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Walk a Crooked Mile 

The Crooked Jades tread the thin line between bluegrass and old-time string bands

Wednesday, Apr 24 2002
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Jeff Kazor is the leader of the Crooked Jades, a local group that specializes in "old-time" string band music, an antiquated forerunner of the better-known bluegrass style. Old-time's instrumentation is the same as bluegrass' -- fiddle, guitar, banjo, and bass -- but the former music has weird tunings, unpredictable tempo changes, and an often bleak, unsentimental perspective that reflects its 19th-century Appalachian roots.

Over the past eight years, the Jades have delved into old-time's wellspring of bygone Americana, reprising odd songs about poverty, death, and the rural life while capturing the boisterous, unruly charm of the style's recordings from the '20s and '30s. Along the way, the Jades have alienated purists from both the bluegrass and old-time camps, adding steel guitars, dobros, and some modern songs to the group's sets. Even so, as one of the few bands of its kind that performs regularly, the Jades have galvanized the local scene, bringing together old-school urban folkies and young mountain music initiates.

While the Jades draw their inspiration from the Appalachian environs of Clinch Mountain and the Cumberland Gap, the band is uniquely local -- packed with native pickers well aware of the region's ties to the folk and bluegrass revivals of the '60s. The group's guitarist and head honcho, Kazor, grew up in Santa Cruz amidst a family of twang lovers.

"It was pretty much my father's fault," jokes Kazor, speaking from his home in San Francisco. "He had this amazing old Doc Watson-Clarence Ashley album that I played the hell out of when I was a kid. Also, Santa Cruz has this wealth of great radio stations that heavily promote bluegrass and old-time and honky-tonk country."

By the time he finished college, Kazor was a self-described bluegrass fanatic, collecting dusty records and playing guitar with fellow musicians at informal jam sessions. In one of these early '90s get-togethers, Kazor met twangcore mopemeister Richard Buckner and ended up performing with him in a number of loose-knit bands. Eventually, they went their separate ways, as Buckner followed a more country-ish muse and Kazor became seduced by the mysteries of old-time.

"Old-time music is different from bluegrass in that there is more emphasis on playing as a group and less on playing solos," Kazor explains. "Bluegrass kind of took its cues from jazz, where each player would step up and do a little solo, try and blow the other guys away, but with old-time it's more about the songs and the melody." Historically, the dividing line came in the early '40s, when legendary mandolin player Bill Monroe sped up and smoothed out the traditional songs to make them more accessible to a mainstream audience. For Kazor and other devotees, however, old-time's craggy, primitive character -- and its links to a forgotten musical and cultural past -- is what makes it so attractive.

"I think the majority of people like their old-time all straight, but for me, the more crooked the better," Kazor says. "At first you hear it and think, '"How the hell am I gonna play this?' But the more you listen to it, the less crooked it seems."

When Kazor met slide guitar player Lisa Berman at a bluegrass camp in Seattle in 1994, they hit it off musically and formed the nucleus of the Crooked Jades. But the final piece of the current band didn't fell into place until original banjo player Larry Chung left and Tom Lucas joined. Lucas was a versatile musician who could play in both the finger-picking "clawhammer" style popularized by Ralph Stanley and the atonal fashion favored by the post-Civil War African-American minstrels (and Kazor). Like the Jades' leader, Lucas was a Bay Area local who'd grown up amid the folk scene of the early '70s, although his introduction to old-time was even less orthodox than Kazor's.

"When I first came to Berkeley, as a student in the '70s, I just couldn't believe how good the street music was," Lucas says. "Old-time musicians like Matt Benford and Sue Draheim were playing out on the corners. You'd walk to class, and there'd be all this incredible music. Then there were also great bands like the Arkansas Sheiks and the Any Old Time String Band that really got the scene going. So I got into several bands and jam sessions myself -- it's really an informal process."

As the scene died down in the late '70s, Lucas began playing straight bluegrass. But years later, when he heard the Jades were looking for a new banjo player with old-fashioned chops, he leapt at the opportunity to join. By combining Lucas' versatility with Kazor's passion for uncovering obscure material and odd regional variations on well-known songs, the Crooked Jades soon set themselves apart. In the next few years the Jades recorded and self-released three albums: Going to the Races (1998), Seven Sisters: A Kentucky Portrait (2000), and The Unfortunate Rake, Vol. 1 (2000), all of which have been reissued by Copper Creek Records, a label in the upper tier of the bluegrass scene. The Unfortunate Rake, Vol. 1 garnered the band widespread attention outside of the old-time world, due in no small part to the participation of Buckner, who produced the album and played on several tunes.

More recently the Crooked Jades gigged back east, performing at the International Bluegrass Music Association's prestigious awards ceremony and touring through Appalachia itself. Recalling the sometimes frosty reception from the Bay Area folk elite -- who scorn professional showmanship and regard old-time as a living-room-only musical genre -- the band was nervous about how it would be received by the descendants of the original mountaineers.

"I felt a little bit funny going back to North Carolina and playing old-time music for people back there -- like, here I am coming from California to play their music for them," Lucas says. "But they said, '"Oh no, we love it! We don't get enough of it here!'"

One of the controversial aspects of the Crooked Jades' repertoire is Kazor's attraction to the music's African-American roots -- in particular, material from the minstrel and blackface traditions, which he sees as lost cultural artifacts. The prime example is "Old Joe," a song on The Unfortunate Rake that describes a Southern field hand being beaten by an abusive foreman.

"I wanted to play 'Old Joe' live without any explanation," says Kazor. "But a couple of members of the band said, 'There's just no way! We won't stand up there and play with you unless you explain in detail where we got this song from.' 'Old Joe' comes from two black old-time musicians who are talking about the slave days, and I can see how people would think that some white band getting up there and playing an old slave song is totally disrespectful, and that we have no right to do it. But old-time music is about hard times and people writing about strife and injustices. You just don't get that in bluegrass anymore."

Using traditional music as a springboard, Kazor has slowly been recording more of his own material. A perfect instance is a number from the upcoming album The Unfortunate Rake, Vol. 2 (scheduled to be released this summer) in which Kazor writes about the turbulent boom and bust of the 1990s dot-conomy. By rewriting an old Gold Rush ballad called "California Blues," Kazor is able to draw a parallel between ye olde 49ers and the bold dot-commers.

As for the group's local relevance, Barbara Hansen, director of the annual S.F. Bluegrass and Old-Time Festival, says the Jades have helped revitalize the Bay Area scene. Speaking from a friend's house where she is about to play fiddle in a jam session, she says, "The Crooked Jades were one of the bands that made it feel like there was something happening here, that there was getting to be a critical mass, and that's one of the reasons the [SFBOTF] started. And not only were they really active trying to get the music out to a younger audience, they also [helped] organize the festival and set it up as a gala event, saying, '"Hey, let's not just stay in the bars, let's try and do a nice concert at Noe Valley Ministry.'"

Although the old-time scene places a premium on authenticity and its folkloric side, Hansen sees the subtle modernizations of the Crooked Jades as an example of how music keeps itself alive by changing.

"The old-time recordings that we hear as modern classics of the genre -- a lot of those people grew up listening to folk music, whereas people from my generation grew up listening to punk rock and alternative '80s rock," Hansen says. "Even though we might be playing old-time, we want something that's got a little more grit to it, more drive, something that you can rock out to. If you get a good group together, a good bass player and strong fiddlers and a strong banjo player -- to me, it moves me as much as hearing a good rock 'n' roll band."

About The Author

Lawrence Kay

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