Jon Stickley Trio does Jon Stickley Trio: An Interview
The first thing you need to know about the Jon Stickley Trio is that they are, in fact, a trio.
While this seems obvious, it won’t be when you listen to the Jon Stickley Trio for the first time.
It’s hard to believe that such a big sound can come out of a guitar, fiddle and drums, but see them live and you will be amazed. There are no tricks here (other than the deal with the devil fiddle player Lyndsay Pruett clearly must have made to play like that!), this band is just that good!
Attempting to describe the sound of the Jon Stickley Trio is a futile effort that would only cheat them of their true originality.
Drummer Patrick Armitage, who has hip-hop veterans Atmosphere on his resumé, infuses everything the Jon Stickley Trio does with his heavy and funky jazz-like grooves. Lyndsay Pruett’s fiddle would be equally welcome in a classical orchestra and a country jug band, but somehow if they were performing in a cosmic disco. Jon Stickley could be one of the best bluegrass flat pickers you’ve ever heard, but with bands like Operation Ivy as his influences, you won’t hear too much bluegrass from the Jon Stickley Trio.
Jon Stickley Trio recently released their third album, Maybe Believe, and have been touring heavily in support.
We caught up with the Trio at Rhythms on the Rio Festival just after they had finished their set in front of a very enthusiastic crowd. It was a Sunday afternoon, and the majority of people were in chairs or on blankets, until about 30 seconds into the first song, when the stage was suddenly flooded by fans and a dance party erupted. That’s how a Stickley Trio show can be – those who haven’t heard them before may not know what to expect, but are quickly swept up into the music and the energy of the three on stage.
The Jon Stickley Trio seemed to be feeling the calm elation of coming off stage after a very well received set when we sat down with them. It was a very easy interview, relaxed and conversational, but extremely interesting and informative.
As we sat backstage with the sounds of Tyler Childers’ set floating over us, we witnessed the subtle interplay among these three talented musicians. Jon, Lyndsay and Patrick are as comfortable together offstage as they are while performing. They often finish each other’s thoughts and sentences – much like they do with their instruments on the stage, but never overstepping each other.
The Jon Stickley Trio is clearly in each other’s heads!
We began talking about their travels in their van, ’Lil Stubs (so called because it’s a bit shorter than the versions some of the other bands are rolling in). The Stickley Trio and ‘Lil Stubs reportedly logged over 50,000 miles last year.
That’s a lot of time on the road, and we wanted to know how they handle it.
Jon Stickley: We all kind of do our thing, and really try to make everything as easy as possible. Rest when we can, and take time that we can really have downtime when we can. Take shifts driving, and try to maintain a sense of privacy somewhat. We go into our headphones a lot and listen to programs and things like that.
Lyndsay Pruett: We listened to S-Town [the Serial podcast] in our own headphones but all on the same day coming from Winter Wondergrass to Ullrgrass.
Jon: Oh yeah. It went from a murder-mystery to like a character study of an amazing person.
For a traveling band that spends as much time on the road as these three, little things like a good podcast can be huge when it comes to your day-to-day enjoyment.
Adventure on the road
Festy GoNuts is always trying to seek out the Adventure in music festivals wherever we can. We spoke to the Trio about this and got their thoughts. Unanimously, all three mentioned the Whitewater Center in Charlotte, NC as a favorite venue for seeking out adventure.
Patrick Armitage: Yeah, the Whitewater Center in Charlotte, NC is this great training facility for the US Olympic kayaking team, but they also have ropes courses and…
Lyndsay: …ziplines, and all these obstacle courses and stuff!
Finding the adventure on the road is important, especially for a crew that spends so much time together.
The Stickley Trio were even in attendance on Jon and his wife, Julianne’s recent honeymoon! While on tour, the group spent a little time at Niagara Falls.
Lyndsay: They got married, and then 3 days later we went on a 2-week tour.
Jon: But it was, it’s amazing. Niagara Falls is impressive. Very impressive!
And these events – festivals, primarily – are the things that kinda keep us motivated to do it.
Festivals are the best gigs
Festy: So, you guys do try to make the best of your road time and seek out the fun where you can?
Jon: Oh yeah, you’ve got to, you’ve got to. And these events – festivals, primarily, are the things that kinda keep us motivated to do it. It’s like, man, you can land at a place like this. They put you up nice, there’s backstage accommodations, and there’s so many friends now that we have that we get to see every time, so I’d say that’s the main thing, just looking forward to the people you get to see.
