An Unlikely Rebel; Jimmy Gaudreau – By Steve Romanoski (with permission)
Jimmy Gaudreau has ridden the crest of the progressive wave in bluegrass since he first rode southward from his Rhode Island home to replace a virtual legend in the music.
Gaudreau admits to being “a product of the folk boom,” after being exposed to the mainstream folk sounds of The Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul & Mary in the 1960s. And, while he initially focused his attention on folk music and the acoustic guitar, he remembers “about the time I first heard Earl Scruggs play banjo, I went nuts and decided that I wanted to be a banjo player.” Then, after hitting a few jam sessions Jimmy gravitated toward his life as a mandolin player.
Fate stepped into Jimmy Gaudreau’s life in early 1969 as the young musician was presented with an opportunity to join The Country Gentlemen. “A guy that I had been playing with, one of my early mentors, Fred Pike, an extremely fine banjo and guitar player from the Connecticut area and his brother Earl was a Rebel distributor in the New England region. Earl found out that John Duffey was quitting (The Country Gentlemen) and put the bug in Dick Freeland’s (then owner of Rebel Records) ear. It was that kind of a situation.”
Jimmy auditioned for the open position and was offered the job. “I had to make an on-the-spot decision”, Gaudreau recalled, “because The Country Gentlemen had a Japanese tour booked that consequently didn’t materialize and they had to have somebody that was a quick study and could do the job. I didn’t have any time to make up my mind.”
In 1969, The Country Gentlemen were considered to be one of the top bands of bluegrass and gaining a slot with the ensemble was an achievement for a young, and unknown, mandolinist. And Gaudreau admitted that “I was not so much intimidated by them, and the music, but I was extremely intimidated by the fact that John Duffey had been there before me and I was going to viewed as his replacement, or the guy to fill his shoes. And, me or anybody else, that ain’t gonna happen!”
Thus, a new era of The Country Gentlemen was born with a line-up of Charlie Waller, Ed Farris, Eddie Adcock and Jimmy Gaudreau. Gaudreau adjusted to his new environment and presented an interesting observation about bringing a newcomer in to an established ensemble. “You’re scrutinized by all of the fans. Everybody came out to see the new guy.” Gaudreau recalled his early days as a Country Gentleman. “We were playing at The Shamrock as a, weekly, regular gig that they had cultivated years before I came down here. It was their home in D.C. So all of the fans came there, on my first night, to give me once over and then, a few weeks later, John Duffey came in. You could hear the whispers in the crowd as we were going to the stage. Duffey’s here, Duffey’s here!” However, Jimmy stood his ground and showed the world that he belonged on that stage. “I just sucked it up and did the best that I could. Then, I went down to talk to him during the break. He gave me a critique and advice that would stay with me from that night on.”
John Duffey told Gaudreau that he loved Jimmy’s mandolin work and that his singing was a good fit for the Country Gentlemen “You need to work a little bit more on selling it!” In essence Jimmy commented that Duffey offered that he should “concentrate on being an entertainer as well as a technician.”
Duffey’s advice was readily absorbed by the young Gaudreau who later commented, “I can’t say that I succeeded, but I tried. I’ve been very lucky to get hooked up a lot of players who share that same attitude.”
The first Country Gentlemen recording to feature Jimmy Gaudreau was New Look, New Sound, released on Rebel Records (SLP-1490) in 1970. The band, at this point included bassist Ed McGlothlin, whom Jimmy had know from his early days on the New England bluegrass circuit. And Gaudreau is quick to recognize Eddie Adcock’s contributions to the band. “Eddie Adcock was the primary force (for finding new material) after Duffey. He kind of grabbed the reins and the new album (New Look, New Sound) was by and large stuff that he came up with.” However, while Jimmy wasn’t involved in bringing material to the band, Adcock gave the new mandolinist the freedom to expand as an instrumentalist. “He (Adcock) asked me to contribute, what I could, instrumentally and I think that I came up with one or two ideas for that album.”
