• The 1988 Jethro Burns Interview

    Ted Heinonen and Jethro Burns
    Author Ted Heinonen with Jethro Burns

    NOTE: this interview was recorded in the studios of KUMD-FM of Duluth, Minnesota, July 1, 1988 for the Saturday Folk Migrations show, and later published in print in the Minnesota Bluegrass & Old-Time​ Music Association (MBOTMA) magazine after Jethro passed. It is reprinted here with the authors' permission.

    Jethro Burns was in Duluth performing for the 1988 Lake Superior Fiddle Contest. That same Friday evening Jethro conducted a Mandolin Workshop I had arranged. It was an entertaining and instructive evening for the thirteen students, one that will be long remembered by all those who were there.

    It's not often that one gets the chance to learn and jam with a performer so open and warm. My last class session with my mandolin students, whom I teach through community schools, was the Monday following Jethro's passing, one student remarked, "We should all be wearing black." I said that I didn't think Jethro would have liked that... no tears; just remember him as who he was, "A pretty funny guy who played a darn good mandolin."

    — Ted Heinonen & Jeannie Anderson
    Duluth, Minnesota based musicians and artists

    Introduction by Jeannie Anderson

    March 10, 1989: I turned the calendar over and there was Jethro Burns' birthday. He said he liked to get lots of cards, so this year I was going to be sure to send one. I can still remember his story about one birthday when he was playing on stage, kind of sad because he didn't get many cards. He finished with the song, and who should come out of the audience but John Duffey with a big cake. He came on stage, handed Jethro the cake, and kissed him. "Well, what could I do?" Jethro said. "I couldn't let go of the mandolin and I didn't want to drop the cake!"

    Jethro Burns came to Duluth last summer to be the featured performer at the Lake Superior Fiddle Contest. It was a weekend where mandolins and fiddles reigned. I went to the airport to pick him up along with the organizers of the contest. After the formal introductions he asked who I was. Just a banjo player there to chauffeur him and carry his luggage, I said.

    We were going to whisk him off to the radio station for his interview first, but I could see how tired he was. "Oh, you need a home first," I said, and drove him to his hotel. I'd settled on a cassette, Bela Fleck's Deviation to play for him during our drive. He gave a lively talk about his friend Bela and how much he liked Newgrass Revival's music.

    I wish I could remember every word he said when he was in that truck. But sometimes what a memory or a tape doesn't hold your heart does. His sense of humor was even keener than when he was on stage. He'd wave at a pretty girl on the first street and I'd tease him back not to do that and he'd say "Well, they might think I don't like them."

    He was a charming and gentle man. When he was home he spent his time taking care of his wife. His fondest memories seemed to be of Chet Atkins and the old days when they'd each be running out of money, helping each other out, and his worry that Chet Atkins worked too hard.

    I'll never forget the private concert I got for hours backstage at the fiddle contest. He played variations of "Laura's Song" for me. He played all kinds of tunes he thought I might never have heard before. The music was punctuated with stories of how he got started in music, all he knew of the Grand Ole Opry, and all the people that were too good to him. I just sat at his feet and called him, not "Jedi-Master" but "Jethro-Master." I was privileged to hear the very best of mandolin men. I know that God blesses banjo players, and dear Jethro, may he bless you.

    Jethro Burns Interview - July 1988

    — by Ted Heinonen

    When did you start playing the mandolin?

    OK, I started playing the mandolin when I was six years old and I became a pro when I was twelve years old; that was in 1932 and right now people start saying "How old is he ... ?" so I always tell 'em I'm 68, but l was a ... I became a professional musician at the age of twelve in Knoxville, Tennessee.

    Why the mandolin? It seems to be an unusual choice of instruments.

    Well, I had three older brothers, and one of them brought a mandolin home. I don't know where he got it or why he got it, but he brought it home and one of the first things he said was to leave it alone and keep my hands off it, so it was just a matter of waiting till he went to work and getting it out and playing and trying to get some sounds out of it, which I was able to do and finally figured out a few basic chords and as soon as he heard me a-playin' he said "Well, go ahead and play it."

