Thomm Jutz, Sitting At The Feet of History
Thomm Jutz’ Facebook page has looked more like a chart feed than a social media site. But you can’t blame the prolific songwriter for the screen shots celebrating his plethora of recent hits.
“#6, 7, 9 and 17 this week in Bluegrass Today charts,” Jutz recently reported on songs co-written that bear his name for Chris Jones, Irene Kelley and Shawn Camp.
“Damn boy,” friend and frequent collaborator Eric Brace wrote in response. Brace is a third of the trio that Jutz has been appearing with recently, along with the writer and guitarist Peter Cooper.
The night Chris Jones and the Night Drivers stepped onstage at the Station Inn in Nashville to play “I’m a Wanderer,” they celebrated the song’s number one debut earlier that day. Jutz co-wrote it with Charley Stefl and Jon D. Weinberger.
Jutz has credits on the top two most aired bluegrass songs of 2016 for “Around The Corner,” written with Milan Miller for Terry Baucum and the Dukes of Drive and Irene Kelley’s “Carolina Wind” penned with Kelley and Miller. He might be justified to quote the line “It ain’t braggin if you’ve done it.” It’s from the title song of Mac Wiseman’s autobiographical I Sang The Song, one of ten songs Jutz, Wiseman and Peter Cooper co-wrote chronicling the bluegrass and country legend’s life. John Prine’s timeworn vocal gives an emotional reading that translates the humility and wonderment of a poor Virginia boy who grew up sometimes barefoot in the depression–only to live long enough to become a member of both the Bluegrass Hall of Fame and Country Music Hall of Fame.
A stripped down version can also be heard on Volunteer Trail, the solo album Jutz quietly released late last year. He is joined by Cooper and Brace whose rich harmonies make the sound like it has already been handed down through the generations.
On I Sang The Song, Wiseman’s story is recounted through the voices of Prine, Sierra Hull, Milan Miller, Shawn Camp, Alison Krauss and others. In a reverent close to the album, Krauss and Wiseman sing a duet of “Tis Sweet To Be Remembered” a reprise of the song he sang with Molly O’Day.
On the liner notes, Peter Cooper calls Jutz “a guitar virtuoso from the Black Forest.” For Jutz, who grew up in Germany and moved to Nashville in 2003, it must be unim to be at the epicenter of the roots music scene in Nashville. He has vivid memories of hearing country music at the age of eight in his native Germany. He studied English from the time he was in the fifth grade and became fluent playing in a band at an officer’s club of a Canadian air base near his home.
Seeing Bobby Bare on German television singing “Detroit City” changed his life. The way he stood and held his guitar inspired a life’s mission and he began playing guitar the next day. In some ways the circle was completed when Jutz enlisted an older Bare on The 1861 Project, a series of recordings Jutz produced based on songs inspired of people who lived through the Civil War. In addition to Bare, the singers featured include Jason Ringenberg, Kim Richey, Marty Stuart, John Anderson and others.
Three years ago Peter Cooper and Jutz got together for a project with then 88 year-old country and bluegrass legend Mac Wiseman. an alumnus of Bill Monroe’s original band and Flatt and Scruggs. The resulting Songs From My Mother’s Hand was based on notebook entries of the words she heard from listening to songs on the radio.
The two struck up a friendship with the world’s oldest recording artist and one of the founding members of the Country Music Association. Wiseman began recounting details of his own life that span a third of the country’s history, inspiring a series of Sunday conversations about the values that made him who he became over two centuries.
Jutz loves stopping by Wiseman’s house, just ten minutes away from his home studio TJ Tunes outside Nashville. Wiseman can tell you about Hank Williams or where he was when he heard Jimmie Rodgers on the radio or the day he ran into AP Carter working at his radio station. Or when Johnny Cash, who shared a bill with Wiseman and the Carter Fmaily, knocked on his hotel door at 5:00 a.m. to hand Wiseman a copy of the New York Times, congratulating him on getting the night’s best review.
Cooper and Jutz sat in the audience at Wiseman’s induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Now as Wiseman held court in his recliner, he and Jutz were sitting at the feet of history. Cooper was taking notes on his iPad as Wiseman transported them back to the days of the depression–and memories of waking up to tend to the family’s cows and working the fields after school.
As a young boy, Mac Wiseman watched trains run through Crimora, Virginia and watched the silhouettes of the people passing by as the sun went down. He couldn’t make out their faces but wondered where they were going. Moreover, it spoke to the five-year old that he too wanted to go to that somewhere. Wiseman grew up with polio and thought he’d have a career in agriculture. Discovering his voice on radio and playing music was his ticket out.
ln another conversation, Wiseman recounted riding three miles into Crimora to swap eggs for kerosene. Jutz and Cooper, the former music journalist for The Tennessean, peppered him for the details.
“Well Mac,” Jutz asked, “how much did eggs cost?” He and Cooper did a calculation that a dozen eggs could buy a gallon back in 1928. It led to the song “Simple Math” with Jim Lauderdale singing the autobiographical details in a galloping up-tempo romp, driven by the core band of Jutz, Sierra Hull, Justin Moses and Mark Fain. In the song, Lauderdale recounts Wiseman’s voice in the first person in a series of milestones, including his recording session with Molly O’Day where he earned $250.
