Songwriter and Americana are two words that are often hung on musicians as loosely as low-rider jeans on a pogo stick. In Tony Furtado’s case, they fit like tailored slacks. Since he picked up a banjo at age 12 – when the mainstream music was Michael Jackson and Blondie – he was drawn to the more adventurous sounds of live instrumentalists and folk storytellers like the Eagles and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. He saw John Hartford on TV and was enthralled by the banjo. Furtado recalls the moment when he rode home in the back of his dad’s pickup from the Alameda County Fair in northern California having just seen Doug Kershaw, aka “The Ragin’ Cajun.” He was “loving the show” and not afraid to be “a nut” on stage, playing fun, unbridled, folksy music.
Furtado achieved virtuoso status as a young man, winning the National Banjo Grand Championship in college, which launched his career. He had toured nationally and signed with Rounder Records before making his mark in Colorado while living in Boulder in the ’90s. He became a staple in the regional bluegrass scene and at the Telluride Blugrass Festival, where he rubbed elbows on stage with some of the greatest players of all time, including Bela Fleck and Jerry Douglas. Furtado’s second Rounder album, Within Reach, featured Douglas and Alison Krauss.
Boulder’s thriving jam scene supported a nurturing musical community with bands like Leftover Salmon pushing the envelope for mountain and bluegrass music. Furtado’s gift for writing soaring instrumental jams using the colors of American roots music – especially slide-guitar blues, bluegrass and banjo – attracted quality musicians from the state’s deep talent pool to accompany him on tour.
Furtado embraced the opportunity to develop as a bandleader and experiment with many styles and arrangements, encouraged by the jam and festival audiences. The Motet founder Dave Watts accompanied Furtado in many of these performances, and Furtado enjoyed the friendly, experimental aspects of the Colorado music scene. But eventually, he needed to break out of the superstar string player mold and rediscover his voice as a person and a musician.
Furtado moved to Portland, Ore., in 2002, broke with his label and found a home in the place that had called to him each time he had toured there. The city’s energy helped inspire him as a lyric writer. Although his vocal talents had been featured in his earlier work, he moved on from tastefully mined bluegrass classics like “Willow Tree” and “Rove Riley Rove” and began to hone in on stories heard, read and imagined. He recorded some beautiful collaborations working with sought-after producers and studio bands and continued his penchant for teaming with top live performers for his road show. His reputation as a fingers-blazing string player unfolded into that of a celebrated songwriter and vocalist.
A few years ago, Furtado’s art entered another significant period. The death of his father, his marriage to the sultry electro-pop songwriter Stephanie Schneiderman and the birth of their son provoked an album unlike any previous effort. On “The Bell,” released in 2015, Furtado’s music turned introspective and included personal songs about his father’s death and feeling worn out by music industry demands almost to the point of being rung like a bell. While it stands musically and lyrically as a stubborn chant-down of the unpacked baggage of Furtado’s experiences, it also conveys a transformative power as the “broken bell” sings sweetly and brings the listener into “Star,” a joyful love song to his young son Liam.
When asked what it’s like to attempt an ode to one’s child, Furtado responded, “I didn’t want it to be cheesy.” He admits to being a little too fond of presenting his son’s artwork to friends like it should be the coolest thing they’ve ever seen. So when he sat down to write to his son, he “didn’t want it to be like that.” After giving the song a listen, any parent will undoubtedly reassure him that it turned out just fine. In fact, the adoring dad’s heart-filled and hopeful vision of his son’s future will likely be passed on from Liam to his own children some day, a family heirloom as comforting as grandmother’s favorite rocking chair.
The personal material in Furtado’s latest work has elevated his songwriting to another level, and it seemed almost a relief to get these songs out. The nationwide tour that brings Furtado to Salida features performances of material from his latest album, Cider House Sessions, Live at Reverend Nat’s.
“For years I’ve wanted to have an album in my catalogue that has the feel and ease of a show played in my living room with a few friends,” said Furtado. He picked a Portland cider brewery without much history of live music performance because of its comfortable environs but partly due to the challenge and uncertainty of recording there. Staging a live recording in a place that did not draw his typical crowd offered some exciting unknowns.
He quickly gave up on self-producing the effort and hired some help so he could focus on what was left of a six-night run with great friends surrounding him. Mandolin player Matt Flinner, fiddle impressario Luke Price, accordianist Rob Burger and vocalist Schneiderman pull together 13 songs that succeed in creating that living room feel. Except it happens to be the last night of rehearsal for some heavyweight solo musicians playing the songs they have chosen to work out together, each adding an undeniable stamp that comes from really enjoying playing together.
And if you think that four rangy instruments like this would get way too busy, you would be wrong. Somehow they sound much like a left and right hand. Or four hands. Regardless, this new recording showcases the unique sound that is Tony Furtado with his ability to create by picking just the right group of players for the moment, consistently reinventing his music and keeping it fresh.
Risks like this latest album from an artist who has achieved world-class status should be shared so check out Cider House Sessions, Live at Reverend Nat’s here. Better yet, catch Furtado and company live at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 2, at Salida SteamPlant.