Yet The Country Gentlemen welcomed creative energy. Jimmy commented that “there wasn’t a heck of a lot of rehearsal time. They used The Shamrock as a place to break in the material for about anything they did, including the albums. They’d rehearse it in the back room and then go out and immediately perform it on stage. That’s how I got my start.”
As with any new player who joins an established ensemble, there were rights of passage to endure. In the case of Jimmy Gaudreau it was his accent. “The guys were skeptical of my New England accent, which, back in 1969, was a lot stronger than it is now. I had a, very much, Rhode Island accent when I came down here and Adcock would joke about it on stage. It was clean fun and I got a charge out of it.”
Bob Artis best summed up Gaudreau’s entry into the world of bluegrass in his early history, entitled simply, Bluegrass. “Gaudreau’s accent was strictly New England, but his music was pure Country Gentlemen, and the band didn’t drop a single note in a quick period of readjustment.”
Then, in 1971, Jimmy Gaudreau was offered an opportunity to venture into another direction with a new band. That ensemble was The II Generation! “Eddie (Adcock) had left The Country Gentlemen in 1970 and went off to California for a while. When he came back, he was looking to form a band. Eddie had a concept idea of what he wanted to do with a new group and he approached me with it. I thought it was a good idea and I stayed for a year.”
While Adcock’s ensemble was creating a stir and developing a sound of its own, Jimmy felt that he needed to hold more toward the bluegrass side of his personality. “It started going off in a direction that I didn’t foresee from the beginning. Something other than bluegrass, which I was still very much into at the time. So I just made the decision to go off and test the waters.”
Gaudreau put together a band that would satisfy his desire to bring himself back into bluegrass. “I had a little bit of a name from the Gents and the II Generation showing up in the trade magazines. So I recruited Keith Whitley who had been playing with Ralph Stanley and, at that time, Carl Jackson who had been working with Jim & Jessie and The Sullivan Family down in Mississippi and is a great banjo player. We formed a group called The Country Store, which I did for about two and a half years, until 1975.”
The Country Store also captured the interest of the progressive wing of bluegrass and became an important element in the developing avant-garde movement that was building within the sound. And, while the band made inroads to the mainstream of bluegrass, it was not accomplished without the inevitability of change.
“We had a couple of lead singers. Keith Whitley left and went back to Ralph Stanley because of the death of Roy Lee Centers. I recruited a local guy here by the name of Chris Stifel. We recorded some stuff with him, on Rebel. It was one of those bands that got to a certain point, not a headliner by any means, and we were pecking away and making a living. But because of so many personnel changes and just the exasperation. the feeling that it was like an uphill all the time. I was ready to do something else by 1975.”
Gaudreau’s next step brought him into a band that has consistently redefined the boundaries of bluegrass and has an impact that remains as an influence in bluegrass, and the related jamgrass movement, to this day. Jimmy’s next step was to join J.D. Crowe & the New South!
“When Tony Rice, Ricky Skaggs and Jerry Douglas left J.D. Crowe; the word went out that he was looking to reform his band down in Kentucky.” And, not unlike his past experience, Jimmy saw an opportunity and jumped on it! “That just involved a phone call,” he says, “I called J.D. and he said man, if you’re interested, get on down here because I need you! So I moved to Kentucky and joined J.D. Crowe & the New South.”
The transition into Crowe’s high-energy unit was not a burden to the now veteran mandolinist. “The only thing that I had to woodshed on was the fact that Crowe was such a strong banjo player and I had not ever been used to playing anything at that speed. When he tore into something, it was all you could do to hold on to it.” And he laughs as he recalls, “I had to work at getting my chops up to speed with him.”
Being a part of the New South was a pleasant experience for Gaudreau. “It was wonderful,” he acknowledges, “that’s some of the best years for me musically and… the camaraderie of being with guys like that. We were just all really good friends; we did a lot of pranks together.” He wraps up his overview of the New South with the description, “it was like a fraternal order or brotherhood of bluegrass players with that band. It was a lot of fun and I learned a lot about drive and hard-core bluegrass music working with Crowe. That’s probably the closest that I’ve come, in my entire career actually, of playing real straight-ahead bluegrass.”
