John Jorgenson is one of the best country guitarists in the world. The Academy of Country Music made it official by voting Jorgenson "Guitarist of the Year" for 1990. Now he's becoming one of the most ubiquitous. Much of his acclaim stems from his five-year stint playing electric six- and 12-string guitar and mandolin with the Desert Rose Band. But since his departure from that Grammy-winning group several months ago, Jorgenson, 35, has watched his stock climb even higher.
Recently, in the span of a week, he was prominently featured on NBC's Sunday night series "Hot Country Nights" (he's in the house band), on "The American Music Awards" telecast and on "The Arsenio Hall Show."
The L.A.-based picker is preparing to work with television actress Delta Burke on the pilot of her new series about a country singer.
But with country-music stardom all but assured, and his daily planner filled with high-profile gigs, Jorgenson recently took a side step by forming two decidedly non -country posses to keep himself completely occupied. The one bearing his name will make its local debut tonight at the Belly Up Tavern.
Talent aside, Jorgenson could win an award for being one of the more amiable, self-effacing chaps in music. In a phone call earlier this week, the soft-spoken virtuoso patiently explained his purposeful digression from the country scene.
"I gained notoriety as a country player, and as a result I've been getting more and more calls to play country," Jorgenson said. "But that's not all I do. People are always telling me I ought to move to Nashville, but I need vehicles for my other musical interests, and that's why I'm in these two new bands."
One of them, the Hellecasters, is a five-piece unit in which Jorgenson shares the spotlight with fellow Fender benders Will Ray and Jerry Donahue (the name is a contraction of the pickers' unofficial moniker: Telecaster Players from Hell). The John Jorgenson Band, which opens tonight for Commander Cody, is a blues-rock trio featuring Davy Farager on bass and Donald Lindley on drums.
"I've gone through a lot of cycles as a player, but I started out playing rock and blues, and the trio gives me an outlet for that side of my playing and songwriting," Jorgenson said of his namesake, whose music his manager likened to that of Eric Clapton or Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Actually, Jorgenson began as a classical musician of some promise--and lineage. His parents met when both were music students at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. They moved the family to Redlands, Calif., when John was a year old. By the time he was in fifth grade, Jorgenson was an accomplished pianist and clarinetist. But one day, a classmate unwittingly changed the course of Jorgenson's life.
"This kid performed 'This Land Is Your Land' on the ukulele, and I thought it was so cool that somebody could get up and perform by themselves," he recalled. "About the same time, I got interested in AM radio. We had a ukulele around the house, so I started fooling around with that, but after seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, I started pestering my parents to get me a guitar. Finally, when I was 12, I got one for Christmas."
Jorgenson continued his classical studies, while playing rock and jazz on the side for fun. At 22, he would tour as a bassoonist in the Los Angeles Camarata. But it was while Jorgenson was playing clarinet, guitar and mandolin in a band at Disneyland that his career took its most significant turn.
"I was 17 when a friend took me to hear Rick Nelson and the Stone Canyon Band at Knott's Berry Farm, and hearing Tom Brumley play the steel guitar just floored me," he said. "The next day I traded my amplifier for a Fender pedal-steel (guitar), but after spending a year trying to learn how to play it, I was still mediocre, so I gave it up and went back to guitar."
In the late '70s, Jorgenson took a detour into new-wave rock with a band that played the Hollywood club circuit. He continued to broaden his stylistic base, by turns playing acoustic music and rockabilly (his band, the Shakin' Snakes, played the same circuit as the Paladins, the Blasters and Los Lobos). When members of Jorgenson's country-rock band, Cheatin' Hearts, joined with former Byrds bassist Chris Hillman to back Dan Fogelberg on tour, the results were so good that the musicians decided to form what became the Desert Rose Band.
In concert, Hillman was the front man, but Jorgenson scored most of the instrumental points, sweeping up and down the guitar neck to contribute the perfect rhythmic accent, complementary chord or deliciously wicked riff. His prowess attracted peers as well as fans, and he's since played on albums by Bob Seger, Bonnie Raitt and Roger McGuinn.
"Living in L.A. has enabled me to play more than just country, and that's more important to me now than it once was," he said. "We put the Hellecasters together for fun, and because lead guitarists rarely get to work together. The emphasis in that band is more instrumental, and we've even gotten some record-label interest.
"But I'm also enjoying what the trio is doing," Jorgenson said. "I think people who know me only as a country guitarist are going to be pleasantly surprised."
The John Jorgenson Band opens for Commander Cody at 9:15 p.m. tonight at the Belly Up Tavern, 143 S. Cedros Ave., Solana Beach. Tickets are $7 at the door (no advance sales).