• David Grisman and Don Stiernberg Discuss Jethro Burns

    Jethro BurnsPhoto credit: E.J. Stiernberg

    Jethro Burns' 100th birthday was approaching and it was clear the Mandolin Cafe would pay tribute to the master who deeply influenced so many. Help was needed to make sure it came off right. Who we'd ask for assistance included but one name: Don Stiernberg. One-time student, fellow gig companion, recorded with and helped preserve Jethro's legacy with several of his last recordings, life-long friend and confidant. Don was with Jethro to the end, and understands Jethro on another level.

    Heartfelt remembrances from legendary musicians moved by the memory of Jethro rolled in. After this article featuring original music and a conversation between David Grisman and Don Stiernberg, a biography of Jethro (also by Don) appears prior to links to a Part 2, accessed just below and at the bottom of this article. What a list of contributors!

    Thanks for help making this happen, Don. This could not have happened without you. Here's to the next 100 years of listening to Jethro's magic.

    Scott Tichenor
    Mandolin Cafe

    Don Stiernberg Interviews David Grisman

    What was your first exposure to Jethro's playing?

    I vaguely remember seeing the Homer & Jethro Kellog's Corn Flakes TV commercials in (I suppose) the late 1950s. Sometime around 1963 or 64 I bought the Playing It Straight LP at Sam Goody's in NYC and brought it to my friend Steve Arkin's house in Brooklyn to give it a listen. When the needle dropped down on the first cut, "If Dreams Come True," we didn't realize that the speed was set to 45 and not 33 rpm, so it was playing faster than normal. We didn't realize this right away because that song is fairly slow, but when Jethro started taking off on his solo with more notes, our jaws dropped! Hearing that record was certainly a revelation as I'd never heard jazz played on a mandolin.

    When did you first meet him in person?

    Well, Donnie, with you as my witness, I first met "The Great One" at a lesson I booked with him at Main Music in Skokie, Illinois, on a Tuesday afternoon in the summer of 1973. I was planning a cross country trip from the East coast and learned that Jethro gave lessons at that particular music store on Tuesdays, so I called on a Tuesday and booked a lesson, and planned my trip accordingly. It was an amazing lesson, to say the least, and after an hour or so, Jethro poked his head out the door and asked a teenaged kid if he wouldn't mind waiting a bit, because his current student (me) had come from California. That kid was you, Don! I remember that I was so inspired by Jethro that I bought a set of Black Diamond strings (his brand at the time) and immediately put them right on my F-5! They were off by the time I got back home! Several years later, when I started Mandolin World News, I got in touch with him and asked him if he'd like to contribute, and he generously offered "Jethro Speaks!" which became a regular feature.

    Did any of Jethro's approach to music and the mandolin make it's way into your style of playing/writing?

    Absolutely, and in countless ways. He had a way of combining a very disciplined, focused approach to studying the instrument with pure, light-hearted fun. Aside from stealing licks and trying to learn solos and tunes (which I never really could), Jethro was definitely a role model as a player and as a performer. He was so generous in sharing his wisdom, knowledge and also in the encouragement that he gave me in my efforts to have a career as a mandolinist and composer.

    Donnie, this interview inspired me to write a "chord melody" tribute to the master, "Ode To Jethro," in honor of his 100th birthday, and I just recorded it and its swinging corollary, "Jethro Swings" with Frank Vignola and my son Samson.

    "Ode to Jethro" and "Jethro Swings"

    Some of your shared history with Jethro happened around Evanston/Chicago — the journey to get a lesson, the (original) DGQ appearance at Pick-Staiger Hall (Northwestern University) where Jethro opened, playing solo mandolin. Any recollections?

    I certainly have many outstanding recollections from that time, but here's a humorous one: When Jethro opened the show for us at Northwestern U., he told a joke about installing a "new" phone message machine, which had the outgoing message, "You have reached the home of the World's Greatest Mandolin Picker, please leave your message and we'll get right back to you." The punch line was, when he listened to the first message, it said "Please have Mr. Grisman call me..." Well, aside being really flattered, I had a recording of that show, and subsequently used Jethro's outgoing message on my own answering machine!