J.D. Crowe & the New South was a radical ensemble that totally dominated bluegrass during the 1970s. Crowe was determined to project his music beyond the point of expectation and produced several classic recordings during that period. Perhaps his most underrated was a project from 1979, that reunited Gaudreau with Keith Whitley, entitled My Home Ain’t In The Hall Of Fame (Rounder).
Jimmy remembers, “It seemed to be, in the 70s, bands were experimenting a lot. On the album that preceded My Home Ain’t In The Hall Of Fame, Von Can Share My Blanket (Rounder, out of print), which was Glen Lawson singing lead; Crowe wanted to infiltrate steel guitar. I may be wrong, but I don’t think he had used one (steel guitar) on any of his albums before then. But Crowe always had it in his mind that he wanted to be a little bit more commercial. And when Glen Lawson came aboard some of the material just leaned that way. When Keith Whitley came aboard, a lot of it leaned that way!”
When the subject of Keith Whitley arose, Jimmy reflected on his old friend. “(The material) was one of the things that convinced Keith Whitley that he needed to be with the New South. Again, he had gone back to Ralph Stanly and was looking to make a change or get more involved in country music, which he eventually did as we all know, but the move to J.D. Crowe & the New South was an interim for him that allowed him to play bluegrass and a bit of country.”
My Home Ain’t In The Hall Of Fame shook the bluegrass world with Crowe’s free use of steel guitar and drums to augment a hard-driving bluegrass ensemble that included Bobby Slone on fiddle, bassist Steve Bryant, Crowe, Whitley and Jimmy Gaudreau. The project’s influence transcends the passing years and should certainly be viewed as a direct influence on the current jamgrass phenomenon. Gaudreau contributed as the tenor harmony to Whitley’s twangy country leads, while cultivating an individually stylistic mandolin attack that, while occasionally laid well into the foundation of the arrangements, breaks through the thick mix with pure abandon when called upon to solo. And, while Gaudreau was certainly a contributor on the instrumental side of Crowe’s production, he notes that the band’s material came from another source. “Crowe left that to his lead singers; to select material that they could excel on.”
As Crowe’s artistic focus remained radical, Jimmy Gaudreau was presented with an opportunity to join a band that included a young banjo phenomenon named Bela Fleck. Spectrum was a unit that thrived on total innovation. Yet joining this incredible ensemble meant that Jimmy would have to give notice to J.D. Crowe. “That was a sad day in my life and I had mixed emotions about leaving J.D. I loved that band! But I’ve made a lot of changes because I’m adventurous and I’m always looking to explore new ground.”
“I was intrigued, immensely, by Bela Fleck’s banjo playing” Gaudreau explains, “and the possibilities that we had to do things a little beyond of the bluegrass realm. I’m a western swing fan, for one thing, and Bela could play just about anything he wanted, including swing, on a banjo. The initial rehearsals that we had with that group proved to be something that clicked, really well, for me. I had to give it a shot! It was a situation where I had to make up my mind and go back to square one. And that’s always the case, when you start a new band, no matter what your name is or the experience you have. When you start out with a new band name; you start at square one!”
Kentucky, at that time, was a hotbed of bluegrass activity with numerous venues to play and an active audience. Jimmy commented that “we were living in Lexington (Kentucky) and had opportunities to do some of the same things that Crowe was doing as far as working at the Holiday Inn (in Lexington) and places around Louisville like The Great American Music Hall. So our calendar got full pretty quick.”
Spectrum recorded two projects for Rounder Records in 1982 (Too Hot To Handle) and 1983 (Live In Japan) before they faded into bluegrass legend. Gaudreau concluded that Spectrum never achieved a level of bluegrass success because, “we weren’t together long enough to get to full fruition because Bela was offered a job (to play with The Newgrass Revival). We knew, going in, that somewhere along the line he was going to get noticed or he was going to go off on his own and do something. He was just that good. As it turned out that Courtney Johnson and Curtis Burch had left The Newgrass Revival and they were looking for a banjo player and Bela Fleck was the first person that they looked at was Bela Fleck. That’s what happened to Spectrum!”
