• Remembering Jethro Burns on his 100th Birthday, an All-Star Tribute

    Don and Sam Bush with Jethro's famed red Gibson mandolin. Photo courtesy Ronnie McCoury.

    Don Stiernberg

    I owe an awful lot to Jethro Burns. Everything I've done professionally in my life was either taught to me by or inspired by him. Certainly, when playing, performing and teaching I'm still trying to follow his example. He also shared generously in the realm we might call "world view," realistic guidance on what to expect, how to interact with others, the pursuit of one's own identity and self confidence. He was as much a genius in those areas as he was with music. As Mr. Dawg once said, "he taught us all what to and what not to take seriously." How does one thank a guy like that? I'm not sure we can.

    It all started for me with mandolin lessons. I was trying to learn to play something so I could play music with my brother who was a very gifted musician even as a teenager. There was a mandolin that he didn't have time to play. I struggled with it on my own until our Mom heard an ad on the radio. "Study mandolin with the great Jethro Burns." My father drove me 50 miles in to Skokie, just north of the city. I played something. Jethro Burns, the greatest mandolin player of his time, looked me in the eye (rare occurrence for a teenage boy) and said, "Well Donnie, that is so great buddy. You got all the tools!" Imagine that. I flew home and the folks asked "how did it go with Mr. Burns?" "He said I've got all the tools!" I realized years after he was gone that he may have meant I had a mandolin and a pick! But at that moment he got my attention with positive support and encouragement. I knew what I wanted to do right then. In the ensuing 16 years he helped me do it, and I'm out here still trying. How does one thank a guy like that?

    Don and Sam Bush with Jethro's famed red Gibson mandolin. Photo courtesy Ronnie McCoury.

    So I went weekly for about a year and a half till I went to college and started playing professionally in a bluegrass band with my brother. In lessons with Jethro he taught me everything from the beginning. Holding the pick, left hand position, chords, and of course tunes. Early on it was mostly fiddle tunes, the ones in the first section of his book which had just come out.

    After college I eventually moved back to where we grew up and started hanging with Jethro again. This time he would not accept payment for the lessons. I would come with a list of standards and ask if he knew them. He did. He would make chord melody arrangements on the spot and show them and explain them to me. He would look me straight in the eye and say things like, "now Donnie, this here, all's it is is a C7 with a flatted fifth." The resulting adrenaline flow opened my ears and switched on my memory for quick storage of both sounds and fretboard shapes. A couple years later while freelancing around town I noticed that I would be surrounded by guys with music degrees, but I wasn't intimidated because I had learned how chord progressions worked from Jethro, enough that I could be functional on gigs and maybe even contribute something. Jethro sort of gave me my ears. He had also told me to play guitar so as to work more, and he would say things like, "there's no such thing as a bad gig!"

    Photo credit: E.J. Stiernberg

    One time in that era Jethro got a steady gig at a suburban club hosting an open stage night on Sundays. He was asked to do comedy and introduce the acts but what he really wanted to do was play! He rounded up a few guys and asked if we would come down and play. The Jethro Burns Quartet was launched. He would have me play melody on second mandolin and he would put a harmony part above it. John Parrott played rhythm guitar in the manner of Homer Haynes, which of course made the Maestro very happy. Russ Daughtry, a well-known Chicago musician, came in and played upright. On those gigs in addition to lots of opportunity to play I learned a bit about connecting to the audience. I remember people would holler out dumb requests "Rocky Top" and "Dueling Banjos," and I would steam. Don't they know who this guy is? The best mandolin player in the world! Well, guess what Jethro did: he played every request, then asked for more. "Oh, I see," I thought to myself. "That's how that's done".

    One time we had a show at a college downstate. I was the driver. It was a few hours drive and somehow I got yapping about the vagaries of playing gigs for a living, like "Oh jeez, you have to wear a tuxedo, and come in through the back door in the alley, then slide on the kitchen floor, and schlep all your gear, and..." All of a sudden I feel one of the largest hands in the world on my shoulder, then I feel it squeezing (and not exactly gently), then I hear the voice of Jethro say "Donnie, what else do you know how to do?" Schooled again by one of the smartest people I've met.

    Also got a good comedy lesson on that same gig. When we got to the school we went to the room we were playing and were told that a party was wrapping. It was a campaign meet-and-greet for Senator Paul Simon. Jethro says, "follow me guys," and we get in the reception line! We hear the Senator saying "SO nice to see YOU!" as he shakes everyone's hand. Now we're getting close and Jethro says, "OK Donnie, now watch 'is" The Senator extends his hand, Jethro grabs it and holds on! Then he looks Paul Simon right in the eye and says "Paul, listen buddy, I have ever (sic) record you and Art Garfunkel ever made!" The Senator, oblivious and on auto-pilot, says "SO nice to see YOU!" As Dawg said, Jethro taught us what to and what not to take seriously. How does one thank a guy like that?

    Don Stiernberg, Jethro Burns and John Parrott, Neil Seroka on bass.

    Perhaps my most memorable Jethro lesson, the one I am most grateful for happened at a show we played in a community theater up in central Wisconsin in 1980. In that time I was doing as much as I could to play exactly like Jethro: transcribing and memorizing his solos, and I even had a red A5 Florentine. It was almost as if in the shows Jethro would play his solo, then say "Take it Donnie," and I would play his solo again! Well, that night we went up and played and had a blast as usual then sat down for a refreshment afterward. Out of the blue Jethro says "Donnie, did you ever think of gettin' a new mandolin?" I thought that was an odd question and that must have shown on my face because after some awkward silence he gave me the lesson, saying "Well, listen buddy, if people want to hear Jethro, they can." Wow, talk about turning on the lights! He was so right. We're not sent here to sound like someone else. Soon thereafter I started trying to cultivate my own approach and ideas. I'm still on that path. Thank you Jethro for lighting the way. Thank you God for Jethro Burns.

