Jethro Burns

TrackAlbum
Jitterbug WaltzLive At Vanderbilt U.
Lil' Darlin'Live At Vanderbilt U.
It's All Right With MePlaying It Straight
LizaIt Ain't Necessarily Square
Take The 'A' Train It Ain't Necessarily Square
Jethro's TuneBack To Back
Take Me Out To The BallgameAffordable Art
Somewhere Over the Rainbow/
When You Wish Upon A Star
Tea For One
Mama Was a Truck Driving ManJethro Burns
'Cept Old BillOld Friends

Playing It Straight (1962), It Ain’t Necessarily Square (1967), Live At Vanderbilt U. (1968) are Homer & Jethro albums. Back To Back (1979) is by Tiny Moore & Jethro Burns. Affordable Art is a 1983 album by Steve Goodman featuring Jethro on the selected track. Jethro Burns (1977) and Tea For One (1982) are solo Jethro albums, while Old Friends (1983) is by Jethro and Red Rector.

 

Jethro Burns photo 1

Kenneth ‘Jethro’ Burns (top) and Henry ‘Homer’ Haynes

 

 

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Jethro Burns playlist

 

The Million Dollar Band – Chet Atkins, Jethro Burns, Floyd Cramer, Roy Clark, Danny Davis, Johnny Gimble, Boots Randolph – play a medley of Hank Williams songs live on “Hee Haw” in the 80s

 

Contributor: David Lewis

If mandolin players spoke in awed hushed tones of other players, only a few would make the cut. Bill Monroe, David ‘Dawg’ Grisman, maybe Sam Bush, Chris Thile (of Punch Brothers), Mike Compton or Dave Apollon. But nearly everyone in the know agrees that the mandolin stylings of Jethro Burns set the standard for mandolin playing. Sam Bush called him “the greatest mandolin player I ever saw”. David Grisman spoke as highly. 2020 marks the centenary of Kenneth ‘Jethro’ Burns’ birth.

Jethro, as he was almost universally known, came to fame with the comedy duo, Homer and Jethro, in the mid-thirties. Both men served in World War II, to be reunited in Knoxville TN in 1945. They were an immensely successful and popular comedy duo, having earned recognition via tent show touring, radio broadcasts and recording in the burgeoning country music scene from Cincinnati to Nashville and the entire Southeastern US. Jethro went fishing with Hank Williams. His wife’s twin sister married Chet Atkins.

After Homer’s sudden death in 1976, Jethro worked with Ken Eidson for a few years, continued as a session musician and taught mandolin. One of his students, Don Stiernberg, who would become one of the foremost jazz mandolinists, worked very closely with Jethro, and as Don’s website says, he was “role model, hero, mentor, and friend.”

I asked Don if he would pick 10 great Jethro performances, which he did. I’ve asked about his choices, and he has shared some of his memories and insights of one of the great 20th century masters of the mandolin, Jethro Burns. Although there are some Homer and Jethro cuts here, Don has picked tracks featuring instrumental prowess, not parodies. We’ll have a Homer and Jethro Toppermost later where we’ll look at the ‘fractured’ songs.

 

Sam Bush at the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts in Louisville in 1989, playing Mississippi Sawyer, a tune associated with Jethro, on one of Jethro’s mandolins

DL: You’ve told this story a million times, but for the benefit of Toppermost readers, can you tell us how you first met Jethro – and is it true you wanted to play like Sam Bush?

DS: When I was 15 or 16 I was trying to learn mandolin on my own when Mom heard an ad on the radio: “study mandolin with Jethro Burns”. I was sent in for lessons. He asked me what I wanted to learn and I really did say I wanted to learn to play like Sam Bush! Jethro was so kind, supportive, and encouraging, that by the end of that first lesson I not only wanted to play like him, I wanted to be him! He became my hero right then.

DL: What do you think Jethro’s main appeal was as a mandolin player and do you think he’s underrated? Why don’t more people know his work?

DS: Jethro’s main appeal as a mandolin player was his complete control of the instrument combined with his uncanny ability to improvise beautiful melodic solos spontaneously. The general public missed that aspect of his genius because it appeared in the broader context of his superstar comedy act, Homer and Jethro, plus he made everything look so easy. He had the respect of musicians all along, as did Homer, the great innovative rhythm guitarist. Some mandolinists came late to an appreciation of Jethro because bluegrass is the predominant mandolin style, and there was Jethro playing jazz in a country comedy duo.

