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David Grisman and Don Stiernberg Discuss Jethro Burns Legacy

By Mandolin Cafe
October 5, 2014 - 5:30 pm

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Don Stiernberg on guitar and Jethro Burns on mandolin. Photo credit: E.J. Stiernberg. Don Stiernberg on guitar and Jethro Burns on mandolin. Photo credit: E.J. Stiernberg.

As a life-long fan of the mandolin playing of the late Jethro Burns, it was music to my ears to learn Acoustic Oasis had released new tracks from his last recording sessions.

25 years after his passing there's little surprise the music is as fresh, inventive and interesting as ever, and the new mastering makes it sound like it was recorded yesterday.

Along with new tunes and alternate takes we get to hear Jethro introducing the numbers, something not included in the first two releases published in 1995 and 1997.

The introductions, the laughs, the private inside jokes about the song titles, it's all here for those of us that just can't get enough of the man and his music.

Whether you're a veteran Jethro follower or new to the mandolin and are just now hearing about him, we strongly invite you along on the journey these new recordings will take you. It's still a mystery why Jethro recorded these tracks just prior to his passing but I suspect he knew just how much his music was loved and that many of us, myself included, would delight in the hearing him once more.

 — Scott Tichenor
     Mandolin Cafe

David Grisman on Jethro Burns Legacy

Mandolin Cafe: What's in the new compilation a Jethro fan is going to find that they haven't already heard?

Acoustic Disc recording artist David Grisman Acoustic Disc recording artist David Grisman

David Grisman: Plenty! First, there's an entire new CD entitled Tater Bug Rag comprised of 13 previously unissued songs including Fat's Waller's Ain't Misbehavin', Django Reinhardt's Tears, the gypsy classic Dark Eyes and Jethro's own Tater Bug Rag.

The other two volumes are "Deluxe" versions of Jethro's two Acoustic Disc CDs, Swing Low Sweet Mandolin and Bye Bye Blues, which include previously unissued alternate takes (10 in all). The entire collection of 61 tracks has been remastered in the HD format of 24 bit/96 kHz, the highest resolution that we can make available.

Mandolin Cafe: Not everyone will know the history behind these recordings. How did you come into possession of them?

David Grisman: All of these performances were recorded by Don Stiernberg either in his own house or in Jethro's basement between September 1987 to January 1988 (NOTE: Jethro passed February 4, 1989), a time Jethro knew he was terminally ill. They were originally recorded onto quarter inch analog tape, Fostex multi-track, KM84 Nuemann microphones.

When we decided to release this material, Don flew out to California with the multi-track masters and we mixed the tapes in Dawg Studios with my celebrated engineer "dB" Dave Dennison to 1/2" tape running at 30 ips. Earlier this spring, these master mixes were transferred directly to an Alessis Masterlink digital recorder, without any additional processing. The HD files are as close to sounding like the original analog mix tapes as possible.

Jethro Burns Legacy

Jethro Burns Legacy - The Complete Final Sessions with Don Stiernberg available exclusively on Acoustic Oasis.

Jethro Burns Legacy

Mandolin Cafe: Close to 20 years passed between the initial release of Swing Low, Sweet Mandolin and then Bye Bye Blues in 1997. What's the story behind that delay?

David Grisman: Since we launched Acoustic Oasis in 2010, I've been digging deep into my archives to come up with projects which would be suitable for the download format. In the past two years, much of my focus has been on re-mastering previous CD releases in the HD format, and adding previously unreleased material, i.e. The Complete Tone Poems, Extra Large Pizza Tapes, Doc & Dawg - Deluxe Edition and Garcia/Grisman Alternate.

There are literally thousands of hours of studio recordings that I've produced and collected in the past half-century, so in my mind there was no real delay in getting around to re-mastering Jethro & Don in this rather recent format. I would have done it sooner, but I'm just one mandolin picker with a recording studio and a whole lot of tapes! At least now, Jethro's final recordings are preserved for future generations of mandolin enthusiasts and music lovers. They are important historically and fun to listen to! And there's more to come. Be on the lookout for the Deluxe Edition of Tea for One, the solo Jethro Burns album I produced for Kaleidoscope Records in 1982.