As fans, we get to see the artists on stage, putting on a show, entertaining us all and having a great time, but we don’t normally get a view into what goes into making that happen. The long travels, the uncomfortable accommodations, and the loneliness that can occur when being away from friends and family for so long.
A music festival can be a much-needed family reunion.
Jon: We don’t get together with our friends, because we are musicians. So we’re never home on the weekends or doing special trips with people. BUT – we get to get together at these gigs and it’s a big part of my social life.
Lyndsay: Festivals are the best gigs, for sure.
Festy: What are your favorite festivals – to either play or to attend?
Jon: We would all probably say Suwannee. Anything at Suwannee. Hulaween. Spring Revival.
Lyndsay: Yeah, the festivals, what they are, have changed. Definitely, I grew up there, I started going to those festivals when I was a teenager. But we’ve played them a bunch of times. When you have the festivals where the campground pickin’ scene is really strong, that’s the best.
Jon: Rockygrass changed my life when I came out here in 2004. I had only been to bluegrass festivals in North Carolina, and I was just blown away by what was going on. I mean, the energy, the good vibes. The way people play music together there, I mean, it’s towards the top for me.
I’ll take 4 copies!
Maybe Believe, the latest album by Jon Stickley Trio, was released in May. Like previous albums, this one was funded by fans via a Kickstarter campaign.
We asked about how that may have affected the album, and how it feels to have hungry fans willing to pay to help create more music:
Jon: It’s amazing. The first Kickstarter project we did two albums ago was a total life-changer. Putting our art out
there and asking people to invest in it, or at least just pre-buy the cd and be a part of it. It was hard to ask people for money, but most people were just thrilled to actually to do it. They were like, ‘Yeah, I’m so glad you asked. I’ll take 4 copies!’.
Festy: Does it change the process, the music at all? Is there more pressure knowing that the fans have almost pre-paid for this?
Jon: It was motivational for me. I’m like, there are people that are going to get this.
Lyndsay: Motivational more than pressuring, I guess…because we try to road test a lot of the music that we put on the album. Whereas the other two we did a little bit more in the studio arranging, or right before, kind of coming up with stuff, and then the music would develop afterward. And this one, you know, from being a band a little bit longer, knowing what we’re getting into, we’re just like ‘Ok, let’s like just get some of this material and play it.’
Jon: Our music grows a lot, because we let it. We’re improvisational, so we’ll make adjustments spontaneously and it’ll stick. So, a song a year later from when we recorded it will be completely different. So, the new album is more representative of that we let some of the songs grow a little bit.
You can just see out in the crowd that person contributed to making this album.
That always blows my mind.
Lindsey: [The songs] grow on the road. That’s what the road-test thing is.
Festy: Before they’ve made it to the album version?
Lyndsay: Yeah, and they’ve still developed, a lot of them, since then.
Jon: Every day, every single show.
Patrick: Well, something that’s really cool, when you’re far away from home, is we’ll see people wearing a special t-shirt that they got for the Kickstarter. And you can just see out in the crowd that person contributed to making this album. That always blows my mind!
Jon: That’s a Kickstarter shirt. You rock.
Lyndsay: I don’t even recognize you, but you made it happen.
Patrick: Exactly. I don’t even know you, but thank you so much!
Playing to the Crowd
Jon Stickley Trio’s songs are all extremely tightly woven landscapes of sound. They all sound well rehearsed, with lots of sections and changes, yet there is still the strong feeling of an element of spontaneity to the music.
Festy: Do you guys still manage to surprise each other?
Jon: I’d say all the time. Everybody, every show.
Lyndsay: Yes, definitely. It’s like subtle things, all kinds of little surprises happen. It’s just really fun.
Jon: A lot of the shows can be very influenced by the setting. Like today, it’s a beautiful outdoor, Sunday, daytime, amazing crowd. And we were just playing that type of set. A lot of the same songs, but just with a little more of a mellow, relaxed vibe. Sometimes late-night at clubs and shit, we can get pretty aggressive!
Festy: So the same songs will take on a different feeling based on the venue, the crowd?
Patrick: It’s pretty subtle. It’s more of a nuance thing. It’s more just the vibe.
Lyndsay: It’s more something that we feel. And it plays into those kinds of surprising moments or just the kind of solo that you’re going to take.
Patrick: I’m breaking in a new drum set. It’s like my second time ever playing it. So, I was a little more creative to see what it could do, but also a little more reserved because it’s not exactly right yet.
Jon: Those drums sound sweet!
You Do You!