 

1981 “Austin City Limits” episode featuring Jethro Burns (eight-string mandolin), Johnny Gimble (four-string electric mandolin), Tiny Moore (five-string mandolin,), Eldon Shamblin (guitar), Rob Wasserman (bass), Tom Prisk (drums)

DL: What was unique about his approach as both a mandolin player and also a musician?

DS: Jethro brought the language of jazz (the pop music of his day) to the mandolin: rich, colourful chord voicings and swinging horn-like melodic lines. Very few others took that route at the time – his predecessor Dave Apollon, and his contemporaries Tiny Moore and Johnny Gimble.

DL: He first attracted notice in the duo ‘Homer and Jethro’, who’d ‘fracture’ pop songs, jazz standards, Broadway songs, etc. We’ve got a Homer and Jethro toppermost coming, but after Homer’s sudden death, Jethro seemed to eventually move away from parody. What was the motivation for that, do you think?

DS: Homer and Jethro began when they were in their teens! They were in a hot string band called the String Dusters and they would insert comedy vocals (a standard such as Over The Rainbow sung in the manner of a country brother duet) just to “break up all the pickin'”. Of course, that part of their act broke wide open and they became musical parody artists who were also virtuoso swing musicians. After Homer tragically passed, as Jethro recovered he emphasised playing the mandolin for fun, teaching, and collaborating with young musicians such as Steve Goodman. In the early 1960s H&J made two jazz instrumental LPs for RCA produced by Jethro’s brother-in-law Chet Atkins. They were Playing It Straight and It Ain’t Necessarily Square, and several of the selections here are from those masterpiece recordings.

DL: He was extraordinarily varied as a player: he could jump from something like Tico Tico or Don’t Be That Way to a traditional tune like Mississippi Sawyer, without blinking an eye. What made him pick particular tunes?

DS: Tunes like Mississippi Sawyer, Old Joe Clark and Rickett’s Hornpipe, Jethro called “hoedowns”; nowadays they’re called fiddle tunes. That was the popular dance music of his time and region (Knoxville TN). The pop music on the radio nationally was jazz, so it was quite natural for Jethro to come up playing both. As he chose tunes to play and showcase his own style, he usually gravitated toward jazz tunes and standard show tunes with chord progressions that were interesting to improvise upon.

 

DL: For performances such as Jitterbug Waltz (“Live At Vanderbilt U.”), I presume the audience went expecting to hear parody songs. How did the ‘serious’ songs go over. Both Homer and Jethro were superb musicians – like Frank Zappa or Weird Al Yankovic, they seemed to instinctively realise that funny songs need to be underpinned by great playing. When they did their ‘straight albums’ (“It Ain’t Necessarily Square” and “Playing It Straight”), do you think that was an opportunity for them to say ‘Hey, we can play too!’. Or were they a bit tired of parodies and wanted to try something different?

DS: When Live At Vanderbilt was made, Homer and Jethro were well established superstars as an act, the audience knew they were going to laugh a lot but that the boys could play also! Kind of like Victor Borge – his act was comedy but it was abundantly clear he was a concert pianist. The “Straight” and “Square” albums were an attempt to showcase their musicianship, possibly a consolation prize from the record label. I think on one of them on the back of the sleeve it says “They’re Top Musicians Too!” In their live shows (and sometimes on TV) they always included some straight up swinging instrumentals. Take The ˈAˈ Train on The Mike Douglas Show (see above clip) is a good example of that. Also backstage and offstage they played constantly, just for the love and joy of it and to cultivate their musical gifts.

 

DL: Also, would you like to make a comment about his live playing? It seems to me your choice of Lil’ Darlin’ shows a lot. But what was his live preparation like? Did he improvise much? Was there a set arrangement? Was there a set list? And as a fellow performer, did you feel constrained, or even overwhelmed, playing with Jethro?

DS: When I played with Jethro there was never a plan, a set, or rehearsal, although we did play a handful of his favourite tunes usually. It was just about having a ball playing. He liked to take requests too, he always knew every request! I never felt constrained or overwhelmed, he generously gave me lots of space and encouraged me to do my thing. He would, however, make fun of me mercilessly and say funny stuff in my ear as I was playing a solo!