Tater Bug Rag

From Jethro Burns Legacy Complete Final Sessions with Don Stiernberg, listen to the Jethro Burn's original Tater Bug Rag.

Download Jethro's Tater Bug Rag (PDF).

Our thanks for the transcription of Tater Bug Rag by Nick DiSebastian whose work is frequently seen on our site. In addition to studying under the late John McGann of the Berklee College of Music, Nick is a working musician based in Asheville, NC and runs his own music transcription service.

Don Stiernberg on Jethro Burns Legacy

Mandolin Cafe: David Grisman told us his side of the project. What's was it like from your perspective?

Don Stiernberg, guitarist on Jethro Burns Legacy. Don Stiernberg, guitarist on Jethro Burns Legacy.

Don Stiernberg: The Dawg made it all happen. Lucky for us he saved all of these original tracks. He made a master of everything Jethro and I recorded when the first two CDs were released (Swing Low Sweet Mandolin in 1995 and Bye Bye Blues in 1997) and he kept all of the songs we cut that had never been made public.

Good thing because the original analog tapes have just about turned to dust. We found out when he was was having trouble finding one of the songs and he said to me, "you have the masters, can you find it?" I took the tapes to the studio that I work with here in Chicago. They tried to play the originals and that's how I discovered they're history. If not for his saving these we would have lost these songs and wouldn't be having this conversation.

Mandolin Cafe: What's it like for you to listen to this music 25 years later?

Don Stiernberg: Because I was so close to the project and so close to Jethro there's a lot of emotion in it for me. For the longest time I had a difficult time listening to the CDs and master tapes. It made me sad, but now after all these years with the high definition and remastering I'm having this revelation like, "Oh my God, this stuff was really GOOD!" I hadn't heard the tunes, the so called "leftover tracks" in years. Hearing Jethro's ideas again with a fresh set of ears after all this time, that's one of the things that really makes this exciting for me. He covered a lot of territory on the mandolin. What a brilliant improviser.

Jethro session set list

One of Don Stiernberg's original lists from the sessions where he and Jethro planned what they'd record. Photo credit: Don Stiernberg.

Jethro session set list

Mandolin Cafe: What was Jethro's mood like during these sessions?

Don Stiernberg: Each time we got together there would be a little of a warm-up period but that was part of the purpose of the project: he wanted to live and feel alive with his music in spite of what he was dealing with. He knew how much energy and strength he had and he'd pour it all out and when it was time, you knew it was over. It was like his lessons which were never measured in time. He wasn't a clock watcher. He'd get his pick and stick it in the strings above the nut and say, "Alright" with a smile. That was signal the lesson was over and that would occur at the end of these sessions. And don't forget, I was playing guitar and hanging on for dear life! We were really flying through this stuff.

Mandolin Cafe: Was he gigging during the final months when these cuts were recorded?

Don Stiernberg: There was a bit of a slowdown in terms of the gigs but not much. The last time he played in public was just a few months before he passed. His brother-in-law Chet Atkins was in Chicago for a gig at Orchestra Hall. Chet invited Jethro to be the opening act knowing his circumstance and it seemed planned this would be a nice last appearance for him in front of a large audience. He came out and played solo in his Tea For One style, told jokes, made fun of Chet, and I believe they played some numbers together at the end of the show. I don't think anyone in the audience knew he was ill. The nature of his illness was such that he had cancer for three years before it took him and he didn't want people to know because he didn't want it to interrupt his work. He played great right up to the end.

quoteJethro's style of playing has something to offer just about anyone interested in mandolin playing.quote

  — Don Stiernberg

Mandolin Cafe: What mandolins and guitars were used on these recordings?

Don Stiernberg: At the time Jethro was mostly playing a new Gibson F-5L. Of course I wanted him to use the famous red two-point but it only made it onto a few cuts. I don't think we used any others. I was using a late 1940s Gibson L-5 and that's on most of the tracks but I also used a 1938 Epiphone Emperor.

