German Steel: Thomm Jutz and Tammy Rogers Forge A Duo
Alloys make the strongest metal, so it was fortifying to hear that German-born guitarist Thomm Jutz and SteelDrivers fiddler Tammy Rogers had joined voices to record an album together. Key players in the world of bluegrass, Jutz and Rogers have built on a five-year co-writing relationship to make the new duo project Surely Will Be Singing. Rogers, a daughter of Appalachia and Jutz, a European expatriate who’s been fascinated with Appalachia for decades, struck up an ongoing collaboration that feels possible only in Nashville.
“Appalachian literature is something that I've been interested in a long time. And music from that part of the world has been a part of my life since I was a teenager. So my musical life is a process to get closer to the heart of that music and the heart of that place,” Jutz told me while sitting with Rogers in her west Nashville home, where they’ve come up with a lot of songs. “Me writing with people like Tammy who come from that part of the world, it's not an opportunist motivation, I don't think. It's just a desire to be close to that because it's something I'm interested in.”
Rogers believes her years of near-weekly sessions with Jutz, besides producing about 140 songs, have helped cast her heritage in a fresh light. “In many ways, it's kind of awakened this interest in where I'm from,” she says. “I mean, my grandmother saw the Carter Family in a schoolhouse. My parents met at a (Church Hill, TN) radio station, you know? Yes, I'm from there. And it's in me, like breathing. But there's a lot more than I can learn about that as well.”
The learning is etched in the grooves of Surely Will Be Singing, out Jan. 21 from Mountain Fever Records, a set of 12 songs that join a historic stream of bluegrass duo albums by artists stepping aside from their usual pursuits - Doc Watson and Bill Monroe, Ricky Skaggs and Tony Rice, Don Rigsby and Dudley Connell. These are recordings that make us feel we’re sitting in the musicians’ circle rather than out in their audience.
It kicks off with Tammy’s deeply experienced fiddle chip-chopping us into the riverine flow of the title track, which depicts a bird as a signifier for lives suffused with music making. That one’s a snapping band track with banjo, as are “Long Gone” and “Speakeasy Blues,” but there are quite a few spare and lonesome numbers that really push the artists’ voices and instruments to the fore. “Mountain Angel” is a guitar/mandolin-backed vocal duo that takes us to the hills through a graceful but tragic waltz about a widower in long-ago North Carolina. Jutz finds his inner mountain balladeer in the plaintive vocal on “All Around My Cabin Door.” While “About Last Night” feels more like a Nashville country ballad in its parsing of an awkward morning after. Matters get spiritual on “Tree of Life” and truly moving on album-closer “The Door,” which reflects on the decline and passing of Rogers’s mother.
Rogers and Jutz met at a music industry function in 2016, launching their partnership and unlocking a lot of stories about their very different paths to country music.
While she grew up mostly in Texas, Rogers is from a long line of East Tennesseans who are so very Rogers they’re from Rogersville, TN, though a definitive family connection to its founding hasn’t emerged. She was an avid fiddler in her family band and started writing songs at 15 years old. Then she secured herself in Nashville playing fiddle for Patty Loveless in the 1990s. She was a Nashville indie music pioneer, co-founding Dead Reckoning Records, one of the foundational businesses in the early alt-country/Americana movement. She made three solo albums for the label in the 90s, but it’s safe to say that most of her contemporary fans fell for her in her role since 2005 as fiddler and harmony singer in the Grammy-winning band The SteelDrivers. Along the way, Rogers also had a publishing deal that allowed her to co-write with Nashville legends like Dean Dillon and Don Cook. “By the time Tom and I started writing, you know, we had both been through countless other co-writing appointments. And we both knew how to write a song,” she said.
We’ve covered Jutz’s career here, but the short version is that he was captivated by country star Bobby Bare on a TV show in his native Germany as a preteen. From that point on, he was single-minded about being a better guitarist, singer, songwriter and about moving to Nashville, which he did in 2003. An American citizen since 2008, he’s become a valued contributor to the bluegrass and Americana communities. He’s part of a songwriting trio with East Nashville cats Eric Brace and Peter Cooper. He’s produced albums for Nanci Griffith, Mac Wiseman, Todd Snider and others. And after several nominations he was named Songwriter of the Year last fall at the IBMA Awards, because he’s penned a bunch of hits in that world.
One thing Rogers and Jutz found they had in common was a confident, fast-moving approach to songwriting. She says, “You know, if we've ever spent more than two hours on a song, I wouldn't be able to tell you which one. And I don't think the writing quality suffers. It's just the way we write.” And for Jutz, it’s a cultivated trust in stream of consciousness writing that was initially inspired by Julia Cameron’s classic book The Artist’s Way, as well as conversations with his late friend songwriter Tom T. Hall, both of whom encouraged an embrace of flow and tapping the subconscious.
The longstanding writing appointments moved to Zoom during the pandemic, and with less on their schedules, Rogers and Jutz thought they needed some direction. Rogers remembers saying to one another “Man, it would really be a drag to just feel like at the end of whatever this length of time winds up being, that we look back and didn't really do anything. And we all complain, I'm so busy. I don't have time for anything. Well, suddenly, here's your gift of time. What are you going to do with it besides drink too much and eat too much and watch too much TV? So we decided to make that record.”
For the cerebral Jutz, it clicked with his calling. “Why do you create in the first place if you don't follow through on it, you know?” he says in our conversation. “That doesn't mean that you have to be a musician or a painter. Creativity is found everywhere. Some people build houses and some people make records.”