DL: What was his approach to jazz? This list contains a couple of standards, such as Take The ˈAˈ Train: there’s an obvious Django Reinhardt influence in there, but who else was he influenced by?

DS: Jethro’s favourites from the world of jazz included all the big-band guys: Benny Goodman, Jimmie Lunceford, Count Basie, Duke Ellington. You can hear in his chord voicings sometimes the sound of a sax or trumpet section. Django and Stephane were huge influences as well, also Lang and Venuti. He had a great love of (and also played) jazz guitar, favourites being Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass, Tal Farlow, and Johnny Smith. I’m sure some of his chord melody ideas come from that.

DL: He jokingly referred to himself as the world’s greatest composer – can you tell us about his compositional approach?

DS: I don’t know if Jethro had an approach to composing. I think maybe mandolin tunes just came to him and man they were great!

 

Somewhere Over The Rainbow/When You Wish Upon A Star at 7:30

DL: What was he like to work with as a musician? Did you ever work on arrangements with him? What were the important things to him when arranging a well-known piece, such as that lovely medley of Somewhere Over The Rainbow/When You Wish Upon A Star?

DS: I didn’t work on arrangements with him, usually if we were playing two mandolins in the Quartet he would assign the melody to me and he would make a twin harmony on the spot. What was important to him was the “right chords” – although predominantly untrained and self-taught, he had an uncanny ability to hear chords and memorise tunes. He would get a little annoyed when he heard a band play a standard tune with the wrong changes!

 

DL: I’d argue that “Back To Back” is one of the great jazz instrumental albums, and possibly the greatest mandolin instrumental album. Tiny Moore was the electric mandolin player for Bob Wills and later Merle Haggard – Jethro and Tiny had, incredibly, never met before recording the album. Were you involved at all? Or did Jethro talk about it much? Is there any special reason behind your choice of Jethro’s Tune?

DS: What Jethro told me about Back To Back was after he got home from the sessions he said, “Man, Eldon Shamblin (guitar) … ever(y) chord he plays is from the 1980s!” It was 1979 when he said that. He thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience. Having been an admirer of all of the musicians on the session. I chose Jethro’s Tune from Back To Back as representative of his contribution to mandolin tunes – it’s a classic that mandolin players everywhere play and will play forever, as they play Bill Monroe’s Rawhide, Beethoven’s Sonatina in C, Assanhado by Jacob do Bandolim, EMD by David Grisman etc. A modern classic.

DL: He remained a comedian throughout his career. Interviews with people like Sam Bush or David Grisman about Jethro always mention some joke he told. Songs like Mama Was A Truck Driving Man bring out his comedy. But it’s also a country song. Was he a country player at heart? Or was he a jazzer who could play country?

DS: Mama Was a Truck Driving Man was actually written by Jethro’s son, Johnny, himself a great guitar player and songwriter. Jethro was from the country, sort of, and loved country music. The great singer/songwriter and architect of modern country music, Hank Williams, was a personal friend of his who gave Homer and Jethro permission to parody his songs, thus igniting their comedic career in the country arena. But he did love to play the swinging stuff. I think to him it was all music. Someone asked him once about what he listened to, he said “I listen to all of it and I like most of it”. At a fest one time the MC asked about introducing him – was it Western Swing, Jazz, Bluegrass? Jethro said, “nah, it’s just music!”

 

DL: ‘Cept Old Bill is a lovely tribute, not only to the other great mandolinist of the time, Bill Monroe, but he throws in Sam Bush, David Grisman, John Duffey (of the Country Gentlemen and the Seldom Scene), Mark O’Connor and Mike – I’m told Marshall, but I suppose it could be Compton. Did Jethro like their music? His recording oeuvre is very much early and mid 20th century jazz and country. But did he listen to later developments? And did they affect his playing? Also, he famously had a dart board with Bill Monroe’s face on it. What was his actual attitude to Monroe?

