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Bluegrass Gem Jon Stickley Trio to Play at LEAF

By Pete Zamplas- Energetic bluegrass of the locally-based Jon Stickley Trio is a feature of the upcoming LEAF Festival, May 9-12.

Guitarist-vocalist Jon Stickley grins. His trio is among LEAF headliners in mid-May. Photo by Pete Zamplas.

Other acts in the 48th LEAF Festival at Lake Eden in Black Mountain include alt-country Shovels & Rope, emerging folk-bluegrass star Molly Tuttle, soulful India.Arie, The East Pointers (Canadian Celtic virtuosos), The War and Treaty (soulful roots), Larkin Poe (roots, blues), electro-acoustic Dirtwire, and Kobo Town (Trinidadian calypso).

LEAF as always offers a variety of music, dance, fire acts, poetry and healing arts.

The late-night techno contra dances’ costumed themes are animals on that Friday, then super heroes on Saturday, May 11.

Jon Stickley Trio played Spring LEAF three years ago and loves the crowd response there. Violinist Lyndsay Pruett thrives on what she terms the “reciprocal” musician-audience vibe.

“Progressive jazz (new)grass” is a tag on Stickley’s up-tempo blends. JS3 plays invigorating and improvisational bluegrass-based blends — mostly their all-instrumental originals — often at a brisk pace with amazing solos that vary show to show.

Band founder Jon Stickley said the jamming variation makes each concert “different — every time. We leave that freedom into the set. We feel in moment and just go with it.

The trio plays LEAF in Eden Hall on Friday, May 10 at 9:15-10:30 p.m., then conducts a bluegrass workshop in the Jam Tavern 2-3 p.m. that Saturday. JS3 is bound to sparkle when on the main stage Sunday, May 12, at 12:45-2 p.m.

Violinist Lyndsay Pruett is happy to play bluegrass. She is integral to the Jon Stickley Trio. Photo by Pete Zamplas.

Stickley’s Asheville-based trio is fronted by guitarist-vocalist Jon Stickley (“Stick”) and violinist Lyndsay Pruett (“Pru”). They are both uber-talented flat pickers. People hearing Stickley live say they are overwhelmed by how he plays briskly yet crisply. He has played guitar since age 12.

Pruett also sizzles with solo flourishes, out of focused control with superb “intensity,” Stickley said. She plucks strings in “pizzicato” style such as on her “Lady Time” that closes their latest CD. Stickley hails her “expressive, beautiful violin concerto (solo) moments.”

Drummer Hunter Deacon like Pruett is classically-trained. He has jazz chops, to go with thick mutton chop sideburns. He is thus called “Jam Chops” and now “M(utton) Chops,” by bandmates. Stickley recounts that a year ago, “when we first hired him I said ‘keep those chops.’ He said, ‘It’d take the Jaws of Life, to get those off of me.’”

Stickley said, “Our music feels fresher” than ever with Deacon’s versatile and “sensitive” drumming. “ Our connection has grown. We love his playing so much. He can paint a picture. We’ll let him go for six minutes, in a solo. He’s more melodic, than flashy. He’s taking a snare, on and off. He eventually builds into the next song.”

They are all in their thirties. Stickley grew up in Durham, Deacon in Memphis, and Pruett in Jacksonville, Fla.
The band is working on songs for its fourth CD which is due out mid-year, is unveiling some new songs, and tours nationally. This month, they will do a show in New York City and return to the same festival in Vegas that debuted a year ago that contrast with the “camping nature festivals” they resonate with. Instead, in the Plaza Hotel, “between songs, the crowd hears all of the slot machine noise.”

The trio played in the prestigious Suwannee (Fla.) Spring Reunion March 21-24 — as did greats Donna the Buffalo, Larry Keel, and Brevard’s Steep Canyon Rangers. The Rangers won the 2013 Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album.

When the Rangers play in the “same festival, I always sit in with them” in concert, Stickley said. “We’re friends since Nineties. They were at UNC. I was in high school, in Durham. I saw them play. I’d jam with them, afterward.” Then in 2006, when he moved to Asheville, Stickley played in the bluegrass-roots Biscuit Burners with singer-guitarist Shannon Whitworth. She is married to Woody Platt, the Rangers’ lead singer and guitarist.

Jon Stickley Trio CDs include Lost at Last in 2015, five-song EP Triangular in late 2016, Maybe Believe in 2017. The band last month signed with Organic Records, and is about to record in its Crossroads Studios in Arden. Pruett is “incredibly pleased” with her violin tones, when recording there before with engineer Scott Barnett.
Stickley said, “We’re working on new music now. We should release our first single soon — hopefully in June — then a series of singles, and the album in fall.”

Stickley’s drummer is Mutton-chopped “Jam Chops” Hunter Deacon. Photo by Pete Zamplas.

Songwriting is mostly at home. On the road, Stickley said, “ideas pop into my head while driving. I’ll jot down and record on my phone small ideas — a melody, or chord progression.It starts with a seed, usually from me. But, they have a lot of input. We work together.”

