Jon Stickley Trio releases a virtuosic new instrumental album

GROWING GAINS: Jon Stickley, center, calls Lost at Last, "a more developed, serious effort that captures a performance by a well-traveled, road-worn, intimately connected trio of musicians, trying to express all of life’s joy, sadness, frustration and ultimately love through music." Photo by Heather Hambor

By their own admission, basketball legend Charles Barkley is not a role model, Patrick McGoohan’s Number Six from the cult British TV show “The Prisoner” is not a number (but is a free man) and Albert Einstein is not a genius, just curious.

Asheville flatpicking guitarist Jon Stickley? He’s not a lyricist — at least not yet. Joined by Lyndsay Pruett on violin and Patrick Armitage on drums, Stickley’s eponymous trio makes music that doesn’t easily lend itself to vocals, but its instrumental creations pack a rich, soulful punch.

“In general, I have difficulty putting my feelings into words,” Stickley says. “I think this is part of the reason I have spent so much time with my instrument. I feel a sense of relief when I play my guitar because I can channel my emotions through it and, with music, communicate with other people.”

Numerous sonic dialogues make up the Jon Stickley Trio’s riveting album, Lost at Last. A record release show is planned for Saturday, Oct. 10, at Isis Restaurant & Music Hall. Having honed their sound for three years, a successful Kickstarter campaign gave the three musicians a stronger sense of accountability to create the best project they could for their fans and the budget to make it happen. In turn, they sought a producer who could put their music through a creative filter to help them shape their sound.

“There aren’t a lot of other guitar-fiddle-drum bands out there to copy, so we needed some professional guidance,” Stickley says. “None of the names that came up from the progressive bluegrass scene early on felt right, so we started thinking outside of that box.”

One person who came to mind in the second round of talks was Dave King. While growing up in Minneapolis, Armitage took weekly lessons from the esteemed drummer, whose band The Bad Plus is a favorite among the trio. (“It’s just insane what they play,” Stickley says.) At one point during the producer discussion, Stickley and Armitage simultaneously looked at each other and said, “Dave King?”

“He was the first and only person we all agreed would be perfect,” Stickley says. “First of all, his band is an experimental-yet-accessible, internationally popular trio who we deeply respect. He is literally one of the best drummers in the world, and we wanted help marrying Patrick’s drums to the guitar and violin in a tasteful, cohesive way.”

Not having communicated with his former instructor in roughly a decade, Armitage emailed King a few videos of the trio and explained the project. Three months later they got a response: “Let’s do it. I’ll come down. —DK”

King and the trio converged at Echo Mountain Studios, where Stickley, Pruett and Armitage all have extensive experience as studio musicians and feel comfortable inside its walls. “Every time I worked there prior to the album, I was secretly planning how I would do my own record there. So, when it was time to make Lost at Last, I had the plans pretty well drawn up in my head,” Stickley says. “Doing our own project there and having total freedom and control was kind of like getting to play on the whole playground after only being allowed to use the slide.”

Vocals were part of the initial recording plan, including fan favorites “All That I Can Take” and Pruett’s “9 Curves.” The trio’s self-titled 2012 album — with Steep Canyon Rangers’ Mike Ashworth on drums — was purely instrumental, and the current configuration wanted to capture the 30/70 vocal/instrumental split of recent live shows. The night before the recording session, Stickley says King dropped a bomb on them, calling the trio’s compositions and instrumental musicianship virtuosic and recommending they set the vocals aside for now.

“Pretty much everyone was in total disagreement with him on this at first,” Stickley says. “However, over the course of the next few hours it started to make sense, and we figured it’s what we hired him for, right? So, we recorded another instrumental album, and, shortly after,  played our first all-instrumental festival set. Let’s just say it’s probably the best decision the band has ever made. We have focused all of our energy on the instrumental and compositional aspects of the music that comes so naturally to us. We’ll still sing a song or two every now and then just for fun.”

WHO: Jon Stickley Trio
WHERE: Isis Restaurant & Music Hall,
WHEN: Saturday, Oct. 10, at 9 p.m. $10 advance/$12 at the door


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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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