    Sam Bush

    I started playing mandolin age 11. At first I was listening to my Dad's fiddle records by Tommy Jackson. A mandolin played melody in unison with Tommy. I loved that sound, tried to play like that, and that lead me to look for other mandolin players to learn from, and of course, Bill Monroe. We lived in Bowling Green, Kentucky within good reception of WSM. One night we were listening together, my Dad and I, and Bill Monroe came on the Opry and did "John Henry," and the break he took just knocked me over! What my Dad actually said was "that ain't shit. You need to hear Jethro Burns, he doesn't play like Bill Monroe." It wasn't long and he let me stay up and watch Joey Bishop and Homer and Jethro were on. Joey had an F4 and played with them. Jethro says "It's one thing to say you're a mandolin player, but when you try to prove it..." Jethro had the pretty red mandolin. It was amazing to me that they would sing funny songs then Jethro came with this style of mandolin that was so beyond my understanding. Astounding!

    Around 1968 I made the acquaintance of Alan Munde at a fiddle contest. Alan's a wonderful Texas fiddle tune style rhythm player. I mentioned Jethro and he asked have you heard Playing It Straight?" I said no, so he sent me a tape. Again, beyond my understanding, it's taken years for me to really understand what he was doing. When we'd go to the Opry we'd also go to Ernest Tubb Record Shop. That's where I found the second instrumental record, It Ain't Necessarily Square. I liked that one even better than Playing It Straight. I learned "Broadway," but I play it a hell of a lot slower than Jethro!

    In 1973 Newgrass Revival got a job in Indianapolis at a new restaurant, The State of IN Cafe. Back then you'd play 5 or 6 nights. After a day or two Tut Taylor called saying he had a mandolin and Norman Blake said I wanted it, how soon could you come and get it? The one we call Hoss now. I traded a Randy Wood A-50 to A5 conversion and borrowed money to get it. What a week! I called Jethro from Indy and asked if I could meet him. He went "Sam Bush, Sam Bush... I've been hearing about you. Who the hell are you?" I said "I'm the guy that plays bluegrass and really loves your playing. I try to play like you." He says "Come on up!" At my 50th birthday party Johnny Burns told me that Jethro called him to "come over and meet this mandolin player." I go there and meet Gussie, Johnny and Terry. It's so overwhelming! He says "Go on downstairs, I'll be right down." I go into Jethro's world. There's a dartboard with a picture of Bill Monroe right under it, and the electric A5 Florentine next to it! That was his live mandolin, Homer and Jethro plugged into one amp. I asked "What if you miss?" and he said "I ain't gonna f***in' miss!" Unbeknownst to me, as I want downstairs he turned to his family and said "I'm gonna f*** him up!" And he did! He showed me a lot of licks that day. The only one I remembered (didn't have a tape recorder) was a turnaround in Bb. I hadn't played too much in Bb except a couple Howdy Forrester tunes. It was a majestic day. I got to meet Jethro, sit with him, see his mandolins, watch his fingers. I left knowing who the MAN was!

    We played together at Amazing Grace in Evanston. He opened for us! And that happened many more times. It didn't make sense to me, and I told him. Jethro said "Get over it! If you're lucky, and you live long enough you too will be opening up for a bunch of little f***heads that can't play as good as you (laughs)!" Now here I am. You have no idea how many times that has helped me. Thank God Jethro helped me understand that at an early age.

    Ideas and phrases infiltrated my style, and certain licks and phrases we totally incorporated. "The Dancer" (NGR) has an ending that is a Jethro Burns phrase. To this day when I play "Girl from the North Country" solo, it ends with a Jethro lick, and that's the one the audience responds to. When people started hearing him, they didn't know a mandolin could play jazz. In Bill Monroe's style sometimes he'd hang on one note. That wasn't part of Jethro's makeup. Watching his hands work, the positions he used, I think that's very influential. There might be people who play Jethro phrases because I played them or Dawg played them, but never even heard them from him.

    Photo courtesy Don Stiernberg

    Photo courtesy Don Stiernberg

    First guy I heard in bluegrass to vary from Bill Monroe's style and play fiddle tune notes was Bobby Osborne. And then the way John Duffey played. I think a great example of someone influenced by Jethro's knowledge of chord melodies is Barry Mitterhoff. Remember when he did a medley of "Wizard of Oz" songs? He played all these really cool chord melodies. I always figured that was influenced by Jethro.

    I can recall a great incident, 1977 maybe, we were playing a festival in Red River, MN. Word was that Jethro had played everybody's ass into the ground the night before at some bar. They were dropping like flies, but Jethro was still goin' at 4:00 a.m. Next day he's on stage. They had some kind of mounted police there and all of a sudden they rode in front of the stage. Jethro went "Nice to know the Gestapo is here," and did a German salute. Then he looked at me in the audience and says "There's Bush. Hey Bush, do you wear a garter belt? I do, ever since my wife found one in the glove compartment." Courtney (Johnson) walked by and he says "Hey Courtney, how ya doin'? Nice to see ya. Now get the hell out from in front of the stage!" He told me "when you MC, don't ever tell a joke with a punch line, you're gonna fail. Just stand there and say stuff and go on into the tune. If you're gonna make fun of anybody, you gotta make fun of everybody. Start with yourself, beat 'em to the punch."