At home, his next step is to “record a rough demo, and ask our band members to check out these rough melodies and the rhythm. If they like it, we can get into rehearsal. We’ll flush it out, with arrangement and flow.” If the response to an idea or demo is lukewarm, then “we’ll adjust that.”

He usually writes a song at a time, “start to finish. Five songs are basically done. We’ll wrap them up,” then work on more. “Sometimes, we’ll knock out a whole song” and refine it. “Other times, we’ll revisit it” —perhaps to adjust it to fill a stylistic gap on the CD with a “spacey song or rip-roaring song.” He added, “Once we have seven or eight songs, we look at them as an album.”

Then comes a fun phase the band is now in. “We’re road-testing some new material” in concert, Stickley said. They typically, playing a song several times live before finding its ideal version then recording it.

A drastic shift in their last album was as “Cecil” went from “cheesy” upbeat dance tune to sludgy (gritty Zeppelin-like) drum beat over fast pickin,’” Stickley recalled.

They rearrange covers, such as Bill Monroe’s fiddle classic “Jerusalem Ridge,” with “different rhythms and modulations,” Stickley said.
Evolving in style, he said that now “we’re settling into a more laid-back feel.” Still, count on trademark dance invigorators. “One feel-good, head-boppin’ track is mid-tempo, upbeat, with an almost club dance groove,” Stickley said. “It has elements you might hear in pop or electronic music. It gives us space, to stretch out in during solos.”

Stickley assured that “many songs have my go-to ideas you’ve heard. The big bulk of songs are very me.”
Yet “we’re working in a couple of Lyndsay originals,” which he said tend to be slower and more complex. “Her songs have a completely different flavor, and harmonic palate. Her harmonic sensibility is more advanced than mine. She hears more different types of harmonies, dissonance, and scales.”

Pruett’s degree from Belmont is in commercial violin performance. She has played in gypsy jazz bands. She taught recently as adjunct professor at Warren Wilson College, then UNC-Asheville for jazz violin and mandolin.
Their divergence makes for fascinating interplay in concert. “Opposing musical viewpoints create tension.

Lyndsay and I have different musical tastes. Reconciling that creates a good tension. It’s interesting to listen to the push and pull, back and forth.”

JS3 mixes rhythms when recording some songs. One tune in the works has a fast drum beat of six beats per measure. “We play over that in four” beats, for a “syncopated groove,” Stickley explained. “Another song is a flip flop of that. The groove is very straightforward (with standard four drum beats). But we play in six, over that, in a juxtaposed rhythm.” It helps that drummer “Hunter can do a lot of polyrhythmic with more Latin and African grooves” for a more diverse sound.

JS3 is known for extended instrumental lead-ins. “We’ll start with a slower build up, or solo instrumental to draw the listener in and set the mood,” Stickley said. “Other times, we’re trailing off such as with a Lyndsay solo.”
They sense their most impactful tunes. “If it feels like an end-of-the-set song that just hits you over the head, we’ll treat it that way” in the studio, too, Stickley said.

Each songs tend to vary in how they play it. “We improvise differently, every time,” he said. When jamming, “We get to a place where each of us plays to our best,” Stickley said. “Instead of getting everyone else onto my page and molding us to be the same, everyone gets to their pages and plays as themselves.” He welcomes the playful challenge in concert of promptly responding to sudden breaks, and variations from each other’s tendencies.

The trio has fun on stage. Pruett blends well on stage musically and in frolic with charismatic, bearded guitarists Stickley — as well as Taylor Martin in a side act for her. Both often smile during shows. She joined Martin last Thursday, also in concert last Nov. 16.

She was in Taylor Martin’s Engine in 2009, when she moved to Asheville.
Pruett contrasts with a generally more serious stage presence. But look closer, and you see her grin at key moments. “She’s a very light-hearted, fun to be around,” Stickley said. “She’s extra serious and passionate about music, and certain aspects of her life. She is a musician. She lives it. It’s what we do for fun and work.”

He said, “We’re music nerds. We eat, sleep and drink music,” Stickley said. “We discuss elements of jazz, complexity versus simplicity, and different music we like” and also their “significant others” they miss. During tour drives they often unwind silently “into our spaces. We take pod breaks, watch movies, handle personal business.”

Stickley said at major festivals, “all of our musician friends are there. But it usually ends up just our three together. We fall back on each other. We get along very well.”

The trio’s two males are each married, and Pruett has a serious beau, Stickley said. “We have supportive spouses. They see the beauty in what we do,” he said. John said he and wife Julianne Stickley, a kindergarten teacher, are considering children.

Stickley said, “When I’m home now, I’m all in. I clean house, cook and do groceries. I enjoy a domestic lifestyle. I miss it, when on the road. I hope that carries over to parenting.”

For more on the Jon Stickley Trio and to hear tune samples, go online to jonstickley.com. Check theleaf.org for more about the festival, performers, and to buy tickets.

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