    Did you play as a family group?

    Yeah, all my brothers played and we had a little family band, mandolin, tenor banjo, couple of guitars.

    You played tunes of the day, like the Hit Parade and what have you?

    Yeah, just the old standards, pop tunes, square dance stuff, just anything that came along.

    Who were your early influences, your heroes back then?

    Oh, in the beginning when I really got old enough to appreciate the music I got my early influences like the Hot Club of France with Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli, Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, and of course big band... always liked big band music... then it was Ellington, Basie, Benny Goodman, people like that, and I learned chords, how to hear chords from listening to the big bands and there weren't any mandolin players to look up to 'cept a fella named Dave Apollon who at that time was playing Vaudeville and he had a few records out and later after a gig I got to see him play in Vaudeville, that was probably the thrill of my life was to see this mandolin band up there. I didn't realize that people could play that good.

    I've heard he was quite a showman.

    Oh yeah,

    Did you ever get a chance to meet and sit in with Dave Apollon?

    I didn't get a chance to sit in with him but I did get to meet him in Hollywood. He came into a music store; I was there browsing around, and he walked in and I went over and one of the guys in the store introduced me to him, and Dave asked if there was any records here that he could hear me play, and they had a record of Homer and Jethro's Playing it Straight, and he put that on the turntable and listened to a couple of tunes, and he turns around to me and says "You're influenced by Django Reinhardt," and I said, "That's right, I was," and then he says to me "Tell me this, when is the best time to practice?" and I said "In the morning." "All right," he says, "I'll ask one more question. Your left hand and your right hand, which is the more important?" I said, "The right hand," and he says "Stick with that, and you'll be a great player." And he walked out, but I did get to see him in Las Vegas at the Desert Inn with his strolling band and it was the thrill of a lifetime.

    You mentioned the album Playing it Straight. Has RCA ever considered re-releasing it along with Ain't Necessarily Square?

    It has been released in Japan.

    I heard some rumors to that effect. I wasn't sure if they were legit or not.

    Yeah, there's an outfit in Germany, I'm not sure what the name of it is; they are reissuing a whole bunch of Homer and Jethro things, and from that they will eventually get around to re-issuing Playing it Straight and also Ain't Necessarily Square.

    I've tried myself to borrow even a copy of a copy, to no avail.

    I wish I had about fifty thousand of them. I'd get rich.

    Could we talk about Homer and how you guys met?

    Oh, certainly. OK. I met Homer at the age of twelve, and we were contestants on a talent show WLNX that Nashville sponsored, and I was working in a guitar/ mandolin duo with my brother and Homer was working with two other guys, and the thing was, we were all playing the same style of music, which was standard things like "Sweet Georgia Brown," "Sweet Sue," all the old things like that, and the program director that was putting this thing together heard us play, and he came around: "Well, you guys are too good to be in an amateur contest, so I'm going to hire you outright," he said, "and put you on staff as musicians."

    We got a salary of... I think we were paid something like $3.50 a week, each guy got that - for that we'd go in and play six days a week in between going to school. It was a happy childhood you might say, but that's where I met Homer. Homer and me and my brother Aitchie- he was the guitar player that was in the duo - and we found this other guy named Charlie Hagaman who was a great lead guitar player. So what we did was get my brother to switch over to the acoustic bass so we'd have the mandolin, bass, and the two guitars.

    Homer of course played the greatest rhythm guitar of just about anybody. We formed this little group called the String Dusters, and we were together for many years down in Knoxville, in that area of Chattanooga, Bristol... and out of that the Homer and Jethro thing was something we put together in there to break up the monotony of just nuthin' but music, you know, for a whole concert and we got the idea of doing the Homer and Jethro thing - little dreaming at the time - but that was later, because our big thing then was the String Dusters.