    In 1982 when I was in the hospital recovering from cancer surgeries and chemo, almost daily Jethro or John Duffey would call and talk to me. And Stevie Goodman encouraged me, too. He said "Chemo ain't cute, but you can do it." They'll never know what a lift it gave me!

    The last time he opened for us at Holstein's, I went to get Hoss fixed by Harry Sparks. He said go visit Jethro, I'll have this done when you get back. While I was there he told me he wasn't going to take any more chemo and he knew what that meant. I had tickets to the second night game at Wrigley and asked if he'd like to go. He said, "Hell no, I'm not gonna pay $8 for a beer!" Now we're at Holstein's, he's opening and I'm sitting at the board, taping and watching. He says "Hey, look, there's Bush and his tape recorder. God, they're cute at that age. And I know what he's thinkin, gosh I hope he never dies!" We'd had that talk and he knew he was sticking that knife in me, he knew how much I loved him. But he went on.., "But I will, and he'll be left all alone, not knowin' who to copy." And you know, he was right. I still try to play like Jethro.

    Mike Marshall

    Photo courtesy Mike Marshall

    I arrived at Dawg's house in August, 1978. We were all involved in David's projects: King of the Gypsies, Hot Dawg, Tony record, Darol's record. By early 1979 we were on the road with Stephane. I was at the Jethro and Tiny recording sessions (Jan. 6-7, 1979). Meeting him the first time might have been then, unless it was on the first tour back East with the Quintet in Chicago. That show might have been the first time I got a taste of what Jethro was all about. He walked out and said "Folks, it may take me a little while to warm up because I've been in the back jammin' with them Grisman boys!" This was a consummate professional comedian. As great of a mandolin player as he was, he was in the entertainment business and knew how to walk on a stage and hold an audience, make you gut-bust laugh.

    More than anything I remember jamming with him backstage before or after a gig, or in some informal setting. That's when he shone. That's when the real stuff would come out.

    We always had him up when he opened those shows. I'm thinking of a string of dates we must have done, with him opening every one of them on a tour. We'd always have him join us at the end for "Minor Swing," "Sweet Georgia Brown," probably "Jethro's Tune," any standards he could think of that we could all play. But the jamming after the gig, I have deep recollections of just realizing that, not unlike with Stephane Grappelli, you're standing next to somebody who was the embodiment of the century. Saw it all, lived it all, played with everybody, and because of that had the language just so deeply ingrained in his bones. You could only just shake your head and wish to be like him.

    This is a guy who lived that whole time period of jazz and swing and it was just in his ear. It's interesting, his transformation from hillbilly to jazz language guy. Most of us don't shake that leg easily. And Homer and Jethro were country comedians, an integral part of the whole country scene.

    For us, coming from a bluegrass part of it, having an appreciation for a certain kind of tone coming from an F5 mandolin and not knowing anything about jazz, he was like this creature from another planet, with all this harmonic understanding which was completely under his fingers. It really pointed the way for all of us to start looking at that music. While I didn't dive deeply into the swing thing, it opened my ears up to what was possible harmonically, rhythmically, his syncopation and all that. Just over the top understanding and intuition for how to move through harmonies. Indescribable, what he did for the instrument. And then the chord solo stuff!

    Photo courtesy Mike Marshall

    We were like these California hippies, so we didn't completely really get it. We were living in this other world, socially, and yet we connected. We connected through the mandolin, and through the harmonies and rhythms that would just bubble out of this guy, not to mention the jokes! He was a master of timing. Even if you knew the punchline, his way of delivering it would have you doubled over because of the sound of his voice and the timing! EVERY time. That was a miracle just like the music was a miracle. They were completely intertwined. I just remember not being able to breathe many times. Whether it was music or comedy he'd just double you over.

    Doyle Lawson

    When learning to play the mandolin I was a Bill Monroe follower and wanted to be Bill Monroe! I still love his powerful playing and the authority with which he played, but as time went on I began to listen to other mandolin players and hear the difference in their approach to playing. Homer and Jethro were already stars and taking their down home humor everywhere. But what impressed me more was Jethro's mandolin playing and the amazing rhythm guitar by Homer. His playing had a happy feel to it that made me smile just listening. Fast forward to 1972 and I'm working with The Country Gentlemen, appearing in Nashville at The Old Time Pickin' Parlor owned by George Gruhn, Tut Taylor and Randy Wood. At intermission Jethro walked up to me and said "I'm Jethro Burns and I like your mandolin playing!" Well you could've pushed me over with a feather because I had no idea he was aware of my playing. But I definitely was aware of his. Jethro had a personality that drew you to him immediately as if you'd known him for years. A few years later I was asked to do two or three nights at the Birchmere Club in Alexandria with Jethro, a laid back improv type of show. What an enjoyable time it was and over the course of the nights we performed with John Duffey, Jimmy Gaudreau, the late Jimmy Arnold and others! Jethro was a great host and carried the show in the unruffled way he had. Sometimes in jam sessions musicians will gravitate toward one-upping others but that never happened there. We all played what we wanted with individual identity and Jethro led the way! One of my most enjoyable and memorable musical experiences!

    John Reischman

    Jethro Burns is definitely a major musical hero. I was lucky to have met and even jammed with him in 1977. Here's the story on how that happened.