Spectrum was now in an upheaval, so the band got together to discuss the future. Mark Schatz decided to follow Bela to Nashville and see if he could break into session work and side projects, while Glen Lawson chose to return to school. “The word then got around that Spectrum was breaking up,” Jimmy remembered, “it took about five minutes for The Country Gentlemen to find out that I was out of a job. The phone rang and it was Bill Yates asking me if I had any idea as to what I was going to do at this point? I was thinking about Nashville myself or reforming something or another in Kentucky.”
Yates then offered Jimmy Gaudreau an offer that “was very hard to turn down,” and Jimmy accepted the opportunity to replace Rick Allred and rejoin The Country Gentlemen. Jimmy’s second tenure with The Country Gentlemen lasted from 1981 until 1985 and featured the release of Good As Gold (Sugar Hill Records), which was hailed, in a Washington Post review, as the band’s best work in a decade.
And this time around the audience was decidedly entrenched in Gaudreau’s camp. “The audience thought it was just like the old days. People would come up to me saying, man it’s great to see the band like this now and others just saying or coming up to me (to say) I hope you stay…it sounds so good! And I hung in there until 1985 when, again, I was faced with another decision.”
While Jimmy Gaudreau was becoming a mainstay on the bluegrass circuit with The Country Gentlemen, Tony Rice was making a decision to return from the west-coast and create a new band, with a truly unique sound. Jimmy recalls that, “Tony Rice was on the west coast, working first with Dave Grisman, that was the reason that he left J.D. Crowe, and then he went on to form the instrumental version of The Tony Rice Unit in San Francisco. When he dropped that, and decided to come back east, he wanted to do another version of the Tony Rice Unit, but he wanted it to be a vocal band as well. He wanted to start singing again.” And, not unlike his prior auditions, he was accepted into the fold quickly. “Somebody suggested me (to join the band). So we got together, and hit a few licks. Then he said, I can’t offer you a steady paycheck like The Country Gentlemen have you on, but we can make some good music together. And that we did!”
In reminiscing about his tenure with Rice, Jimmy says, “we went along for several years until Tony added Rickie Simpkins on fiddle. Then, when Schatz left to join Tim O’ Brien, Tony recruited Rickie’s brother, Ronnie Simpkins on bass. Every version of that band that I was involved with was killer! I just loved it!”
The Tony Rice Unit, at that time, pioneered a balance of contemporary vocal offerings alongside the intricate jazz instrumentals that Rice composed, or arranged, for his earlier “New Acoustic” ensemble. Gaudreau found the new instrumental side of Rice’s music to be a true challenge. “That was the toughest stuff, for me, to catch on to. He told me, look, I’m not going to force this on you. But he suggested the stuff that I should listen to. John Reischman, who I admire very much as a mandolin player…he’s just a superb instrumentalist…was playing in the original Unit, so I listened to a lot of the stuff that he did and got idea on how to play Tony’s jazzgrass, for lack of a better term.” And he wrapped up his observations by saying “if he (Tony Rice) had thrown the jazz at me right at the beginning, I would have been more than intimidated, I would have run out the back door. But he lead me through it in such an easy manner that I didn’t run for cover.”
The band probably hit its zenith when Rice released the all-instrumental Unit Of Measure (Rounder) in 2000. The recording features high-energy music that transcended all barriers of measure. Gaudreau is featured in a “take no prisoners” rave-out of Sally Goodin’ that the group recorded live in 1993. I asked Jimmy if he remembered that performance. “I don’t remember that particular show, but I remember, many nights, we ended the performance with that. Because it was the blow-out tune. After you’ve exhausted 90% of your energy, you’d fuel the last 10% of it into that song. We played it, just about, as hard and adventurous as we could get. There was a lot of spots where Tony would look at us and say lean back because I’m going to do an extended solo that’s gonna go into the ozone and back.” However, as is the case with any truly creative ensemble, all of the pieces had their role in the total picture. “Everybody got their space and you could play as much, or as little, as you wanted to.”