    What started the idea of "Fracturing Tunes?"

    There was a couple of guys in the south, they were the best duet I ever heard, called the Blue Sky Boys, and they did traditional folk/country music with a mandolin and guitar and their harmony was so beautiful - I mean, they wasn't to be believed, there was nobody like' em, and we used to listen to them and we got to thinking how funny it would be if you could get a band like that and sing popular music and get that hillbilly twang to it. And we finally one time did a tune, "Deep Purple," and we did the most hoked-up version I think you ever heard, and it was just a sensation. It got to where every time there'd be a popular tune come out and it would be a hit, well, we would immediately put our brand on it. We'd use the lyrics but we'd pick a hillbilly tune that would fit so we could play it, and when I say "hillbilly," I mean it respectfully, because "we hillbillies" don't take offense at the name; only the Johnny come-lately guys are offended by it. But that's what happened to Homer and Jethro: we just got to be bigger than the other thing, so we finally just broke up the band and started being Homer and Jethro full time.

    So you were together for a little over thirty years.

    About 39 years.

    How many albums did the two of you put out?

    I think Homer and me put out 35 albums with RCA and a number of singles with King, which they put together as an album later, but I guess about 35-36 albums with RCA.

    Did you ever get any flak from musicians about the songs you would parody? Any feedback, songwriters.

    Not from the artists, because the artists never had nothing to do or say about it. It was our business arrangement with the songwriters, and we would work out a deal with them, and it wouldn't matter who had the hit record; it was the writers and the publishers that gave us permission. We did an album of Frank Loesser songs. Now Frank Loesser was one of the big Broadway writers who wrote things like "Most Happy Fella," "Baby It's Cold Outside," stuff like that. And Frank Loesser gave us permission to butcher some of his songs, in fact, his greatest: "Baby It's Cold Outside" - when we read him the lyrics he said "OK, you can do it, but would you put 'with apologies to Frank Loesser' on the label?" Well, we did that, you know, and all the other big writers said if Frank Loesser let these guys do his music it must be all right, so then they just all sorta fell in line, and when we'd ask other people they'd say "Sure!"

    Now the other side was the country people. A disc jockey on an interview said, "It must really bum Hank Williams when you do his music," and I said "Well, Hank was kinda forward; he said 'It ain't a hit till Homer and Jethro butcher it!'" (chuckle). And to make things funnier, why, Chet Atkins and me and Jerry Rivers (who was a fiddle player with Hank), we was fishing in Kentucky Lake in Tennessee, and we were out on the lake, and we passed Hank out there, and he had himself a stringer of fish so big he couldn't lift it out of the water. We had to help him lift the fish out of the end of the boat, and I don't know how many beers he had, but the boat was full of beer cans. Well, we made our way back to the dock and we sat around having a few cool ones, and I said, "Hank, could we use some of your tunes," and he said, "It's a good idea, a great idea, and I'll tell you what I'll go back and I'll tell Fred Rose and Roy Acuff (who owned the publishing company) that when you guys do one of my songs, that they're supposed to give you a cut on the royalties." Well, you know when a guy says something like that when he's out having a good time sitting in the hot sun, you think this will never happen. It wasn't more than a week later I got a letter from Hank Williams, and I still got it hanging on my wall where he said the same thing in print, and signed it, and Acuff and Rose just said we had a blanket deal to do any Hank Williams music we wanted to, which I think was very complimentary.

    When I listen to your earlier albums, your fractured tunes make me think of you guys as the Spike Jones of Country Music!

    Exactly! We were associated with Spike for three years. He was our manager, and we did a couple of records with the band: we called it Paulyatsi; it was a take off on Palatsi, the opera; and we did another called Fiddle Faddle which was never released. It's floating around somewhere at RCA. I wish they would release it.

    Who recorded with you through the fifties and sixties, and what were those sessions like?