It's interesting that for both guitar and mandolin we all think about how critical the instrument is, what kind of picks, what kind of strings. All these years later — even when the first two CDs of this came out — I can't tell which guitar or mandolin is being used. For whatever it's worth, Jethro always used those little thin Fender teardrop guitar picks.

Mandolin Cafe: We were surprised to see the inclusion of Django Reinhardt's Tears among the new cuts. We were aware he was an admirer of Django but the selection of this one and the unique arrangement caught us off guard.

Don Stiernberg: Django was his hero. There were a few cats regularly mentioned as influences but Django was always the most frequent. Another one was Dave Apollon. When Jethro met Dave for the first time one of the things they bonded over was their mutual love of Django. They ran into each other by accident at a record store in Las Vegas in the early 60s. Jethro's story was he introduced himself to Dave. It was in the day when you could listen to the record in a booth before you bought it so he found one of the Homer & Jethro jazz records in the store and had Dave listen to it. Dave listened to Jethro's first solo, smiled and said, "Ah, you like Django just like me!" He used to play Swing 39 and Nuages, but he'd also pull out some lesser known ones like Sweet Chorus. He played a bunch of them on guitar too.

The Photography of E.J. Stiernberg

Don Stiernberg and Jethro Burns as photographed by Don's father E.J. Stiernberg.

Don Stiernberg and Jethro Burns

Don Stiernberg and Jethro Burns

Don Stiernberg and Jethro Burns

Don Stiernberg and Jethro Burns

Don Stiernberg and Jethro Burns

Mandolin Cafe: It must have been a proud moment for you when Homer & Jethro were named to the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Don Stiernberg: I was lucky enough to witness their posthumous induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame on October 4, 2001. I was in Nashville for IBMA when the ceremony was held and Homer's son, Trent Haynes, was kind enough to share an extra ticket to the ceremony. I really wanted to be there because that was one of the things Jethro said was his only regret in music. He used to say to me, "Donnie, I wish we would have made it into the Country Music Hall of Fame." It was great to finally see the dream realized.

Mandolin Cafe: What else would you like to share about the release of this project?

Don Stiernberg: All these years later I'm realizing what strikes me hearing these cuts better than ever before is that this was music he really wanted to play. He was playing it the way he wanted to play it and it wasn't a commercial project. He was doing this just for the love of the music and his wanting to impart his wisdom about the mandolin to future generations. It was like a gift from him. I would hope people take that into account when they listen to it.

His style of playing has something to offer just about anyone interested in mandolin playing. The ideas are subtle and he made things sound easy. He definitely made it look easy and because of that it's easy to miss how difficult some of it was. If you try to play or transcribe some of his music you quickly find out he contributed a lot to the art of mandolin playing. One of the things David said when we released the first two CDs was, "man, his whole vocabulary is on here!" And it's true.

Listeners will get ample displays of Jethro's unique virtuosity. From the mandolin player standpoint, what he did with chord voicings, chord-melody, and swinging single-note improvised melody lines was completely innovative and unsurpassed to this day.

Additional information

© Mandolin Cafe

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Reader Comments

Marvino
October 05, 2014 06:19 PM
I enjoy seeing the honor and respect given to Jethro, and the importance of making sure his music and mandolin contributions are never lost. The part of interview that stands out to me was........." He was doing this just for the love of the music and his wanting to impart his wisdom about the mandolin to future generations. It was like a gift from him. I would hope people take that into account when they listen to it. "

How awesome is that?
mandoross
October 05, 2014 09:53 PM
"Tears" was one of the tunes Jethro taught me during my lessons with him back in 1978-79.
Dave Hanson
October 06, 2014 08:58 AM
Love the photo's of Jethro, never without a smile on his face.
mandopops
October 06, 2014 09:05 AM
Got my Jethro download. So great to have more Jethro, alternates & non-released trax. He is my favorite & was my 1st teacher.

"Tea for One" coming? Great. I still have my vinyl, but hope there will be outtakes & extras. I still got my "Jethro Live" & "Jethro Burns" Studio vinyl. I hope to see those on CD with extras some day.

Enjoyed reading Dawg & Donnie talking about the "legend". He really was generous with his time & knowledge. He brought laughter & great Mandolin Music to the world.