Jimmy then talked about the rush that he got as a member of The Tony Rice Unit. “When you get on the stage with a band like that and you just get inspired. If you don’t get inspired by being around guys that can play at that level; you don’t belong there! And I knew that going into The Tony Rice Unit, which was one of the things that I had to think about (when he joined the Tony Rice Unit). I was playing with The Country Gentlemen, who play cut and dried material just about every night. The set list doesn’t vary too much and there isn’t a heck of a lot of improvisation going on. And now, I get a chance to work with Tony Rice whose philosophy was that if you played the same break twice, you’re not thinking about it.”
Obviously Gaudreau is no stranger to the art of improvisation, after working with master musicians throughout his career; yet joining the Rice ensemble took the style to a whole new level. “I already had some schooling in that (improvisation) by being around Bela Fleck, and, actually, Eddie Adcock. But I never had it to the extent of what The Unit brought it to. The Unit was full bore, adventuresome!”
And, while Jimmy readily concurs that his time with The Tony Rice Unit was the most exciting musical experience, on the instrumental side, of his career, he cites the band that he moved on to afterward as being the finest vocal band that he had ever worked with. That band was Chesapeake! Chesapeake boasted a roster that included Moondie Klein on guitar, T. Michael Coleman on bass, dobroist Mike Auldridge and Gaudreau. It was hardly an ensemble created to set the world on fire, “we just merely got a band together for fun.” Jimmy recalled, “The Tony Rice Unit was winding down because of his (Tony Rice) vocal problems. Actually, in ’94, is when he quit singing. I could see it coming. So I approached Mike Auldridge with the idea of doing apart-time, in-town, band to play a night a week in one of the local places. And, back then, there were plenty of places.” Gaudreau brought Klein into the mix and Auldridge recruited Coleman. However, he Jimmy stressed, “they (Auldridge and Coleman) didn’t think that they were going to be leaving the Scene, or that anything was in jeopardy.” However, the prospects for the newly formed band began to blossom in short order. “As often happens, one thing leads to another. We started recording and the recordings started sounded great…Sugar Hill offers us a deal to record as that band and then, all of a sudden (John) Starling quits The Seldom Scene and they offer Moondie a job to play with them, over at The Seldom Scene. We’re doing Chesapeake as well with our own separate recording project. That went on until ’96, or late ’95, when they (Klein, Coleman and Auldridge) made the decision that they were going to leave The Scene and pursue Chesapeake as a full-time job.”
This new band was really a bridge for bluegrass into a new frontier and the quartet decided to approach the project from an unusual angle. “We had it in our minds that at the end of the CD deal that we had with Sugar Hill.. if we weren’t making a good living and making some waves with the powers that be, we would go our separate ways. Essentially, that’s what we did! The band recorded three projects for Sugar Hill, the third was called Pier Pressure, which featured Linda Ronstadt on one of the tunes. It got a lot of airplay, but never really got us to that next level that we were looking for. Jimmy notes that, “Sugar Hill wasn’t looking to renew the contract and we didn’t have any other deals brewing, so we decided to do something else.”
Jimmy thought that Chesapeake was a band which was ahead of it’s time. “The bluegrass people didn’t like us because we didn’t have a banjo…we were, more or less, an acoustic country band. There are bands, that followed us that have capitalized things like that.”
Auldridge and Gaudreau continued their artistic partnership in a short-lived band with guitarist Richard Bennett. The trio recorded two projects for Rebel and went on a limited schedule of touring before the logistic arrangements created a situation where the band was doomed to break up. “That’s when Robin Williams called.”
Robin & Linda Williams are veteran performers and songwriters that actively develop music that holds to no label. They are equally at home playing to a bluegrass audience, a folk festival or a country music concert. Gaudreau has been an exceptional fit for the band, which also features Jim Watson, and has brought his unique mandolin style to an entirely new audience. “The song writing is just phenomenal,” Jimmy enthusiastically offers; “some of the stuff that they’ve written is just breathtaking. Lyrically it’s some of the finest stuff that I’ve ever heard. A little more on the folk-country side,” they’ve never been a real, true, bluegrass band, ever, but the stuff that they play is really good down-home country music.”
