Jon Stickley Trio hones its sound and finds its audience

THREE'S COMPANY: Guitarist Jon Stickley's musical journey has taken him from math-rock to bluegrass. The lineup of his current trio brings influences of jazz and hip-hop. “We’re really good at fitting the show to the room,” says Stickley. Photo by Arvind Bhandari

“I was looking for some things to jam along with one day,” says local guitarist Jon Stickley. Known for his flatpicking prowess, he usually practiced to a bluegrass playlist. “But then I started going into some other areas on my iPod, like hip-hop and rock, and I started having more fun playing along with that stuff, but in the same rapid-fire style.” That inspiration of blending the rhythmic, fast-paced techniques of bluegrass with songs from the other end of the musical spectrum led to the formation of Stickley’s eponymous trio.

That band, which performs at Jack of the Wood on Friday, Jan. 2, includes fiddler Lyndsay Pruett and percussionist Patrick Armitage. “The band comes together to create [its] own sound that can get big enough to shake the walls or intimate enough to draw tears,” says the group’s bio.

In fact, the addition of drums was initially an experiment — Stickley’s trio began with a standup bass, traditional in bluegrass outfits. But flatpicking is a fast-paced, technical skill, according to Stickley. Before discovering the work of influential guitarist Tony Rice (a major impact on Stickley’s approach) the musician played drums with Durham-based math-rock band Strunken White. “It had a lot of similarities to the music we do now,” he says.

The trio’s first drummer was Ryan Oslance of Ahleuchatistas. He and Stickley met while both members of Shannon Whiteworth’s band (and they still perform together). When Oslance left for a European tour with Ahleuchatistas, Armitage stepped in. From Minneapolis, Armitage took lessons from Dave King of jazz trio The Bad Plus. “I feel like they probably struggled in the same way, in the jazz world, that we have in the bluegrass world,” says Stickley. That’s just one reason why he and his bandmates reached out to King to produce their upcoming record — they’ll begin that project at Echo Mountain Studios in late February.

“I think it’s going to be more ‘us’ than we’ve ever been,” says Stickley. “We’ve touched on some cool sounds that we really liked over the past three years. We’re going to expand on those ideas that I think are our most original sounds.”

He continues, “It’ll be a combination of arranged, succinct songs that make an impact and other songs that are a bit more touchy-feely — longer, expanded ideas that we can let happen spontaneously. There will be room for all the stuff we love and, hopefully, new stuff, too.”

At least some of Jon Stickley Trio’s eclectic sound can be credited to the band’s environment. Asheville’s mark, says the guitarist, is “the diversity of ears that are out in the crowd. People are accepting of any weird direction you want to go.” And though he jokes that this is a hippie town, he also points out that Nashville — where he recently spent time doing session work —  “has a distinctly different way of communication and self-expression.” Some listeners in Asheville, Stickley says, are actually seeking out those off-the-beaten-path musical forays. At the same time, the trio is working to broaden its audience.

“We’ve ventured into the jam band scene — we’ve done a lot of shows with Leftover Salmon,” says Stickley. And, while he holds himself to a bluegrass traditionalist standard as far as the timing and impetus of the music, the band is improvisational, with a combination of arrangements and loose structures. That lends itself to a variety of stages, from late-night, dance-party festival sets to chamber-style background music for venues like 5 Walnut. Stickley describes the band’s recent New Year’s Eve set — with flatpicking hero and new collaborator Larry Keel — as crunked up and raged out: “We’re really good at fitting the show to the room.”

Still, the guitarist is interested in honing his compositions and remaining loyal to his own creative vision. His truest sound, he says, comes from “my early morning coffee, solo guitar hangouts with myself.” It’s less about hard-driving bluegrass and more about achieving a pretty melody. Then, “Lyndsay can take a small part and expand it, or write multiple parts around it. And Patrick can add any number of different rhythms or grooves,” says Stickley. “It’s crazy how big a song gets from just a small thing.”

WHO: Jon Stickley Trio
WHERE: Jack of the Wood, jackofthewood.com
WHEN: Friday, Jan. 2, 9 p.m. $5

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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