    How would you assess the impact/influence Jethro had and has on mandolin players in general? Were any of his techniques innovative?

    Jethro has had an immense impact on us old-timers, (you, me, Sam Bush, Paul Glasse, Andy Statman and many others) and I know that his influence extends to many younger players as well (Aaron Weinstein and his many students). Innovation was Jethro's middle name as well. Most of his techniques were certainly new when applied to mandolin playing, although many of them can be traced to the great Italian masters of the instrument and the idea of adapting popular tunes of the day formed much of Dave Apollon's repertoire. Incidentally, Apollon was Jethro's favorite mandolin player! In my view, Jethro played a major role in the development of contemporary mandolin playing and should be seen in the context of a great continuum of which we both are, humbly, a part. We all owe him a huge debt!

    Jethro Burns - Tea For One

    You produced several of Jethro's best recordings, and in fact, most of the few from his huge discography that actually are about mandolin playing. Whose idea was it to make Tea For One? Back to Back? Any other recollections of those sessions and the associated gigs and hangs?

    The day I met Tiny Moore (at Tiny Moore Music in Sacramento) and found out that he and Jethro had never met I drove straight to the Kaleidoscope Records office on my way home and asked them if I could put Tiny and Jethro together and record the album which became Back To Back.

    Fortunately, they were very enthusiastic about the idea and allowed me to hire the stellar rhythm section of Ray Brown, Shelly Manne and Eldon Shamblin to back them up. I budgeted four 3-hour sessions for the project but they were done in three! It was a real joy to experience. They all were 59 years old at the time and I'll never forget that Tiny was in tears at the end. Both he and Jethro were blown away by that rhythm section and the fact that a record company cared enough to pull out all the stops! It was also a thrill for me personally to join them on a few cuts which featured three mandolins. Tea For One was also my idea, inspired by having Jethro as a solo opening act for the quintet. That record was recorded live (with an audience) in the studio to augment a few solo studio sessions without an audience. Again Kaleidoscope Records stepped up to the plate and made it possible. There were quite a few live performances with Tiny and Jethro and my quintet, including The Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, the Paul Masson Winery in Saratoga and the Austin City Limits TV show, which also included the great Johnny Gimble. They were all incredible musical experiences that I will never forget. It was a great privilege to be in the right place at the right time!

    Back to Back
    Back to Back, re-issue, not the original album art.

    Did Jethro ever say anything funny to you?

    No never. He was absolutely humorless ... NOT!

    Don Stiernberg on Jethro

    This article appeared in the summer 2009 issue of Mandolin Magazine (Editor: Ginny Hollon) and was originally entitled "Tribute to a Legend, A Legacy of Influence." The original also contained Don's transcriptions of Jethro's "Swing 39" Solo and "Body and Soul." Minor edits have been made from the original for the purpose of this publication.

    Kenneth Burns was born March 10, 1920, in northern Georgia. He didn't become Jethro till later, but not much later! His family moved early on to the Knoxville, Tennessee area, where he stayed until starting his professional career as a teenager. Part of a musical family, he ignored his oldest brother's admonition to "stay away from his mandolin."

    At age six he was up and running, playing tunes of the day such as "Little Brown Jug" and then fiddle tunes (which he called hoedowns), finally graduating to "standards" such as "Dinah," "Sweet Sue," and "Bugle Call Rag." His eclecticism and flexibility was clearly established early on, as he delved into the musics of his day and locale--country, pop, and jazz.

    In 1932 Knoxville superstation WNOX hosted a talent contest. Jethro and his brother Aitchie (guitar) attended and found themselves in a backstage jam with another Knoxville guitarist, Henry Haynes (Homer).

    Hearing the great playing, the man in charge presented the twelve-year-olds (Homer and Jethro) bad news and good news. First, they were disqualified from the contest. Second, they were hired by WNOX as staff musicians.

    Most likely no one considered at the time that the forty-year, forty-album, Grammy winning, wildly successful partnership known as Homer and Jethro had begun.