    They were just about the must fun that could ever be had. RCA, they had a bunch of "pets," guys they thought the world of. Other people sold more records, but they loved Homer & Jethro, Chet Atkins and Jerry Bird, and a guy named Dale Potter (a fiddle player), and what they would do is schedule a Homer & Jethro session in either New York or Chicago, or Atlanta, and they would book these same musicians as sidemen on our sessions, and when we were all together we would do these things

    Oh yeah, and that's another thing I do that is the most fun, and there's a strong possibility that's coming out on record.

    What about your association with Chet Atkins. Besides professional, you are family?

    Chet and I married identical twin sisters (Jethro married Lois; Chet is married to Leona). And so besides the professional side, our personal lives are deeply entwined. We see a lot of each other. The sisters were professional singers too! They were on WOW in Cincinnati, and that's where we met 'em. And that was after WWII, that's where Homer and me went to work first, was WOW, after the war. Chet Atkins was there already, along with Merle Travis, Rosemary Clooney...

    Is that where you first met Chet?

    I met Chet before in Knoxville, but we started working together on the same stage and station in Cincinnati. That was when things really got into high gear, but I met Chet in Nashville when he was just starting to play, and it sure has been some fun to watch the man develop like he has as a musician and businessman.

    Any future projects coming up?

    No, not right now; we're just sweating out the Million Dollar Band thing ... it's all done and the records are already made from the Hee Haw soundtracks, and the rest is being done by lawyers and people like that, but I don't have any recording projects scheduled at this time. I guess mostly that I can't think of anything that I haven't already done, but that changes overnight, you know. I might get an idea to do something.

    To wrap things up: thinking of the mandolin, it's kinda come back now a bit, more an instrument up front now than an instrument of second choice.

    Yeah, all the fiddle players, they all doubled up on the mandolin, and most guitar players did too, and guys like David Grisman did a lot to bring the mandolin back to where it is now, but there were other people involved in that.

    Sam Bush is another guy that was responsible for making the mandolin popular all over again. A guy that died just recently, Tiny Moore, I got to do an album with Tiny, but he did a lot, too. He played the 5-string electric, jazz style.

    There's a lot of young guys that are pioneering this new movement. There just isn't any reason the mandolin shouldn't be up front. One of the reasons is the players aren't aggressive enough as I'd like to see 'em. Myself, I'm probably overly aggressive when it comes to the mandolin, but I earned the right to do that, and I just hate to see guys come along and say, "well, I'll just play a little mandolin," and to me guys say "What do I play? I play the mandolin." You play good? I say, "I play great!" What am I going to say, "No, I don't?" This is what the mandolin industry needs is guys out there putting the mandolin out there where the banjo players are now.

    I agree with you there.

    Yeah, it seems like all your life, trying to get heard above the banjo. I don't know, I just wish more people would take up the mandolin, and more than that, I wish they would stick with it, as opposed to where they just learn a half dozen fiddle tunes and say that's it! You don't hear from them any more.

    Any final words of advice for mandolin players or would-be mandolin players?

    Yeah, Ted: learn to play more than one style of music. Bluegrass is fine, but once you learn bluegrass, go on to something else - jazz, pop, or classical - get out there and explore and find out what else there is out there and play it. Thing is, you get to where you think you're sounding good to yourself and you quit. You think, "Boy, I'm good," and maybe you are, but you're not good enough! The competition is tough, and it's never going to get easier, and the way these kids are playing now! Like Marty Stuart. He started out real young playing with Lester Flatt, just a school kid, and now he's just one step away from being a superstar! So it's there; all you got to do is go out and get it!

    OK. Thanks for dropping by the studio.

    It's been my pleasure, Ted.

    Jethro Burns Mandolin Workshop
    Participants in Jethro Burns' mandolin workshop.
    Comments 30 Comments
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Had a nice visit by phone with author Ted Heinonen a few minutes before publishing this. He's among us and I hope he weighs in. Love this interview because you can just hear Jethro's voice and how he used to start sentences with "OK..." An interesting perspective on the mandolin world from a long time ago.

