You won’t pigeonhole Jon Stickley.
The Asheville, North Carolina-based guitar player, with ties to Durango through Broke Mountain Bluegrass Band, would on paper be a bluegrass musician. Outside his bluegrass time in Durango, he’s made rounds in the bluegrass, newgrass and jam-grass world. But he’s also a punk and indie-rock lover who came of age in the musically fertile early to mid-90s with a love for Fugazi or Archers of Loaf as much as Tony Rice.
He’s led the Jon Stickley Trio since 2012, which along with Stickley on acoustic guitar, is Lyndsay Pruett on fiddle and Hunter Deacon on drums. They remain an instrumental beast of a band that, while using bluegrass as a musical base, can zip into jazz with break-beats or soft melodies can give way to a load of musical momentum.
The band has just released its fourth full-length album, “Scripting the Flip,” on North Carolina’s Organic Records.
The trio formed after Stickley had been recruited to play guitar in a one-off event in North Carolina. Pruett had been recruited to be in that band as well, and a musical connection was made.
“I glommed on to her right away,” Stickley said.
Legendary punk band Minutemen had a very diplomatic approach when it came to presentation and musical roles; they too were a trio, and each individual was an equal partner in the music. Now musically, the Jon Stickley Trio is nothing like Minutemen, with the exception that they’ll turn presupposed notions of sound on its head. However, they have that same diplomatic approach, where no one person is musically more important than another.
“We’re going for equal third,” Stickley said. “The band from the beginning was all about do our own thing – be creative, have fun, let’s not get too uptight about performance. The early trio was very loose. Now it’s not at all like it was, and that’s a good thing. We’ve reined it in a little bit and left space for experimentation, looseness. But there’s also a lot more of a plan. Everyone likes to know what’s going on.”
The record begins with the somber, fiddle-heavy “(Intro) Walk With Me,” before breaking into “Fighting Chance.” It opens the record like a film score and immediately showcases both Stickley’s and Pruett’s talents.
The title track is a perfect example of how these songs transfer over to the live setting: It starts with Stickley playing a Spaghetti-Western rhythm, Pruett’s fiddle comes in, then midway, Deacon begins driving the band with a techno beat. It’s songs like this that drive their live performance.
“The songs usually start from a root or seed element,” Stickley said. “It could be a drumbeat, or a groove, and then I just mess around with chords or work out a progression that fits over it. Because now we play live so much, we start to realize that a lot of our songs do this, so I’ll consciously think of a different way a song should feel that we can play live and add something else to the show.”
Stickley’s longtime buddy and musical partner Andy Thorn lends his banjo to the new-grass “Driver,” while “Checkered Past” is a jazz-fusion cut that moonlights as a ska tune.
The one cover on the record, Kenny Baker’s “Bluegrass in the Backwoods,” is turned into a gypsy-jazz tune with Pruett’s fiddle.
The beauty in “Scripting the Flip” is its unpredictability. Their sound is that of an experimental acoustic trio that can move from Western-noir to gypsy-jazz with relative ease, all with a bluegrass base.
“We have a really hard time classifying the music of the trio,” Stickley said. “There’s so many elements of so many different things. It goes all over the place and crosses all the lines, but there’s parts of it that are very bluegrass. The technique I’m using on guitar is a very bluegrass-oriented style. I think you can say ‘that’s bluegrass,’ there’s no doubt about it. And it rocks.”
Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager. Reach him at email@example.com.