“We’ve been experimenting with different time signatures layered on top of each other,” guitarist Jon Stickley explains of new compositions he and his Asheville-based trio are working on.
“That’s one of the main things we’ve been doing is a polyrhythmic approach: We’ll start with a bluegrass rhythm—a typical train beat on snare, which is almost cliché—but then we would take the guitar part and have that be in three-four [time] instead of four-four, so you get a weird polyrhythmic cycle going and maybe a slow violin melody over top the whole thing. … That was probably a little too in-depth.” Stickley laughs about the rabbit hole we just emerged from. Yet, his point is clear: The Jon Stickley Trio continue to progress in their all-instrumental modern bluegrass music.
Joined by violinist Lyndsay Pruett and drummer Patrick Armitage, the trio have been catching more national recognition as of late. Their second album, “Lost at Last,” was released in October 2015 and has since been praised by NPR Music, World Cafe and The New York Times.
Yet, it all started for Stickley as a drummer and electric guitarist in Durham, NC. He began acoustic guitar lessons in high school in the late ‘90s. His family was involved in music at church, and neighborhood friends, who all wanted to be rock musicians, would gather for band practice on the weekends. However, before “Oh, Brother Where Art Thou” came out, around the time he graduated, bluegrass wasn’t on Stickley’s radar.
“I never really heard the music,” he admits. “There was a banjo player my age who was taking lessons from the same guitar teacher. That was Andy Thorn, now with Leftover Salmon . . . and my brother [Jeff] was playing there, and we started playing together just through that. . . . That was the beginning of forming our first bluegrass band.”
Thereafter, Stickley attended his first bluegrass jams and found himself hooked on the phenomena. It was unlike anything he had experience musically. “Where people don’t even know each other and get together, and play music together for the first time, and everyone knows all the songs,” he details. “It was a super-cool experience.”
Stickley made his way to Asheville, NC, about 10 years ago, where he’s been a professional musician in multiple local bands and as a solo artist. The area’s ever-growing and evolving jam circles and communities of musicians continues to attract more artists, which makes it easier to connect. Lyndsay Pruett was another picker on the scene around the time Stickley was trying to form a new band.
“I met her on a gig and we connected right away,” he says. “Lyndsay was the first person I called for my first Jon Stickley Trio show.”
Pruett then introduced him to drummer Patrick Armitage, who joined the trio about three years ago.
The foundation of the three-piece is built upon everyone bringing juxtaposing forces to the table. Stickley’s rapid-fire, bluegrass guitar-picking is married with Pruett’s classically trained jazz harmonics and Armitage’s hip-hop influenced “sensitive and tasteful” drumming.
“So we just tried to take the best of all those worlds and reconcile them to make art,” he says. “The sum of the three parts add up to a lot. If we were some band starting out and doing this, I don’t know that it would have as much [impact]. . . . We’ve all grown and matured, and now we’re taking what we’ve mastered and started mixing it up.”
Modern influences have cornerstoned the trio’s take on the genre. Still, their music contains traditional techniques that are mandatory for good playing.
“Timing, technique, the hard driving ahead of the beat, pushing rhythm,” he lists. “So, even if I’m not playing like a bluegrass-style song, I still want the song to have those elements.”
As he continues to write compositions for the trio, Stickley thinks less in terms of traditional bluegrass chords. He focuses on abstract music, yet with logical transitions. In fact, the trio is working on songs for another album they hope to start recording this December.
“We’re writing songs on the road and testing them out night after night,” he divulges. “When we get to Wilmington, we’ll be doing quite a bit of brand new material, which we’ve been road-testing and getting a good response.”
Their approach and style opens their sets to improvisational opportunities. Though they’ve tightened up a lot of their arrangements for new material, live performances are more open-ended. Stickley says the road is where the beginning structure of songs can continue to be built upon with unconscious and spontaneous ideas.
“We try to keep our minds open to cool changes that come up,” he says. “Then, in the studio, we take it song by song. Some songs you want to capture spontaneous energy, and other ones you want to have perfect rhythm.”
Smart intricacies and arrangements are apparent in their music. In fact, it’s what they focus on much of the time.
“We like ‘nerdy’ music,” Stickley says. “People tell us we sound like ‘70s fusion, which is like music for musicians—really intense jazz rock. So we enjoy playing stuff like that, but at the same time we don’t want to alienate people with no musical training or experience, we want to be something anyone can hear and enjoy. . . . We’re just trying to go deeper and deeper into taking the elemental aspects of the different types of music we all play and combining them in atypical ways.”
Their summer tour will bring them to the eastern side of NC for shows at Jimmy’s at Red Dogs in Wrightsville Beach on August 12 and The Calico Room in downtown Wilmington on August 13.