    After I had been seriously studying mandolin as a young man, with mainly an interest in fiddle tunes and bluegrass, I was exposed to the music of Django Reinhardt. I really loved the concept of string swing. Not long after, maybe through Mandolin World News, I became aware of Jethro as a jazz mandolinist. I had heard of Homer and Jethro through the Kellogg's Cornflakes commercials that featured them as comedians, but I had no idea they were such serious jazz musicians. I learned they had two instrumental recordings and was lucky enough to have found one of them, Playing it Straight, in a Goodwill store. I couldn't believe how good the music was, and especially the mandolin playing! I immediately started learning some of the tunes and solos from it. This would have been in 1975-76.

    In 1977 I was going to school in Eugene, Oregon and still teaching myself mandolin. I had found some contemporary recordings of Jethro. Larry McNeely's LP and Steve Goodman's Words We Can Dance To both featured Jethro.

    My brother, Steve, knew a fellow in town who had tour managed for Steve Goodman, the great Chicago singer/songwriter, and he told us that Steve was going to be playing in town and Jethro would be touring with him! He invited us down to the show where he introduced me to Jethro. Jethro was very friendly and we chatted a bit and I thought that was that.

    After the show the fellow who had introduced us decided to have a picking party and invited us, along with Steve Goodman and Jethro and some other folks over to his house. It was unbelievable to me that this was happening! My brother, a great swing guitarist and I knew some swing tunes, plus we were Steve Goodman fans and knew some of his songs, so it was a great jam. Jethro was super cordial and generous. If he played something that I wanted to learn he showed me what he was doing. I had a cassette recorder with me and let me record him.

    The main thing I remember him showing me was a three finger chord shape that he used for a lot of his chord melody. It would be: 2nd fret on the D, 5th on the A, 3rd on the E.

    So it would work as a G6, a C9, an Em7 or an A7sus. I still use that voicing.

    I still count that night as one of the best in my life. Thanks for all of the great music and inspiration Jethro!

    Barry Mitterhoff

    The Nacogdoches Bluegrass Festival in eastern Texas was one of those events that seemed too good to be real. Maybe it was. Many of the top bluegrass bands were there for the main stage show in addition to a jam-packed workshop schedule. The workshops were very informal, done without PA system or chairs for the artists or the participants.

    I was flattered one year to be the moderator of the mandolin workshop. Imagine my shock when in addition to some of my contemporaries (Tim O'Brien, Mike Compton, Paul Glasse), up walked Jesse MacReynolds and Jethro Burns. Talk about a mandolin fantasy.

    We played a bunch of tunes and then it came time for a brief Q&A. As in most bluegrass Q&A's, the drift of questions started with history and music but quickly veered into the curiosity about each musical icon's mandolin. Jesse spoke up and told the crowd he was very enthusiastic about some new mandolins made by Lou Stiver he was playing one at the workshop. When asked about price, Jesse explained that the one he was playing that day was a sunburst finish and was $xxx.xx. But, he added, you could get a blonde one for $200 more. Without missing a beat, Jethro piped in and said, "Yes I always have found that to be the case with blondes, myself." In one fell swoop, Jethro turned Jesse into a straight man, his Homer for a day.

    Tony Williamson

    Jethro Burns was the greatest. Growing up in rural Carolina, I saw my first television set at age 12. The old RCA black and white tube came to life with special guests Homer and Jethro on a show called Hootenanny. The melody was "Sixteen Tons," the lyrics wacky ("I was born one morning when the sun didn't shine; I remember my momma was gone at the time; the doctor looked down and said 'OH MY!', I don't know whether he's gonna walk or fly") and then... the mandolin break. What? What was that?? Talk abut a blown mind! It was not until much later that I understood it was a snappy excerpt from Brahms' "Hungarian Dance" #5 in G minor. It became my life's mission to figure out how he did that, even though a local mandolin player explained to me that I was headed down the road to ruin, that Jethro Burns mandolin playing sounds like a "cat peeing on a tin roof."

    Ten years later, my buddies and I were sitting on the front row to hear Jethro. The waitress brought a pitcher of Coors draft and said, "compliments of Mr. Burns." And then, another. Each time our pitcher was two thirds down, another arrived with "compliments of Mr. Burns." I am thinking, you sure don't get this at a Bill Monroe concert! During intermission Jethro invited me back stage and handed me his mandolin. Being a cocky young guy feeling my oats (or maybe hops), I played one of his fast breaks note-for-note. I handed the mandolin back, and he played the same song, huge grin on his face, in a different key, with a slow, delicious, hard swing, harmonized with three, four and even five note chords. Damn. How did he do that?

    So, I began stalking him whenever he came anywhere close. He was always welcoming, always made me laugh until my side split, and always blew my mind with another level of virtuosity that I had not yet suspected. Once when I had the honor to sit in with him onstage and was really getting into my solo, he leaned over and whispered in my ear, "pick it purty, fatso!" The one thing I never figured out was how he got such great tone out of mediocre mandolins. I always wondered what he would sound like with a truly great mandolin, and one night I got him to play my 1924 Gibson F-5. Standing in front of him, it was so rich and powerful, it was like walking uphill in the most beautiful and strongest headwind imaginable.

