Dan Kane interviews Hot Tuna, Saturday's headline act at the Downtown Canton Blues Festival.Guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady, founding members of Jefferson Airplane, formed a blues-rock side group in 1969 called Hot Tuna. Four decades later, the duo are still soldiering on with Hot Tuna, with a busy touring schedule of both electric and acoustic gigs and more than 20 albums to their credit.
Guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady, founding members of Jefferson Airplane, formed a blues-rock side group in 1969 called Hot Tuna.
Four decades later, the duo are still soldiering on as Hot Tuna, with a busy touring schedule of both electric and acoustic gigs and more than 20 albums to their credit.
Kaukonen, 69, lives with his wife Vanessa and their 4-year-old daughter on a farm outside Athens, Ohio, and owns and operates the Fur Peace Ranch, a 119-acre guitar camp equipped with a 32-track recording studio.
With Jefferson Airplane, he scored major hits with “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit,” performed at Woodstock and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. A virtuoso fingerstyle guitarist, Kaukonen was named the 54th greatest rock guitarist of all time by Rolling Stone magazine. His 2002 solo album, “Blue Country Heart,” recorded with an all-star bluegrass band, was critically acclaimed and Grammy-nominated.
Kaukonen was sitting in his parked car outside a head shop in downtown Athens when I called him the other day, because the cellphone reception there is better than at his rural farm. He chuckled as he noted an anti-hippie bumper sticker he’d just spotted: “Jerry’s dead. Phish sucks. Get a job.”
Q. Do you play many blues festivals?
A. We don’t, but my muse over the years has definitely been gospel and blues. I am not a traditional blues musician, but I’d be nowhere without the blues.
Q. How has the sound of Hot Tuna evolved over 40 years?
A. It’s funny when I look back at our history. We started out completely acoustic, then we got bitten by the loud thing like so many others of our generation. Then Jack and I started going back to basics in the ’80s, and then back to electric again. Right now I’d say our show is pretty rootsy. I don’t use the big double-stack amps like I used to, but it’s electric music.
Q. You and Jack have such a long history together. Are you like brothers?
A. We’ve been playing together for 52 years. He’s my oldest friend, we’re both from the same little suburb of D.C., we went to junior high and high school together, his mother used to make roast-beef sandwiches for us. We’ve always respected each other as men and as musicians. We’re actually very different people, but we’re buddies.
Q. What kind of crowds do you get at your shows?
A. When we’re out doing out own shows, we get a really interesting, heterogeneous audience. We get the people who have been with us a long time, and God bless ’em. We get a lot of youngsters who are interested in the source of music. We get guys who are interested in playing the guitar. We get the hippie kids. We just did a show with the Grateful Dead guys and I looked out and it was that whole tie-dyed scene. Who would’ve thought this would still be going on? (Chuckles)
Q. Is Hot Tuna part of the jam-band scene?
A. We’re not really part of that, no. On some elementary level we are sort of the great-grandfather of the jam-band concept, but these days I tend to like a more finite song.
Q. How did you wind up in rural southern Ohio?
A. I had a friend here and he called me in ‘89 because he had 120-some acres he was selling. I was living in Woodstock, N.Y., at the time and I came out, looked at it and bought it. My wife thought I’d lost my mind. Then I bought another farm 10 miles away which is where we live. Now I’m in the chamber of commerce, believe it or not, and we’ve got our (music) school here. I’m a huge state of Ohio booster. We’re a maligned state. People don’t know how cool we are.