I'm glad I went to him for lessons. It changed my life. I'm 63 & still playing. I thank him for getting me started.

Joe B
skipdog
October 06, 2014 10:03 AM
As a student of Jethro's I am very deeply moved by this article. The influence that Jethro had on me is undeniable. And right now I am unconsolable! Thank you Jethro, Don Stiernberg, and David Grisman! peace, Dave "SkipDog" Andersen
AlanN
October 06, 2014 06:17 PM
So very awesome, this whole Jethro legacy thing.

And there's more to come. Be on the lookout for the Deluxe Edition of Tea for One

Wow!

Thanks to Dawg, Don, Mandolin Cafe and mostly, to Jethro!
f5joe
October 07, 2014 09:36 PM
Scott, a lovely article.

I have been blessed to know Jethro through his, now deceased, brother Aitchie. Sitting alone with Jethro and his mandolin in 1982 (for about an hour) was just an amazing experience. Jethro was a straight talker and funny as anyone I've ever met. I'll never forget that experience.
mandolinfox
October 09, 2014 09:17 AM
If I had to name the three musicians who have most influenced my playing, I would pick Jethro Burns, Don Stiernberg, and David Grisman. And here they all are! Great article, Scott. And I highly recommend the new Acoustic Oasis collection. Even if you have the two CD's, the sound here is a big improvement. And the extra disc plus the outtakes make it a must-have. Plus you get to hear Jethro introduce the song Humoresque as "Humorous Q".
ddminpgfl
October 11, 2014 12:10 PM
Great article. "little thin Fender teardrop picks." Interesting.
rubydubyr
December 09, 2014 05:11 PM
I have recently started learning mandolin and learned of Jethro Burns. I have been googling him as I am interested in learning how he learned mandolin. I was wondering if he learned as part of a mando orchestra which were popular in the 20s and 30s, or from private lessons, or took lessons on another instrument and transferred that musical training to teach himself the mandolin. However, I can't find any info on his early life, except that he teamed up on the vaudeville circuit at the age of 16 to become part of the Jethro and Homer act with another 16 year old musician. Any info, or web link anyone could give me would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!
Don Stiernberg
December 10, 2014 09:47 AM
Jethro was born in northern Georgia then moved to Knoxville TN very early on(age 3). I think he said he started mandolin when he was 5. His father was a tap dancer and comedian, all his brothers played music. Pretty sure he taught himself mandolin. He did have some lessons on guitar, including learning to read music. In reference to that experience he mentioned the tune "Nola" which he later played frequently on mandolin. Homer and Jethro actually met up at age 12(!). They were disqualified from a talent show sponsored by the local radio station because they sounded too good jamming in the tent. Their consolation prize was being hired by the station as studio musicians! By age 16 there was a band, The String Dusters, including H and J, a bass player(Jethro's brother) and another guitarist. This band played the music of the day(swing jazz)and region("hoedowns"). Homer and Jethro began as a way of "breaking up all the pickin'"...In his Mel Bay book Jethro said "Little Brown Jug" was one of the first tunes he learned.His father got him his first good mandolin( Gibson)a few years after he started. Perhaps teaching himself was frustrating as he said later.."somewhere in Knoxville there's a tree with a mandolin wrapped around it". I think his only orchestral experience may have been playing guitar in a U.S. Army jazz big band after serving 10 months of front line duty in the Fiji Islands in WW II. His ears(musically speaking)were huge, his hands and memory literally huge but also quick. He had no trouble absorbing the ideas of his heroes (Django Reinhardt, Oscar Moore of the Nat King Cole Trio, Count Basie,...) and bringing that language of jazz to the mandolin.
nkellstadt
December 10, 2014 09:55 AM
And that is why this place is the best. Thanks Don.
rubydubyr
December 10, 2014 05:04 PM
Thanks for that info, don! Much appreciated. smile
domradave
January 15, 2015 12:02 AM
Jethro made a cassette for me in chord melody style of tunes like "Slow Boat To China", "The Band Played On", etc. which supplemented the tapes that went with his Mel Bay books. I think Ken Eidson deserves a round of applause for what he did with Jethro.
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