    Fifteen years later, in accident on the farm, I tore tendons in both arms. I was told by a top orthopedic guy that I would never play again. When I told Jethro, he laughed. Yes, he laughed. He said my problem was that I insisted on playing antique mandolins. "Play an electric with light strings and low action and you'll be fine." So I did. Every day, I would practice, slowly, slowly, building up, healing. I focused on slow tempo chord melodies on Jethro's Florentine electric. With each note on that mandolin, I felt the wisdom, humor and brilliance of the man. From the clumsy broken peg head, the "bird-poop" paint on the case to the fake puke inside, to this day, every time I pick it up I am reminded to find the humor in each situation, to live life to the fullest no matter what comes. I healed. I went back to playing my antique mandolins, and made more recordings and received more honors and awards than I ever had before the injury. Thank you Jethro.

    Jethro Burns was the greatest, but not only the greatest mandolin player, the greatest human being. His memory always reminds me to enjoy the moment, lighten up and "pick it purty!"

    Aaron Weinstein

    For about the first decade of my life, I thought that Jethro Burns was the name of someone's dog. Days after I emerged from the womb, my parents, apparently feeling that a newborn baby wouldn't provide quite enough stress, brought home a golden retriever puppy. My mother proudly told anyone who'd listen, "Jethro Burns is our puppy's Grandpa." This was true-ish. Our puppy came from a litter owned by Jethro's son, John. But no one bothered to tell me that Jethro Burns was in fact, a human, never mind that he was one of the most significant mandolinists in the history of the instrument.

    When I began studying mandolin with Don Stiernberg, I still had only a vague notion of Jethro's musical genius. This changed after one of my first lessons. I had brought in a recording of a Bucky Pizzarelli solo I wanted to learn to play on the mandolin. It was one of Bucky's patented rhythmic chord explosions. After we listened, Don said, "He's basically doing Jethro's chordal thing."

    Over the next few years, Don masterfully guided me through "Jethro's Chordal Thing," a.k.a. Jethro's revolutionary approach to the mandolin that simultaneously highlighted and expanded the sophistication of the instrument's harmonic capabilities. Learning Jethro's ground-breaking chord melody arrangements exposed me to the mandolin's potential as a chordal instrument and provided an invaluable template that I've used ever since.

    In college, I became certifiably obsessed with chord-centric Jazz guitarists like Carl Kress and Joe Pass. The process of translating their playing to the mandolin was almost always the same: I'd spend hours adapting chordal guitar figures so I could play them on the mandolin without giving my hands PTSD. Then, I'd momentarily feel like I'd unearthed all sorts of new mandolin chord forms until realizing that nearly every voicing I had "discovered" was simply a permutation of one that Jethro had created. He really did figure it all out!

    Legendary Jazz saxophonist Phil Woods, once told me, "If you can hear it, it's yours." It's why I keep going back to Jethro's recordings. With his dazzling technique, relentless sense of swing, musical wit and chord voicings all presented with a joy so boundless it oozes through the speakers, it's impossible for me not to have something new to think about when listening to Jethro Burns.

    As I'm typing this, I'm listening to one of Jethro's seminal albums, It Ain't Necessarily Square. It was recorded more than a half-century ago but his playing doesn't sound the least bit dated. Genius just doesn't get old. It's why I'm convinced that, for any mandolinist lucky enough to discover Jethro Burns, if they open their ears to his music, it will change their life. It certainly changed mine.

    Peter Ostroushko

    My two favorite mandolin players were both born on March 10! Jethro and Norman Blake. Norman has a picture of Jethro hanging on a wall at his house. When I was a budding young mandolin player in junior high my best friend was an Ojibwe Indian, Laverne Wakanubo. He lived a few blocks away. We would hang out and listen to music at my house, usually my older brother's records, mostly rock music from San Francisco, Jefferson Airplane, etc. Occasionally he'd ask to borrow something and I said sure, if I could borrow from him. His dad had a great record collection, one of the best country collections I've ever seen. I came upon the Monroe instrumental LP, the one with "Scotland" and "Stoney Lonesome" and all (Bluegrass Instrumentals). Also saw another record that had two fiddles on the cover, but the musicians were not credited: Wade Ray and the Country Fiddlers. I discovered Bill Monroe and Jethro on the same day! What I got out of the Bill Monroe record was twin fiddles. On the other record I got Jethro, just didn't know it because he wasn't credited. I sat down to figure out his solo on "Soldier's Joy." Eight hours later I had figured out most of the notes. Much later I read in an article that it was Jethro, and then I went looking for anything and everything he played on.

    In 1975 I was playing on the road with Robin and Linda Williams. A good friend in Minneapolis (Jimmy Nikora) moved back to Wisconsin for the sole purpose of being closer to Evanston, IL and getting lessons from Jethro. He came to see Robin and Linda in Menominee, Wisconsin and gave me a tape of lessons. It had the breadth and scope of Jethro's playing. I devoured everything from the tape. My entire way of playing came from Jethro's mind. Figuring out how he played was how I figured out music theory. Game changer!

    I met Jethro at a jam party in Minneapolis. I found out that in addition to playing masterpiece solos on studio sessions, he could play brilliantly all night long! Old friends at the house were at the piano, we were jamming on "Turkey in the Straw." Sheet music from the bench prompted memories of old tunes and Jethro would comment on them while he was jamming on "Turkey in the Straw!" Luckily I had the tape recorder. I transcribed his solo. When I taught at the Mandolin Symposium I did a workshop on Jethro and shared the solo. I told the students "If you can figure out half of this, you'll be a brilliant mandolin player!"