Jimmy Gaudreau has certainly helped Robin & Linda Williams mold their sound into a free-style that should be of great interest in bluegrass circles. “I think if they’d (bluegrass bands) listen to the latest project that they have out, Deeper Waters on Red House Records, they could latch on to several right off of that CD that would break right over into bluegrass.”
“We’re family on the road and they have a very heavy touring schedule,” he laughs, “just a bunch of ol dogs out there travelin’ these days and having a ball doing it.”
But those who currently watch Gaudreau’s mando magic are newcomers. “They’ve (Robin & Linda Williams) have cultivated their audience through places like Prairie Home Companion and their record market.” He explains further; “they’ve played more on the folk circuit that I’ve been used to. I knew it existed, I just didn’t know it was that big or that extensive. They have no problem filling their calendar with as much work as they want to do. Some of the festivals are as big as the ones, or bigger, than the bluegrass festivals that I’ve played.”
Currently, in addition to his appearances with The Williams’, Jimmy had developed a musical connection with guitarist Orrin Star. “I met Orrin, years ago, when I joined The Tony Rice Unit on one of the first dates we did in Boston. Tony introduced Orrin and said that “this guy’s a heck of a guitar player,’ and never crossed paths with him until this year.” Starr had decided to relocate to the Washington D.C./Baltimore area and wanted to get together and play some. “Right from the very first,” Jimmy recalled, “we could read each other. I could taste the licks that he was about to hit, and vise-versa. It was like the same guy playing both instruments, it fell in the groove that quickly!”
The duo booked some engagements in the D.C. area and will be exploring the possibilities of a west-coast tour sometime early in 2005 and any other opportunities in the future.
Overall, Jimmy Gaudreau has made a career out of finding trends before they become popular. His presence has graced much of the great work of progressive bluegrass and he continues to forge ahead with innovation and taste. He can recall a plethora of grand moments from a stellar career. “Jam sessions, down at Merlefest, on stage with Doc Watson. Being there and having Doc say, ok Jimmy Take a break! It’s a fantastic feeling! Nights with The Tony Rice Unit when Jerry Douglas would join us for a full set, or a full evening as part of the group. Phenomenal music!!! Everybody diving in and playing adventurously. Or going into it (with Tony Rice) and getting, what we called ‘the nod’ (to play a solo) you better be ready to go. But he looked for people that could cut it, right off the bat!”
Gaudreau has always maintained a musical identity on his own. “I’m still my own person and want to go out and create the music that I want to play. And, while I try to do as many dates as lean with Robin & Linda, all the same time, I’m playing their music and I’m not singing. I get to play and be creative, instrumentally, with their music. And, I’m not complaining, but I still want to play my music as well. I get to do that with Orrin. The stuff that we’re working up is exciting to me. It’s very much like a brother duet. We have a good vocal blend; instrumentally, I think you’re going to see some sparks fly.”
Jimmy has plans to produce a recording of the best instrumentals that he has written, over the years, with Orrin Starr on guitar. This should be welcome news for mandolin fans as Gaudreau released a classic recording of instrumentals on Puritan Records during the 1980s. The original recording is long out of print, but the new effort promises to be an absolute gem and, perhaps another beginning for Jimmy Gaudreau.
Jimmy Gaudreau has created music with many of the finest bands and worked with some of the great players of the genre’. Yet he has no real interest in fronting a new band. “At my age. I’m not looking to start anything that’s going to take that much of my time, energy or responsibility. I’m taking life a little easier than that.”
Gaudreau is seldom listed among the top mandolin players or vocalists in bluegrass, he is consistently in demand with those who work the creative side of the music. He’s an unlikely musical rebel although he’s certainly a legend. For more information visit Gaudreau’s web site at www.jimmygaudreau.com or CMH Records at www.cmhrecords.com.