German born musician Thomm Jutz has become an American citizen who writes a lot about American history. Thus his new album, To Live In Two Worlds, once again embodies his fascination with history, though he admits: »I’m not a historian, but I'm a chronicler of emotions.«
I understand you're liaison with American roots music began quite early in your life. How come?
I’d discovered Country Music on AFM (American Forces Network) when I was about 9 years old. I didn’t understand the lyrics, I didn’t know what a pedal steel guitar was. It was the sound of the music that spoke to me. About two years later I saw Bobby Bare on “Country Time With Freddy Quinn” - and that was it. His performance spoke to me me on an instinctual, subconscious level. From that point on I learned everything I could about Country Music and its origins and eventually made the move to Nashville.
What were your major influences and inspirations when you developed your art?
I loved Eric Clapton when I was a young guitar player, especially his more quiet, laid-back 70s records. I loved JJ Cale, Doc Watson, Ricky Skaggs, The Band. From there I gravitated towards older Blues players like Muddy Waters, John Hurt and Robert Johnson. I really got into Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, the whole Texas Singer-Songwriter thing fascinated me. Today I keep following the path further back. I love The Mississippi Jug Band, Charlie Poole, Jimmie Rodgers, The Skillet Lickers, Norman Blake and old Appalachian music by people that were never famous in any kind of way.
You were touring all over Europe. I couldn't find much info about that time period, so please tell me a little bit about it!
The last ten years that I lived in Europe I played with a Blues artist called Sidney “Guitar Crusher” Selby, from New York City. We played a ton of gigs all over. I also had gotten to known Richard Dobson, a great Texas songwriter who’d spent many years in Nashville and in his later years had moved to Switzerland. We backed him up with my band and played a whole lot of shows and made some records together. I also played with a great slide guitar player called Billy Goodman, a California ex-pat. We played in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Poland, Holland, Italy, Spain, Ireland, all over the place.
Was it always your dream to make the trip across the Atlantic?
Yes. My wife had lived in the US for 5 years as a child. We got together when we were about 15 and she always wanted to move back. I always wanted to get closer to the music I loved and didn’t particularly love living in Central Europe. There was nothing wrong with it and I’m grateful for the opportunities I had there but I always felt a sense of wanderlust and wanted to move to America. We contemplated moving to Canada for a while because the point-based immigration system there would have worked in our favor. Eventually we won a Green Card and the decision to move to the US was made.
You made it straight to Nashville then. Why's that? Isn't Nashville somewhat of a cliche?
On the surface it may seem like that and if you visit here and only go to the routine tourist places you may walk away with that impression - although you’ll still have heard a ton of great players and singers. The real wheels of Nashville are churning on Music Row and in the studios all over town. There’s still great live music everywhere, there’s tons of great songs written here. Look at the successes of Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell. I could take you to clubs any day of the week and you’d see some of the best Country music you’ve ever heard. The Station Inn is THE place to go, to listen to Bluegrass music. The level of musicianship in the studio scene is unsurpassed. You really have to see it to get the big picture.
You obviously made your way with growing success. Looking back these 15 years in the US, what tops and flops immediately come to mind?
There are some artistic highlights, like working with Mac Wiseman, having songs reach #1 on the Bluegrass charts, getting TV and movie placements or playing the Grand Ol’ Opry. But the quiet success of writing a good song or playing something that satisfies you is just as important and still an incredible feeling, one that I’ll never get tired of. Just being a part of the creative scene here is a permanent high. I’m not sure that there were too many flops…there are days when you wonder why your work might seemingly be overlooked but you have to take that as inspiration to work harder. There’s a lot of competition here, so you need to learn to live with rejection, but that’s normal in a creative environment like Nashville.
Besides writing songs for others and releasing two bluegrass solo albums, I'd like to ask you about a special undertaking: The 1861 Project, featuring songs you wrote about the American Civil War. What's so interesting in that?
The American Civil War was a turning point where the country decided which way it was going to go. The effects of this decision can still be felt today. It was a multi-faceted conflict with tremendous human interest, and that’s where my fascination lies. I’m not a historian, but I’m a chronicler of emotions. Whenever people are going through hard times or periods of great conflict they double down on their points of view, or they change them…politically, religiously and socially. We can feel something similar today in the US and in Central Europe and I think those things are worth writing about.
You are about to release a new album, To Live In Two Worlds. What is it all about? Which are the two worlds in question?
“To Live In Two Worlds” stands for my fascination with history, musical and otherwise. I live in the here and now but in my mind I often live 100 years ago. I’m drawn to that period, its music, way of speaking and the spirit of those times of great change. It also refers to the fact that I was born in Europe but am now an American citizen who writes a lot about American history, which is obviously closely related to the history of Scots-Irish, English and German immigrants.
What can we expect from the album?
Musically both records are mostly Bluegrass but played in an older, more string-band oriented style. Half of these records are band recordings and the other half are songs with just me playing and singing, so it’s very raw and direct. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time.
The songs on these records correspond with each other, they are sequenced in pairs of two. Thematically “Volume 1” (which will come out in March 2020) focuses a lot on historic figures or events. “Volume 2” (to be released in September 2020) is a darker and in some sense a more spiritually-themed record.
The band are Mark Fain on bass, Justin Moses on banjo and dobro, the great Mike Compton on mandolin and Tammy Rogers (of The Steeldrivers) on fiddle. All great friends of mine and I’m huge fan of their playing. There will be 28 songs total, a lot of them were written with Tammy Rogers, some with my old friends Charley Stefl and Jon Weisberger. Trey Hensley, Sierra Hull, Jefferson Ross, Milan Miller and Julie Lee are some of the other co-writers.
Last but not least, have you toured Europe ever since coming to the US? Is there any chance to see you over here again?
Oh yes. I’ve been back to Europe many times. First touring Holland with David Olney, then with Mary Gauthier all over Europe and then with Nanci Griffith. Over the last couple of years I’ve been touring in Holland, Germany, England and Ireland with my friends Eric Brace and Peter Cooper.
We’ll be touring in Ireland in March and in Holland and Germany in the fall of 2020. So please visit my website and follow me on Spotify.
Photo Credits: (1),(3ff) Thomm Jutz, (2) Richard Dobson (unknown/website).