DS: Sure enough in ‘Cept Old Bill “Mike” is Mike Marshall. They met on tour dates where Jethro opened for the David Grisman Quintet. The guys he mentions in the song, did he like their music? No, he loved it! He did listen to newer styles of jazz as the years went on but his heart was in the golden era stuff I think. Wes Montgomery, Ray Charles, Joe Pass – modern phrases from their work got into his playing. As far as Bill Monroe, the notion that Jethro disliked him or that they had a feud or whatever was just legend or rumour. They knew and respected each other, Jethro sat in with the Bluegrass Boys here one time. Oh yeah, he made fun of him for sure, but he made fun of everybody.

DL: How much session or guest work did he do? He joked about playing Sweet Georgia Brown endlessly, but he did a whole range of surprising sessions. He complements Steve Goodman perfectly on Take Me Out To The Ballgame. It’s not a particularly strong song, though that might be my antipodean ignorance of America’s national sport coming through. Like other great musicians, Jethro finds depths in it that aren’t readily apparent. Did he like this kind of work? How much say did he have on his input?

DS: Jethro began his career as a session musician. As twelve year olds, Homer and Jethro were disqualified from a talent show, but hired as staff musicians at the radio station. Later came recording sessions backing the likes of the Delmore Brothers, Cowboy Copas, Slim Whitman, Chet Atkins. His association with Steve Goodman was like a second career, post Homer and Jethro. There was also a batch of gigs on Hee Haw (most watched TV show in history) with the Million Dollar Band: Atkins, Clark, Gimble, Cramer, Randolph … all legends (see top clip). And yes he loved all of it. Near the end of his life he told me “I never had a plan, everything just worked out. But if I could do it all over again I would.”

 

Jethro Burns mandolin

 

DL: I would like to thank Don Stiernberg for the generosity of his time in answering these questions. If you are a jazz fan, you really should check out Jethro’s work. You should also check out Don’s superb playing on his albums (see his website), and I can attest that if you wish to learn jazz mandolin, Don’s teaching materials are indispensable, as are Jethro’s. Regarding ‘Cept Old Bill, Sam Bush and David Grisman do a cover of it on “Hold On, We’re Strummin’”. It nearly made my Bush, then Grisman, Toppermosts, but I held off, hoping I might do a Jethro one at some point!

 

Jethro Burns photo 2

Winnipeg Folk Festival 1982 (l to r): Don Stiernberg, Jethro Burns,
John Parrott. Photo: E.J. Stiernberg

 

Jethro Burns at Adler House, Libertyville, Illinois in 1985 with Don Stiernberg (mandolin) and John Parrott (guitar) – the first of two sets

 

“Jethro & Friends” a TV special from 1984 with Steve Goodman and Chet Atkins – Don Stiernberg and Jethro’s son, Johnny, also feature

 

Kenneth “Jethro” Burns (1920–1989)

Henry “Homer” Haynes (1920–1971)

 

Country Music Hall of Fame: Homer and Jethro

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

“Complete Jethro Burns Mandolin Book”

Don Stiernberg official website

The Don Stiernberg Interview – by Ted Eschliman for the Mandolin Cafe (March 2010)

“Jazz Mandolin Appetizers” (book + online audio) by Don Stiernberg

Jethro Burns biography (AllMusic)

David Lewis is Australia’s best jazz mandolinist, unless you can name someone else: then he’s Australia’s second-best. In any case, he’s almost certainly top 100. He is a regular contributor to Toppermost, and also plays guitar, banjo and bass professionally. More of his writing can be found at his rarely updated website.

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Sam Bush, David Grisman, Merle Haggard, Bill Monroe, Punch Brothers, Hank Williams

TopperPost #865

3 Comments

  1. Dave Stephens
    May 13, 2020

    Wow! That was simply brilliant. Not only an innovative way to approach the creation of a Toppermost but superb execution to boot. Don was a highly informative interviewee and great communicator but you were prodding him in all the right places. The reference to Victor Borge really took me back and I loved the “Nah, it’s just music” comment – I’d have been tempted to use it as heading.

  2. Andrew Shields
    May 14, 2020

    What a fabulous musician and what a superb interview.
    As an aside, Jethro’s son, Johnny played with John Prine (perhaps through the Steve Goodman link?) for many years. Here they are doing a version of ‘Paradise’.

  3. David Lewis
    May 14, 2020

    Thank you both. Dave – as a professionally trained historian I have picked up one or two things about interviewing, but I was very touched to read your words. Thank you.
    Andrew – it’s such a small world. And musical circles which seem wide often aren’t.

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