    On A Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor was gracious about consulting with the band about guests. He asked me "Who do you want to play with?" I said Jethro, and he said "We'll make that happen!" It helped that Chet Atkins had already played on the show. Also got Johnny Gimble, Kenny Baker, and other heroes. It was wonderful to find out what a gracious human Jethro was.

    Red Maddock (PHC drummer) was from Jethro's era. You could never take anything they said seriously. To Jethro, the music was almost secondary. He was an entertainer. He mostly wanted to get on stage and make people laugh. I learned as much about that from him as I did about music.

    Now I'm working on a project of about 40 years of playing music on A Prairie Home Companion. Garrison came to visit. They had been digitizing shows and he brought a disc with some shows over. I listened to it. I hadn't realized it was all so good! The musicians (band and guests)... they had one shot to do it, so they got it right. I played on the show starting when I was 21, from 1974 to 2016. I called Garrison about a project, a series of releases. His producer said "We'll make a hard drive of all the shows you're on." I'm going through it. It's too big to be a recording but another friend suggested a podcast, adding comments about the tunes and players, maybe presenting things by style or topic. So I'm going through it, reaching out to get permissions, and so on. There's a lot of great stuff, like all of Chet's stuff is totally different from what he did on his records. He really got into just being a sideguy, so many great ideas. One time me and Jethro were about to play "Tico Tico" and he introduced it saying "The music Pete and I play is better than it sounds."

    Not much else to add now. Jethro changed my life. For the better.

    Carlo Aonzo

    I got to know the art of Jethro on the mandolin through a Mel Bay book I found in a shop in Italy back in the 1980s.

    That was a blast for me. I knew nothing about jazz mandolin, neither had I ever heard anything about him.

    The book was an amazing source of completely new and fresh material for my fingers and brain. I never thought before the mandolin could sound like that.

    All those strange chords! Ah! Where did he get them?? They are so strange but, damn, they work so nicely!

    That was so cool, people around me were not used to listening to the traditional mandolin sound with that groove. My father used to play Giuseppe Pettine music, so he was open minded to the American repertory. He used to say to me: "Carlo, listen: there is not bad music, there's just music played badly." But my teacher at the conservatory? Mmmmh, hard for him to accept my diversity, ah!

    So, that book came to sleep with me. All the notes written there were like gold for my soul. I knew mostly all of them and the pages where they were printed.

    And that was just the start.

    Brian Oberlin

    I am pleased and honored to write about the great Jethro Burns and the impact he had on my mandolin playing. For me, impact seems a small word when describing Jethro's prowess on our favorite 8-stringed friend. He is best described as the Bedrock of jazz mandolin. Preparing for this letter prompted me to go on a Jethro "bender" and listen to everything I have in my library. I was first reminded that I need to practice more, but then hearing him float across the fingerboard encouraged me to have as much fun as possible with the mandolin. Jethro's seemingly effortless jazz licks flowed like no one else's. His characteristic licks, like the barn-storming whole-tone, or rip-offs, and be-bopping riffs and arpeggios make you rewind the track several times just to take it all in. Then there are the teases from his musical mind that he inserted in the darnedest of places, my favorite being "Pretty Baby" in "I've Found a New Baby."

    My Grandmothers would often sing old-time tunes and Jethro brings all of those old melodies to ear in a musical and funny way. Speaking of funny, he was hilarious and still is the best in the mandolin business. As for me, I will perpetually pay homage to the great Jethro by attempting a few of his licks now and then and recycling his jokes by starting my sets with the second song (because the first song is too difficult); then asking for applause in advance of the challenging tunes; and finally, reminding the audience that my singing is best used for cooling soup. This musical reverie would not be possible were it not for Don Stiernberg. He has told me the great Jethro stories so many time that I feel a kinship with Mr. Burns. Thanks Jethro for the inspiration to be as playful as possible.

    Tim O'Brien

    I met Jethro in the mid 1980s through Steve Goodman, who brought him to a Hot Rize gig at a club in Chicago called Somebody Else's Troubles. We asked them both to sit in, but Jethro didn't bring his mandolin, so I handed him my Nugget which has a wide fingerboard and a beefy neck. He commented that his mandolin neck was more like a pencil, but said "It only takes about a minute" to adjust. Of course he just ripped on "Walking the Dog" and a few others, without a strap. The following summer, he was in Boulder with Grisman's Quintet, and that whole crew came down to a shopping center opening we were playing, sitting in on a flatbed truck stage under a blazing sun.

    There were a couple epic nights at a festival in Nacogdoches, Texas when he sat in with Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers as Elder Otto. Steel player Waldo Otto looks like Pete Wernick, and his fiddler brother Elmo that night (a lotta nights) looked like Sam Bush, and I guess Elder is their uncle? My counterpart Red Knuckles asked him what he remembered about the Otto brothers when they were younger. He reached into his brain a minute before describing the type of diaper Waldo wore as "more like a parachute." There was a Slim Ritchie led Jazz Grass set scheduled there and Sam and I were going to play on it, as was Jethro. A big thunderstorm came along, the PA went out, and the show never happened, but we were all kinda trapped onstage, so we stood in a circle and jammed.