      Ted said builder Lloyd LaPlant is in the workshop photo posted at the bottom of the article. Not sure but guessing he's the first person just left of Jethro in the picture, in the back row.
    1. Don Stiernberg's Avatar
      Don Stiernberg -
    1. theinone's Avatar
      theinone -
      Hei everyone, Glad I was able to share this interview with the Cafe. I felt lucky to have been able to meet one of my mandolin heros and to be able to interview him. Yes, that is Lloyd to the back and the left.
      As I told Scott this morning on the phone, Jethro was very generous with his time at our workshop, and Jean and I had a great time hearing tall tales of Nashville in the early days with Homer. I'm still looking through my old files for photos and such and will share them if I find any.
      Thanks again to Scott and this great web-site.
    1. Nathan Kellstadt's Avatar
      Nathan Kellstadt -
      Thanks Ted (and Jeannie). What a pleasant surprise to come home from work and be able to read this interview. There's only one Jethro. Really appreciate you sharing this with all of us.
    1. Jim Garber's Avatar
      Jim Garber -
      Wonderful! I had the pleasure of participating in the one and only weeklong workshop that Jethro taught at Augusta Heritage back in 1983. It was a privilege to learn from the Maestro and to hear a few hours of stories about Joe Venuti and others.
    1. John Soper's Avatar
      John Soper -
      Fun Read! Thanks Ted (and Jeannie) and Scott.
    1. Rush Burkhardt's Avatar
      Rush Burkhardt -
      Thank you for a look at a slice of music history! Jethro sounds, as you describe him, like a charming and gentle man. A great pioneer for music and the mandolin!
    1. rosewoodmusic's Avatar
      rosewoodmusic -
      Thank you, Ted! Thanks Jeannie! that was fun. Proof that Duluth is the center of the mandolin universe.
    1. Frankdolin's Avatar
      Frankdolin -
      Thanks so much !!!
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Seeing Jethro's words about his own music that was out of print just happens to coincides with today's date, when Kaleidoscope records released his solo record Tea For One, still to be found on occasion for sale on amazon in LP format. Have our copy. It's a masterpiece. Hope to see it re-released on CD or digitally.

      Attachment 159770
    1. Chief's Avatar
      Chief -
      Great stuff- thanks Ted. I'm to the left of Lloyd in the back row. I remember that workshop well. Jethro complimented my cheap Epiphone mandolin that I played at that time. He said he used to play a similar one. Too bad a little of his talent didn't rub off.
    1. Paul Statman's Avatar
      Paul Statman -
      Priceless. Thanks so much for sharing this.
    1. Jim's Avatar
      Jim -
      Great read, thanks for printing this interview. I wish more of his work was available today. Most of what I've gotten to hear has been old TV spots on YouTube.
    1. farmerjones's Avatar
      farmerjones -
      What a great treasure!
      Thanks Ted! Thanks indeed!
    1. MikeZito's Avatar
      MikeZito -
      Absolutely spectacular! Thank you! You made my day!
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Ted sent one more image of Jethro:

      Attachment 159796
    1. Jon Hall's Avatar
      Jon Hall -
      Thanks for the interview Ted!
    1. domradave's Avatar
      domradave -
      I was one of Jethro's students by mail. I also spoke to him on the telephone. His Mel Bay books changed my life. I got the tapes of the books from Ken Eidson and Ken's other mandolin books from Mel Bay. I loved Jethro's column in Mandolin World News.
      I miss him!
    1. UsuallyPickin's Avatar
      UsuallyPickin -
      Thanks for posting this. I'm not a Jethrophile as I can't play but one of his tunes. But I continue tp appreciate and enjoy his music. His words are always a pleasure as well. R/
    1. grasspete's Avatar
      grasspete -
      Enjoyed the article immensely, thank you so much for sharing this!