In the film Back to the Future, Marty McFly picks up an electric guitar at the school dance and blows the minds of the teenagers who haven’t yet heard rock ’n’ roll. After a blistering version of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” McFly looks up to find the audience just staring at him. “I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet,” he tells them. “But your kids are gonna love it.”
Leaving the audience behind is not the best approach to making music, but flatpick guitarist Jon Stickley and his band have to make a conscious effort not to do it. Defying easy categorization, the Jon Stickley Trio is at once a progressive bluegrass outfit, an improv-loving jam band, an acoustic jazz group, an avant-garde band and a rootsy Americana trio.
Comprised of Stickley, Lyndsay Pruett on violin and Patrick Armitage on drums, the band takes an experimental approach to originals and covers, stretching out in songs to discover hidden pockets of musical potential.
“We like to do off-rhythm and weird time signatures and things like that, but we always try to keep the music as accessible as possible,” says Stickley. “We don’t want it to go totally out there. We want it to be something you can move to and connect with. It’s easy to see when the crowd gets lost,” he adds with a laugh. “‘Yep, we lost ‘em.’”
Despite playing fast and loose with genres, the trio has what the New York Times described as a “hardy cohesion among the players.” In today’s streaming-heavy music industry, bands are forced to decide whether they’re bluegrass, country, jazz, rock or blues. This can be disconcerting to a band that’s all of the above and none of the above.
In the early years, the trio members felt pressure to define their sound for easy categorization—“progressive bluegrass” was a common descriptor—but now they have enough traction and experience to let their sound and fanbase speak for themselves.
“We feel like we could fit in anywhere, and we want to play for different crowds,” says Stickley. “We can be the one slightly more bluegrass band at an avant-garde music festival, or we can be the weird band at a traditional bluegrass festival. We’re so weird and unique that you can’t really compare the band to that many other things.”
Stickley describes the project as a “bit of a rebellion from the acoustic Americana world,” with its “blanket sound you hear with almost every band.”
“I’m not trying to hate,” he says, “but we all have a bit of a punk ethos when it comes to not wanting to be mainstream or like everything else.”
Stickley’s musical background stretches back to childhood bands with his neighborhood friends. When he was introduced to bluegrass in high school, it changed his life, he explains. After attending his first bluegrass jam, he knew he wanted to dive in.
“It was so inclusive and encouraging,” he says. “In the indie rock scene, you didn’t get together and play with other bands. But in this world, these people don’t even know each other and they’re getting together and playing.”
The Jon Stickley Trio emerged organically out of the rich Asheville, North Carolina music scene. Stickley was playing upright bass in a bluegrass band, but after two years of that, the guitarist kicked him out, telling him, “There’s a million bass players out there. No one plays guitar like you. You’ve got to go do it.”
The trio is known for respectfully deconstructing and reconstructing traditional bluegrass and fiddle tunes. The goal is to rework songs in a way that honors the original and stays true to the musical foundation, but pushes the melody, rhythm and instrumentation into new territory. The band pushes against the strict parameters of bluegrass, while also honoring what makes those songs great.
“If you’re going to mess around with a bluegrass song, you’d better be doing it right,” Stickley says. “You need to be able to do the traditional version really well before you mess with it. We make sure we’ve mastered the original. Then we take it to a new level with a new idea, while still really holding that piece in a highly-respected manner.”
Jon Stickley will perform at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 10. Don Quixote’s, 6275 Hwy. 9, Felton. $10. 335-2800.