    Homer and Jethro recorded as teenagers:

    First came the band known as The String Dusters: Burns, Haynes, Aitchie (now on bass) and Knoxville guitar legend Charlie Hagaman. The comedy that Homer and Jethro would become renowned for initially began as an effort to break up the music. Their technique was to mimic the sweet country-sounding vocal style of the "brother duets" (specifically The Blue Sky Boys), but applied to pop tunes such as "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." Both radio and live audiences responded and soon backwoods personae and costumes (blacked-out teeth, huge shoes) were added.

    Despite a deal with an understanding high school principal allowing for regular work on "The Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round," the two inseperable musician/comedians soon needed to re-arrange their schedules. They dropped out of high school as juniors. Bear in mind this was circa 1935, between the two World Wars, with the country in the throes of The Great Depression.

    Jethro's father was a tap-dancing vaudevillian who modeled show-business professionalism and gifted him his first "good" mandolin, a Gibson A-4. Perhaps this was the encouragement Jethro needed to strike out on his own at such a tender age. The keenly intelligent mandolinist left school, but his education was far from over.

    When Charlie and Aitchie both got married and off the road, the duet headed to Cincinnati, Ohio, and landed a gig on The Renfro Valley Barn Dance. In this pre-television era, national stardom was established by this type of nationally syndicated show. The boys were on their way.

    Then in 1942 they were on their way again, to serve their country. Private Burns had ten months of front-line duty in the Fiji Islands, while on the other side of the world Henry Haynes fought in Italy.

    Miraculously they both survived, found each other upon their return, and picked up where they left off. This time they were carried by WLW in Cincinnati and given their own 15 minute Saturday slot. The other entertainers were a literal dream team: Chet Atkins, Rosemary Clooney, Merle Travis, and a singing duet called the Johnson Twins. The identical sisters were Lois ("Gussie") and Leona. Jethro married Lois, Chet married Leona. A pivotal gig to say the least.

    National radio exposure led to recording opportunities, first as session sidemen(Grandpa Jones, Delmore Brothers, Mainer's Mountaineers, Moon Mullican, et al) then doing their own act parodying pop tunes of the day in character. The immediate success of those records forced them to confront intellectual property issues.

    No less than the country's hottest and best songwriter, Hank Williams, wrote a letter (in pencil) giving Homer and Jethro permission to do what they pleased with his songs. Virtually all of the prominent songwriters of the day followed suit. Hank Williams stated, "A song's not that good until it's been butchered by Homer and Jethro."

    An extended gig at The Chicago Theatre, the building of O'Hare Airport, and the existence of two Major League baseball teams brought Homer and Jethro to the Chicago area. There they bought houses, started families, and lived the rest of their lives.

    The 1960's were an incredible time for the the childhood friends/veterans/superstars. They parodied everything from Elvis and the Beatles to Patti Page, Jimmy Dean, and Johnny Cash. There was a Grammy Award (Best Comedy record) for "How Much is That Doggie In the Winder?," a series of commercials for Kellogg's Corn Flakes, appearances on every major TV variety show, and rat-pack style touring from Florida to Las Vegas. One reliable source stated that they earned more in annual salary than President John F. Kennedy.

    All the while the comedy and country personae were balanced by swinging jazz instrumentalism. Shows would be opened, closed, and occasionally interrupted by Basie, Ellington, or George Gershwin tunes as well as tunes by contemporary writers such as Michel LeGrand. All were done "straight" (no comedy) with Jethro playing swinging Django and Benny Goodman influenced lines over Homer's swinging pulse and modern guitar voicings.

    Homer & Jethro - Playing It Straight

    Happily, two of their RCA albums document their masterful instrumental style: "Playing It Straight" (LSP 2459, 1960) and "It Ain't Necessarily Square" (LSP 3701, 1962). Pay what you must to find and hear these. They are the "Holy Grail" for jazz mandolinists and should be of interest to mandolinists of any style.