Jon Stickley has deep roots in Bluegrass music as part of the legendary supergroup Broke Mountain Bluegrass Band, with Anders Beck, Travis Book, Andy Thorn and Robin Davis. Jon can still be found in all sorts of Bluegrass settings, like when we’ve seen him turn heads with the Bluegrass Generals. Just the night before this interview, Jon and Lyndsay sat-in on the Larry Keel Experience set. Yet the Jon Stickley Trio is so not at all a bluegrass band.
Festy: Was it a conscious decision that you wanted to form a band that was not focused on bluegrass, despite all of the bluegrass influences?
Jon: It was more like the band kind of formed on its own, and then we decided what kind of music we wanted to do. We weren’t gonna just do bluegrass with this setup. This setup needed a little bit of a different approach to make music that sounded right, in my opinion.
Lyndsay: Yeah, because the early version of the band had a lot more bluegrass. We were singing bluegrass. Some of the stuff that I think you would do with Broke Mountain…
Jon: Through some twists and turns the band kind of came together, you know, and then the music evolved kind of from our respective influences and background and where we’re coming from. I’ve always wanted everyone to be able to play like themselves. Don’t fit to some role. Let’s figure out how you can do you, and still do us.
This made everyone laugh initially, but then they all seemed to reflect on that a bit…
Jon: Yeah, we’ve got to fit together, but you do you. And I’ll do me.
Lyndsay: That’s what was so incredibly freeing for me in the band. Just to be able to be myself. Most situations that I’ve been in as a freelance fiddle player throughout my whole life, I always feel like I’m trying to play in the style of someone else… To be in a band, where you actually get to just be yourself, it’s just so much easier.
Jon: You don’t really realize it until you go back into another setting. Like, when I go back now and play with a traditional bluegrass setting or environment, it’s like, Wow, I’m realizing now how much what we play has gone towards just what I like to do.
To be in a band, where you actually get to just be yourself, it’s just so much easier.
You have balls. I like balls.
During the Jon Stickley Trio set earlier that day, someone in the crowd was overheard saying “This is a ballsy band!”
That stuck with us as we were discussing their musical style, and we couldn’t help but want to know their thoughts on that.
Lyndsay: Well, I feel that way, because it’s not the way I’ve played the rest of my life. I haven’t played with this kind of ballsy thing. This kind of rocking out. That’s not the way I’ve played the rest of my life.
Jon: Ballsy. I hear it two ways – like ballsy, as in our sound has balls to it. And also, that our music is a little more brave and risky, so it takes balls to do weird music.
Festy: Yeah, and just the configuration – guitar, fiddle, drums…
Jon: Yeah, to do something this different, it’s controversial.
Patrick: You can always tell someone who has not heard us or knows nothing about us, like the sound guys or something, because we’re like unassuming in our setup. And so they’re like, ‘well why do you play through bass amps?’ and we have to tell them to put us in the subs, it’s kind of gonna be like really intense.
Lyndsay: They think that there’s not going to be any bass.
Patrick: Yeah, I play pretty hard in this band, and it’s cool. It’s really cool. We’re a power trio, kind of thing.
Lyndsay: When I hear “ballsy”, it’s like, that’s the way I feel like I’m being. It’s like “Oh, I’m in a rock band.”
Jon: You’re band has balls. I like balls. Team America!
It takes balls to do weird music.
To the delight of a good many fans, the Jon Stickley Trio was recently added to the lineup of Strings & Sol, the amazing Cloud 9 Festival in Puerto Morelos, Mexico. With Greensky Bluegrass, Leftover Salmon and the Infamous Stringdusters already on the lineup, speculation was quick among fans as to the possibility of a Broke Mountain Bluegrass reunion.
Jon: Well, I kind of thought it might be fun. I had this whole idea, I was going to call it “Almost Broke” and have like P-Hoff and different mandolin players, like Jake Jolliff. But then Travis responded to the group text, he’s like, “Hell no, we’re not doing this shit without Robin [Davis]”. And I was like, “You’re right!”
Festy: So let’s get Robin!
Great idea! Let’s launch a Kickstarter campaign and make that happen!
Jon Stickley Trio clearly has their collective head in the right place and is making music in the best possible way – in their way.
Aside from Jon’s bluegrass background, we’ve been trying to pinpoint the reason that the Trio keeps appearing on mostly bluegrass lineups, like Strings & Sol.
The best reason we’ve come up with for Jon Stickley Trio to be at every bluegrass festival possible is simply, because we need them to be.
Want more Jon Stickley Trio?
After the interview, we hit the Jon Stickley Trio with the Festy Five.
Tackling the difficult questions, like breakfast cereal and prom.