    Jethro as Elder Otto

    Hanging backstage with Jethro was the best. Once I was doing a solo spot on Nashville Now, which was a music and talk show on TNN. I had done my sound check and was walking backstage when I saw Chet Atkins walk in with a mandolin case in his hand. Next comes Chet's road manager George carrying something in a paper sack. A minute later here comes Jethro empty handed. We ended up sharing a dressing room and some of the beer that was in the paper sack. We talked about whatever: music, Howard Levy, baseball. As his slot approached he shook his head and said, "I just know that band is gonna drag me down," but they backed him well on "Tico Tico" and "Laura's Theme." I knew what he meant though. He played great with a full rhythm section but he felt much more comfortable in a small string group, or better yet, with just a good guitarist. Jethro always played with great guitarists because he was himself a great guitarist. You can hear his lead guitar work on some old King records stuff. Check out Hawkshaw Hawkins version of "Sunny Side of the Mountain."

    His playing was a wonder. I loved swing music and Jethro's playing was the template for mandolin players. His arpeggios and chord solos astounded me. But I also loved his sense of space, which came out more in the Homer and Jethro stuff. He'd be singing and mugging, maybe not playing at all for eight of ten bars and then all of a sudden, just at the right time and place he'd play a single note that just popped out. That note would solidify the tempo and comment perfectly on what had just happened. It was like the two-note chord reminders Count Basie used to pull his amazing rhythm section a little tighter together. Jethro's note was a bigger presence than the Count's because he was half of a duo, and he would be tacit for a while before he'd play it. Those notes were musically artistic and comedic at the same time.

    I got a little tearful writing this. I wish I could talk to Jethro again.

    Radim Zenkl

    I first came across Jethro Burns and heard his playing on a reel to reel copy of his Back to Back LP in the mid 80s. It instantly become my favorite recording and I learned to play "Jethro's Tune" right away. I loved the minor key (being raised in Eastern Europe), and also the usage of arpeggios and the opening riff with multiple pull-offs. My second favorite was "Flickin' My Pick," harmonically a more advanced tune, nice melody and great arpeggio workout in Ab. I am very thankful to David Grisman, who originally produced it, for releasing it again on Acoustic Disc (ACD-60), featuring alternate takes and a bonus track. What a treat!

    Then I heard Jethro's playing on Sam Bush's LP Late as Usual, on the cut "Broadway," a hard swinging mandolin duet with Sam. I could not resist transcribing and learning the whole piece note by note.

    Later on, when I moved to US in August of 1989, David Grisman played Jethro's solo recording Tea for One for me. Wow, that was yet another level of Jethro's mastery, solo mandolin arrangements. Very inspiring, specially the variety of 3-finger chords and their voicing. I learned the tunes "Rip-Off" and "Crazy Rhythm."

    Jethro's playing, his music and also his humor had a great influence on my playing and arranging. I wanted to meet him very much and was sorry to have missed him by just a few months. I continue to play "Jethro's Tune" and some of his licks just about each time I see my friend Don Stiernberg and we always say after: "Jethro lives!"

    Casey Campbell

    100 years of Jethro Burns. Man, are we lucky. Try to think of your favorite mandolin player. Go ahead, I'll wait. Whoever that person is, they loved Jethro Burns. I'm no mind reader, it's merely a fact of life. I'd wager 90% of all modern mandolin players can trace their influences (either directly or indirectly) to Bill Monroe and/or Jethro Burns. Whether you prefer his comedic work with Homer & Jethro, his musically-nutrient-dense solo albums, or one of his many collaborations with iconic peers like Tiny Moore, David Grisman, Johnny Gimble, or Peter Ostroushko, you can't escape the greatness of Jethro's playing. Not only does it have all the qualities of "great" music, but it also sticks with you. I could hear a Jethro Burns mandolin lick from five miles away while wearing noise-cancelling headphones. He was an innovator, a true stylist, and a cornerstone in our mandolin world. You can't improve upon it, but you can try to imitate the hell out of it!

    I still love digging out my Mandolin World News magazines and skipping to the last page to soak in the wit and wisdom of Jethro. He understood humor in a way that most of us never will. He wasn't afraid to speak his mind, but often chose to shine the spotlight on the up-and-coming mandolinists of the time (Mike Marshall, Sam Bush, John Duffey, etc.). He was a comedic superhero and used his powers for good, not evil. That's not to say that he couldn't rip someone apart in a way that would have them laughing at themselves (whether they realized the joke was on them or not remains to be seen).

    Happy Birthday, Jethro! You would have been 100, but I am still thankful to you for your sharp wit and brazen talent. You have left some mighty big shoes to fill, but also a legion of musicians and fans who soak up everything you have generously offered.

    Paul Glasse

    One day, when I was a teenager, a friend and musical mentor announced he had a special recording to play for me. He had acquired a reel to reel dub of the legendary and, even then, out of print Homer and Jethro instrumental album Playing It Straight. This was the first time I'd ever heard any kind of jazz mandolin.

    I really didn't understand what was going on in the music or what Jethro was doing with the mandolin. I just knew I loved what I was hearing.

    I didn't know a thing about the "standards" on the record. I couldn't really hear the chord changes and certainly didn't listen to this music with even an awareness of the song structures.

    In those pre-streaming music days, when we came across something special, we listened to it over and over. My friend made me a cassette copy of Playing It Straight for me and I just wore it out. I never tried to copy any of Jethro's playing on the record. It seemed unapproachably advanced and virtuosic but I got to the point that I could hear every delicious note he played.

    A few years later mandolinist Barry Mitterhoff spent two intensive days teaching me mandolin stuff and turning me onto music that an aspiring mandolinist needed to know about, including some of the Homer & Jethro comedy albums, particularly the live LPs, which tended to feature more picking than the studio albums, as well as some of the stand-up banter. I've since discovered that as mandolinists around the world listened to Jethro's mandolin playing we all also developed the guilty pleasure of laughing at those Homer & Jethro songs and stand-up routines. We learned the licks and the punch lines at the same time.