    In 1972 the duo was driving separately to gigs, having been together for 40 years. At one appearance Jethro waited and Homer did not arrive. He had been felled by a heart attack at age 52. The shock understandably sent Jethro into a depression and he took time to figure out what to do next. His wife "Gussie" suggested he teach lessons "to get out of the house." In addition to a full roster of Chicagoland students, influential players of all stripes (David Grisman, Sam Bush, Mark O'Connor) made the mecca to cop tunes and licks from "The Great One."

    Many of these lessons, having been recorded on cassette tape, are now traded and shared on the internet by collectors and students. The brilliant master of music Ken Eidson was initially a Jethro student and wound up transcribing his work into three Mel Bay tutorials, now still in print as one volume: "Mel Bay's Complete Jethro Burns Mandolin Book."

    Jethro's son Johnny, himself a mighty guitarist, took his father to a club to see Chicago's favorite son songwriter Steve Goodman. Identifying with his lyrical and entertaining skills, Jethro offered his services. Once again the deal was sealed by Mrs. Burns, who called Goodman and said, "Please take him on tour!" It should be noted that in the Burns household, "Gussie" was the funniest.

    Goodman did take Jethro on tour, effectively giving him a new career and introducing him to a new legion of fans. Also in this time frame The Jethro Burns Quartet was created for touring. They opened many shows for Goodman, The Newgrass Revival, and others. The loss of Homer was not something anyone could get over, but Jethro was back.

    During this latter phase in his career Jethro developed the chord-melody playing which became one of his most important contributions to the mandolin playing lexicon. This technique occurred both from necessity (more solo gigs) and as a hobby.

    Melodies were harmonized and presented by two, three, or four strings at once. The arrangements also include moving voices within the chords and color tones (6, 9, 11, 13) in the manner of jazz guitar or piano. Best evidence of this work is on the ground-breaking album "Tea For One" (Kaleidescope Records F14, not yet reissued, produced by David Grisman) and his final recordings "Kenneth 'Jethro' Burns Legacy Sessions," which are comprised of three CDs worth, "Swing Low Sweet Mandolin," "Bye Bye Blues," and "Tater Bug Rag," of duet versions of favorite tunes of Jethro's. They are available at Acoustic Disc. The Mel Bay book also contains a few chord-melody arrangements and insights into what voicings he used to create them.

    The other hallmark of Jethro's style was all of those long, flowing, swinging melody lines. A case can be made that modern mandolin style is a synthesis of the styles of Bill Monroe and Jethro Burns. Both played blues and fiddle tunes, but from very different rhythmic perspectives.

    Adapting the jazz language of his day to the instrument, Jethro's improvised melodies had few pauses or stops, usually flowing along like a Benny Goodman clarinet solo.

    Interestingly, while he claimed to not enjoy bebop, his harmonic choices did include flatted fifths and ninths, and chord voicings including sharp elevenths and thirteenths. This makes sense given his love of jazz guitarists such as Django, Oscar Moore, Wes Montgomery, and artists such as Joe Venuti and Coleman Hawkins, the Count Basie Orchestra, and Ray Charles.

    Given the difficulty of locating the Homer and Jethro instrumental recordings, the best exposure to his melodic style is found on "Back to Back," the historic pairing with fellow jazz mandolinist Tiny Moore, produced by David Grisman originally for Kaleidescope, now available at Acoustic Disc.

    Jethro's mandolin artistry was sometimes overshadowed by his personality, typified by his lightning-quick wit and seemingly immeasurable relaxed confidence. A person who spent nearly a year on the front lines in a war is not likely to be bothered again by details or what people think. Consequently, he was always holding court with a style Steve Goodman described best: "I never heard him play or say anything that wasn't what everyone else in the room wished they had played or said."

    As a teacher Jethro was supportive and gave of his expertise generously. If a student rubbed him the wrong way with cockiness, however, he was not above trouncing him with things that only he could play. Similarly, would-be comedians were often treated as hecklers would be on stage.

    Although he could read music, lessons were conducted by ear and eye. If there was a particular voicing that needed emphasis he would rivet a gaze on the student, thus engaging his musical ear and digital memory. He emphasized clean single-note playing and "the right chords."