If Wiseman has had a burst of late life activity, Jutz has been busy too. There’s Volunteer Trail and surrounded by the history all around him, has completed three volumes of The 1861 Project. Jutz’ love of country music led to interest in Southern history and culture. He said you can’t go anywhere without coming upon a historic markers of the Battles of Nashville and Franklin and further west as you head to Shiloh. The 1861 Project personalizes the war’s physical and emotional devastation as told through the voices of those who lived through it. (The second volume is sold out on CD but still available as a download.) The milieu permeates his new record in “The Kid,” a gripping tale told in the words of a young Confederate soldier facing up to the reality of killing for the first time. Kim Richey’s harmonies add a sense of foreboding in this psychologically rich narrative.
Jutz’ good fortune may be less luck than the residue of design and discipline. He shared a little about his writing process when he stopped by to chat with Roots Now program host Barry Mazor on Acme Radio. He recounted his Saturday routine with writer Milan Miller who drops by at ten in the morning and works with Jutz through the day.
“It’s getting people to say ‘Do you have anything?” Jutz said, admitting he does his own research on what people might like. “That’s the point you want to get to.”
Jutz hit it off with Miller at a Jon Byrd show and the two have been co-writing for the past two years. He elaborated further when we spoke, saying the duo tries to do its homework. “What are people looking for? What do they like to sing about?” he says rhetorically. “We try to be specific in our approach.” Perhaps it’s reflective of a valuable lesson he learned from Cooper who relayed what Tom T. Hall once told him—namely that in songwriting, the person in the song has to come first and the songwriter second.
Irene Kelley’s “Song of Praise,” co-written with Jutz , closes Volunteer Trail. She wrote in Bluegrass Today about the partnership of Jutz and Miller:
“There is an obvious ease about these two wordsmiths, as Thomm utters a blunt and candid comment: “Young writers sometimes feel like they have something really important to say…I don’t.” Milan adds, chuckling, “I can’t wait around for song ideas, my life is boring enough, and I’m ok with that. I have to look around and that’s where I find my ideas.” Thomm adds, self-effacingly: “We are NOT poets, we just write.”
Andrea Zonn whose beautiful harmonies can be heard on Wiseman’s “Three Cows and Two Horses,” is another of Jutz’ collaborators. You can hear her distinctive fiddle and accompaniment on “Morning On The Mountain” the song she co-wrote with Jutz and Weisberger on Volunteer Trail. She and Jutz met at one of Peter Cooper’s shows. Zonn helped get Jutz get a gig with Maura O’Connell and later approached Jutz about making a record.
Jutz agreed and blocked out ten days right after the New Year in 2015. Kim Richey came over and sat with the two drinking coffee around the kitchen table that helped to fuel the songwriting. Zonn and Jutz ended up co-writing seven of songs on Rise. Sitting in with Jutz on the Buddy and Jim Show, she said of the experience: “There are people we make music with who are kindred spirits.”
A few years back, Jutz sent an admiring email to Craig Market, pitching that the two write together. He talked him into making a record that became entitled Nowhere To Hide, reflecting a comment by Market that the duo put themselves out there with just their voices and twin Martins. “We had fourteen songs and I just pressured the hell out of him,” Jutz said of the outcome. “I knew we had something special and I wanted to get it on tape.”
Jutz elaborated on the title song, writing in the album’s liner notes: “All your musical shortcomings are exposed in this kind of a setting, all your insecurities laid bare. I would only want to make a record like this with a good friend–like Craig,”
The album offers track by track insights from the writers, including Market’s characterization of Jutz as a “bit of a Civil War scholar.” Jutz drew inspiration for “Indigio Blue” based on the ink’s importance to the South Carolina economy.
If Market likes to fly under the radar, perhaps it’s due to Jutz’ observation that he is less interested in having a career than writing songs, working on houses and buying old guitars. Perhaps there’s a little bit of Market in Jutz who is non-committal about formally releasing the thirteen deserving songs of Volunteer Trail. “I might officially release it at some point,” he offers before quickly adding, “but maybe not. I’m also a fan of doing it super low key and just selling it at my shows.”
If you ask Jutz what has been the most satisfying aspect of I Sang The Song, he might tell you it was listening to John Prine sing the emotional words of the title song. But he’d quickly tell you that would overshadow all of the other aspects of the project. In the end, perhaps the greatest satisfaction is knowing that it made Mac happy.
The improbability of Wiseman’s journey frames the stories of what is arguably one of the year’s best records. But in doing that, Jutz and Cooper have created something more enduring and lasting–a great collection of oral history brought to life and set to song.
When I suggest to Jutz that it’s a blueprint for a Broadway musical, he quickly shoots back, “Well, it takes a lot of money to do that.”
If I Sang The Song is a tough act to follow, Jutz doesn’t have time to think about it. When you ask him what’s next, it’s a response of multiple answers. Jutz is thinking about his next solo album and plans to tour England in the summer.
Jutz remains busy running his own studio TJ Tunes, amassing production credits on over seventy albums. When he’s not recording or writing, he’s busy playing with friends Brace and Cooper. The trio is about to make a record of just three guitars and vocals. It was prompted by comments from people who said, “Why don’t you record something that sounds like when you play live?”
Jutz says the trio work is some of the most fun he’s ever had.
“We take the work seriously,” he reflects, “but we don’t take ourselves seriously.”
In his new book Johnny’s Cash and Charley’s Pride, Peter Cooper provides an amusing account of Jutz working in the studio to make a larger point about the use of click tracks. There’s always the ongoing back and forth with Cooper on what lies ahead.
“Peter and I are always talking about projects we’d like to make happen,” he notes. “But we’ve learned over the last few years that sometimes you’ve got to let these ideas simmer and keep talking about them.”