John is eagerly looking forward to passing on his knowledge of songwriting at Sore Fingers Week in March next year. Chris Stuart and Darrell Scott have previously taught similar courses which were hugely popular, and John is hopeful to emulate the success.
He’s keen to attract as many students as possible and says his class will be “more fun than can be imagined. Imagine the most fun you’ve ever had, and then double it. Maybe even triple it. We’re going to be doing a lot of hands on stuff. By that I mean we’re going to be doing a lot of exercises, getting the stream of consciousness going and then writing songs. Not a lot of lecturing, but a lot of creating.”
“We’re going to cover different techniques of songwriting,” John continues. “Everyone has their own system for writing a song, but we’re going to get everyone to look at writing songs in a different way than they’re used to, in order to get the stream of creativity flowing stronger and maybe find a better way to approach songwriting.”
Everybody is welcome to sign up for the course, regardless of whether they’ve written before. “There’s no experience necessary to be in this class,” says John, “just a willingness to try new things and not be afraid to come up with a song that’s not the next big hit.”
John’s writing can be heard on recordings by his own bands Growling Old Men and Kane’s River, with numbers like Sarah Hogan, Richmond and Jerusalem’s Choir shining examples of his work. His talents are well-respected in bluegrass circles and his songs have been covered by the likes of Valerie Smith and Bluegrass Etc. “Songwriting is kind of an elusive thing,” he tells us. “The ideas can come from anywhere, or just pop into your head. From there, it’s what you do with them that counts.”
He adopts a meticulous approach to writing, with even the most minute details considered important. “I’m a believer in editing and re-editing the lyrics to any song that I have in the works,” he says. “If there’s even one line in there that I’m not a hundred percent happy with, I’ll work on it until I am, even if it means completely changing it which can easily lead to changing other lines with can lead to the whole song changing. It can be a mess but when it’s finally done, it’s almost always worth it.”
This perfectionism probably explains why, despite having several band members who also write, he prefers to compose alone. “I’ve tried to co-write with other people but with limited success. The songs that have come out of collaborations have not been all that great,” John explains. “It’s partly because I don’t have total control, and partly because I let things slide that I don’t really like, in an effort to be a team player.” But co-writing hasn’t always been a failure and it’s even delivered some gems. “There is a song on the Fishing Music CD called Madison Brown that three of us wrote, but we each had our own separate duties and we melded them all together.”
As well as a songwriter, John is also recognised as a fine guitarist and has taught the instrument twice at Sore Fingers in the past. He is well aware of the famous atmosphere generated at Kingham Hill School every Easter. “Sore Fingers is a blast. I’ve been a tutor twice now, and both times my guitar class was made up of stellar people. Every one of them was real treat to get to know and I had a great time. And then of course there’s the Captain and Moira. Sore Fingers would not be the same without their good natured, fun-loving leadership.”
But it’s not just Sore Fingers that draws John to the UK. He has become a virtual resident here over the past few years, with numerous visits to tour and teach. What is it about Britain that keeps bringing him back? “The Grolsch. No, just kidding. It’s the Guinness. Well, ok, although the Guinness helps, it’s really about the people. I’ve met some really great folks in the UK that I count as my friends now, and who doesn’t like visiting their friends and playing music? Add to that the fun of seeing new places and attempting to drive on the opposite side of the road.”
The standard of bluegrass in this country is also something that keeps John coming back for more. “I think it’s on par with the US. Granted, it’s a smaller scene, but the number of good musicians per capita is about the same. I’m impressed by the number of good bluegrass bands from the UK.”
John’s other musical projects include the group Kane’s River whose first two recordings were highly acclaimed and gained them many fans in Britain. They are currently on something of a hiatus. “Kane’s River is not doing a whole lot this year, but we hope to ramp things up in 2008. Everyone in the band is busy with side projects.”
Growling Old Men, his duo with mandolinist Ben Winship, are much busier. They’ve toured the UK several times over the last few years and there will be another chance to see them here next summer. “Ben, Dom Harrison, Leon Hunt and I are booked at Didmarton for 2008, so we’ll definitely be around then making a racket,” John tells us. “I expect that we’ll do some shows around the UK before then too and perhaps in Sweden or Prague. There is a possibility of us doing the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow this coming January, but we’re waiting to see on that one.”
The collaboration with British musicians Leon and Dom was well-received at Didmarton in 2006, and the group have since decided to record an album together. “We have one that we’re working on right now. It started out being a sort of demo disc to send to promoters, but it’s grown a bit since then and it looks like it might be a fully fledged CD,” says John.
“It’s kind of cool to be in a transatlantic band with technology being what it is today. Ben and I recorded our stuff, Dom and Leon recorded their stuff and then we emailed the files to each other so the guys on the opposite side of the pond could add their parts. It all gets put together into music that sounds like we were all in the same room. I’m not sure what the CD will be called, but rest assured it will be something very witty and clever.”
Sore Fingers Week runs from March 24th – 28th 2008 at Kingham Hill School, Oxfordshire. As well as songwriting, there will be classes for all bluegrass instruments plus autoharp, singing and old-time banjo and fiddle. Musicians of all abilities are welcome to attend. For more details and to book your place please visit the camp’s website.
John’s CDs can be bought from the following links: