At 70 years old, Jorma Kaukonen still talks with all the excitement and energy of a man half his age. Maybe it's the presence of his young daughter, who has just left the room so that her dad can talk with the reporter from City Paper on the phone. There's also the constant bustle around Kaukonen's 119-acre Fur Peace Ranch in Ohio, where he regularly hosts concerts and public weekend workshops for musicians.
Whatever the source of his boundless endurance, Kaukonen shows no signs of slowing down — even after a career that's led him from legendary San Francisco acts Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna to a long run as a solo artist.
"For better or worse, I've been supporting myself touring for a while," explains Kaukonen, who has 14 albums as a solo artist. "Whoever the big stars are, like Lady Gaga, whoever they are, if she only sold 200,000 units she'd have to kill herself. But if you actually sell 200,000 units today, it's like a big deal. We probably make more money selling our CDs at gigs than anywhere else."
The songwriter/guitarist's current tour will take him on a quick run through the South before heading to Scandinavia after Thanksgiving. In Charleston, he'll perform as a duo with Barry Mitterhoff, the multi-instrumentalist and mandolin player from Hot Tuna. That news should excite Hot Tuna fans, as it brings together two-thirds of the group's "acoustic version," sans bassist Jack Casady.
Formed in 1970 as a Jefferson Airplane side project, Hot Tuna continues to release new studio material, including this year's Steady as She Goes. That album follows Kaukonen's two recent solo releases, 2007's Stars in My Crown and 2009's River of Time. Between playing shows and running Fur Peace Ranch, it's surprising that Kaukonen would still take time to record in the studio in an era of paltry album sales.
Fortunately for him, Kaukonen is the kind of musician who still plays because he loves it. He and Casady first jammed together in 1958. Last month, the pair toured California in a Crown Victoria, Blues Brothers-style. The pair's influence on both rock and folk spans half a century.
While continuing to inspire new generations of musicians, Kaukonen and his cohorts were never perceived as selling out to the mainstream. They developed an artistic independence that still stands.
"Our lives weren't dysfunctional enough to make it to VH1," jokes Kaukonen.
On both his latest solo and Hot Tuna's recent release, Kaukonen includes songs by the Rev. Gary Davis, the Carolina bluesman whose finger-picking style closely resembles Kaukonen's. "Hesitation Blues," a classic song handed down via Davis to Kaukonen, still makes a nightly appearance on his setlists.
He emphasizes that every night is different, though. For his Charleston show, he'll have several guitars in alternate tunings on hand, allowing him to switch between newer cuts and classics like "Water Song."
"Setlists are predicated on what songs are still in my active memory," Kaukonen says. "Every now and then, I'll bring back a song and go back and learn all the subtleties. Songs get rotated some every night."
Keeping songs and traditions alive runs deep with Kaukonen. At Fur Peace Ranch, fans and players can stay in cabins over a long weekend, receiving workshop instruction from notable musicians ranging from bassist George Porter (of Meters fame) and Aussie guitarist Tommy Emmanuel to Hot Tuna themselves.
"We get a bunch of long-in-the-tooth aging '60s guys and gals still around, but I think it's about the music, not the style. We get a lot of youngsters too that are interested in the guitar or mandolin, and that's good stuff.
"Teaching has made me a better player," he adds. "But I absolutely need to perform live in order to keep what I do fun for me. I appreciate every moment. It's like, when the jobs are out there, you have to take them."
Fortunately for Kaukonen's long-time fans, that means getting to see him in an intimate club like the Pour House, nearly half a century after he took the stage with Jefferson Airplane at Woodstock.
"When I was younger, I was a grasshopper, not an ant," laughs Kaukonen. "I won't be retiring anytime soon."