizzled, Wilson got his first producing job with singer/ songwriter Clayton Cages, moved to Malibu and fell in love with Southern California.

Back in Charlotte, N.C. the following year, Wilson formed Muscadine with Hughes and moved into StudioEast, built by Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith and where James Brown hammered out “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” Wilson cut his production teeth recording karaoke tracks and lived above the tracking room. He characterizes Muscadine as “a protest against fly-by-night Pitchfork-ian bands I’ve never liked.” Seymour Stein signed them to Sire Records by in 1996 and paid them $280,000 for an album they’d cut for $13,000. “I was 21 and on top of the world,” Wilson recalls. “I was pulling out $500 at the cash machine every day, because that was the maximum at the time, and blowing cash on gear and food and chicks and strip clubs and cars.” He also invested $60,000 in recording equipment. Unfortunately, Sire cut Muscadine loose in 1999, when The Ballad of Hope Nicholls failed to take off. And when Wilson informed the studio’s owner that he wanted to move his gear, he was told that the equipment was staying right there as “back rent.” He’d been robbed.

Devastated, Wilson opened a studio in Georgia with a friend who’d struck it rich in the construction business. He moved back to LA and lived more or less communally among some 50 shanties, shacks and other code-flaunting structures at the bottom of Topanga Canyon near Malibu. In 2001, however, the California Department of Parks and Recreation bought out the owners in order to expand Topanga State Park, and Wilson’s landlord took the money. “That was the last hippie spot in this whole town,” he says, “and that definitely won’t ever fuckin’ happen again.” Disgusted, Wilson split for the East Coast with his girlfriend.

In Manhattan, where he lived until 2005, Wilson taught himself (mostly by scouring the Internet) how to build remarkably faithful reproductions of pre-aged vintage guitars in the couple’s small, cheap Sullivan Street apartment. “I got really into it,” he says. “It was the right time and I was the only guy doing aged guitars the right way.” Greenwich Village Custom Guitars (GVCG) took off immediately, with speculators doubling their money by flipping his creations. In addition, Wilson was gigging with a bluegrass band, recording Frankie Ray and feeding his long-standing equipment jones. “It was funding a lot of very expensive studio gear, guitars and amps I really wanted. I would build a guitar that looked old, save up some cash and buy guitars that were old.”

At the end of many days, Wilson had discovered that he was one loopy luthier from all the lacquer fumes. “I gotta get back out to the air and sunshine,” he thought. So he crammed all of his studio gear and instruments into a van and headed back to LA with his latest girlfriend, “a true hippie.” A pot bust along the way cost him $3,600 in legal fees, and a desert van breakdown made the trek a fairly bad trip.

A chance meeting while apartment-hunting pointed Wilson to the modest Laurel Canyon bungalow—constructed on a burned-down estate—that now looms so large in his legend. Paying six months rent in advance, Wilson found a spacious environment to produce albums such as Dawes’ debut, North Hills, record what would become Gentle Spirit and host the increasingly popular Wednesday night jam sessions that earned him the reputation as the perfect LA scenester-host.

“It was a way to play without being in the business or on the road,” Wilson says of those jams. When The Black Crowes were on hiatus, the then-recently divorced Chris Robinson became a key member of the house band. “Chris and I sort of became Lennon and Nilsson,” Wilson says, “running around town and getting in trouble.” Wilson deliberately never recorded the sessions, which only had one real rule: The music never stops. Other regulars included Elvis Costello bassist Davey Faragher and Patrick Sansone. Older musicians, such as organist Barry Goldberg, Benmont Tench and the great session drummer Gary Mallaber often joined them. “There’d be a great mixture of older guys and younger people—and a lot of babes. I think that got a lot of these guys back every week,” he adds. Although Wilson says he only had to “get North Carolina on some fools” a couple of times, his all-night bacchanals got “way too big” following a gushing Los Angeles Times feature.

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