    Teaching, touring, practicing, and playing simply for fun continued well past the half-century mark of his career right to the end of his life. At one point he got interested in how many tunes he knew, stopping the counting out of boredom at 800. A cancer diagnosis in his middle sixties was met with typical humor: "They told me I'm not going to die right away, which is good, 'cuz that would ruin my whole summer."

    His response to this situation was to play more mandolin, recording as much as possible, revisiting the beloved "standards" of his youth, those recordings became the aforementioned "Legacy Sessions." His last appearance in public was as a guest of his brother-in-law Chet Atkins (also his favorite musician) in concert at Chicago's Orchestra Hall. Jethro held the audience spellbound for some time simply talking, mercilessly making fun of everything and anyone, then of course taking care of business with his famous red A-5 Florentine when the music started.

    At this point in history we can feel fortunate that a fair amount of Jethro recordings and materials are available for research and study. We can also feel confident that as the next 100 years unfold mandolin playing musicians will be looking to his brilliant artistry for inspiration, trying to figure out how he did what he did, and how in the world he thought of it.

    Additional Information

    Comments 13 Comments
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      I want to once again thank Don Stiernberg for all of the heavy lifting work that made these two articles possible. The past 30 days have been the busiest in the history of this web site and without Don making all the contacts, gathering and editing much of the content and suggesting improvements it simply would not have happened.
    1. AlanN's Avatar
      AlanN -
      Thank you (x 10)!

      Just with a brief review of this page, it's evident the work, thought and love that went into it. Will delve deeper later.

      Too Marvelous For Words...
    1. avanti's Avatar
      avanti -
      This really made my day. I'm not talented enough to play like Jethro, but he has been an incredible inspiration to me. I remember meeting him a few time in the late 70s and early 80s and he was always funny, kind and encouraging. Thanks so much for this remembrance!
    1. Nick Royal's Avatar
      Nick Royal -
      When I was maybe in high school, I knew only Homer and Jethro as a comic duo. I had no sense of their skills as musicians! Later (much later) taking up the mandolin with a passion I learned more about Jethro Burns from workshops with Don and then listening to the two of them play duos realized what amazing musicians they both were.
    1. Ken's Avatar
      Ken -
      What a great and incredibly rich article. Certainly made my day and when I read and listen again tomorrow it will make tomorrow too. Thank you.
    1. tjmangum's Avatar
      tjmangum -
      I was blessed to see Jethro accompany Steve Goodman many times in the 70's. I didn't know then what I know now, but it wasn't hard to see that he was a consummate musician and entertainer. I loved them then and with 40 some odd years of experience, I know now I experienced two musical geniuses.
      Thanks so much for this wonderful tribute!
    1. theinone's Avatar
      theinone -
      Thanks to all who contributed to this remembrance of Jethro. I had to go back and read the interview I did with him those years ago and how gracious he was to do the workshop with my students that weekend he was in town. May we all be as friendly and generous as he was. https://www.mandolincafe.com/forum/c...urns-Interview
    1. Frankdolin's Avatar
      Frankdolin -
      Thanks for helping for keep Jethro front and center where he belongs! He was my first and most important "famous" mandolin player. It just so happened that he was one of the most amazing humans also.
    1. Todd Bowman's Avatar
      Todd Bowman -
      Thanks for publishing these here! Worth the reading/listening time for sure!
    1. mandolinfox's Avatar
      mandolinfox -
      When I first heard the Acoustic Disc CD Swing Low, Sweet Mandolin in the 1990's, my world changed. I bought the other one the next day, and started listening to Lester Young and Charlie Christian with the thought that "Hey, this can be played on the mandolin". I became curious about the rhythm guitar player, and I found out that he had jazz mandolin recordings too. Now I have everything available by both of them, as well as Paul Glasse, Will Patton, and anyone else who has played jazz mandolin. I proudly call myself a Stiernberg disciple. Now if I could only learn how to spell his name!
    1. Greg Schochet's Avatar
      Greg Schochet -
      There can never be enough said about Jethro, but your coverage does the man and his music justice. Well done!
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Noting the anniversary of this feature.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Noting the anniversary of this feature.