    L-R: Jethro Burns, Tim O'Brien and Paul Glasse, in Nacodogches, Texas. Photo credit, unknown.
    L-R: Jethro Burns, Tim O'Brien and Paul Glasse, in Nacodogches, Texas, 1986 at the first Nacodogches Bluegrass Festival. Photo credit, unknown.

    Little did I know that I'd end up crossing paths with Jethro a quite a bit through the years. These encounters included one actual lesson, multiple NAMM show encounters, a couple of mandolin workshops together, playing a bit with him on stage at a festival, and more visits on his trips to Austin for multiple Austin City Limits tapings. Throughout it all Jethro was, with me, as he was with so many, generous, warm, encouraging, cheerful, sarcastic, unassuming, and of course absolutely hilarious. Late in his life I mailed him an original movie poster from a '60s film called Second Fiddle to a Steel Guitar that featured Homer & Jethro. I was delighted to learn that he put that poster on display in the room where he gave private mandolin lessons.

    Jethro gave a lot of mandolin lessons. I came to learn that there were a good number of talented Chicago-area mandolinists who had all studied with Jethro. These include Don Stiernberg, John Rice and Paul Kramer. To my great joy, they could each not only play some "Jethro stuff" but also could and would speak in the famed Jethro voice, which remains in sonic memory for many of us.

    For me personally, Jethro Burns, Tiny Moore, and Johnny Gimble are the three guys who qualify for the "Mount Rushmore" of jazz mandolin from that great generation. Jethro was on the short list that proved jazz mandolin was possible. He did it with a completely unique mandolin voice, filled with virtuosity and humor, honed and polished through a lifetime of gigs and dedication to the instrument.

    I wish Jethro was around today to see what his influence has birthed in our current mandolin scene. Much of what he brought to the table has become part of our modern mandolin vocabulary, from chord melody excursions and cleanly-picked arpeggiated runs and pull-offs galore. Every great American mandolin player of today has listened to Jethro and either learned something tangible from his playing or had to come to terms with the high bar he set for command of music and the instrument. Thank you Jethro. Your legacy lives on!

    Additional Resources

    Comments 28 Comments
    1. Robert Mitchell's Avatar
      Robert Mitchell -
      Thanks so much,,,really enjoyed the article!!!
    1. Tom C's Avatar
      Tom C -
      Great reading. Thanks.
    1. Russ Jordan's Avatar
      Russ Jordan -
      This is great--thanks!
    1. tkdboyd's Avatar
      tkdboyd -
      This is absolutely fantastic!
    1. John Soper's Avatar
      John Soper -
      Thank you MC and Don for putting this together. A wonderful tribute. And thank you, Don for continuing to spread the Gospel of Jethro!
    1. Tom Hart's Avatar
      Tom Hart -
      Thank you Mandolin Cafe, I've only read Stiernberg's and Bush's memories and needed to stop and recognize how much appreciate a site that would take the time to solicit and print these responses. Back to my reading now.
    1. Steve Lavelle's Avatar
      Steve Lavelle -
      Thanks for these articles! I knew of Jethro before I started playing mandolin as half of a country comedy act, but it wasn't until he started playing with Steve Goodman that I started to appreciate him. Now I have most of the recordings mentioned. Thanks for this further education and appreciation.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Certainly a lot of places we could have linked to, different Jethro resources, etc. One I hadn't thought of while preparing all this was The 1988 Jethro Burns Interview published here a couple of years ago that was buried in print and someone's computer for a long time before getting republished here.
    1. Drew Egerton's Avatar
      Drew Egerton -
      great reading, thanks to all that put it together!
    1. JEStanek's Avatar
      JEStanek -
      Fantastic tribute and music!

    1. MikeEdgerton's Avatar
      MikeEdgerton -
      "...But I will, and he'll be left all alone, not knowin' who to copy." And you know, he was right. I still try to play like Jethro.
    1. rickbella's Avatar
      rickbella -
      Thank you so much for posting this tribute. It inspires me to recalibrate my compass.
    1. mandopops's Avatar
      mandopops -
      Happy Birthday, Jethro. He was my 1st Mandolin teacher & he taught me well. His philosophy was if there is a tune you like, you can play it on a Mandolin, not limited by Genre. Here I am 40 years & still playing.
      Thanx, Jethro
      Joe B
    1. Don Grieser's Avatar
      Don Grieser -
      We have a Monroe Mandolin Camp. We need a Jethro Mandolin Camp. What do you say, Donnie?

      What a wonderful tribute to Jethro! Had me spellbound.
    1. Ken's Avatar
      Ken -
      Truly wonderful article, a beautiful tribute to Jethro. Thank you.
    1. tjmangum's Avatar
      tjmangum -
      Thanks, this is wonderful!
    1. NickR's Avatar
      NickR -
      There are not enough superlatives to do justice to Jethro Burns but the above appreciations go a long way to achieving this impossible goal.
    1. David Lewis's Avatar
      David Lewis -
      Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. Thank you Mandolin Cafe!
    1. Steve-o's Avatar
      Steve-o -
      Such a great read! Many thanks to the contributors and the Cafe!
    1. Stop's Avatar
      Stop -
      What a treat !. Thanks ST, DS and all Café Pals for inspiration and great cheer on this tribute.