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‘Lost Voices’ Enliven The New Collab Of Jutz And Stafford

Jefferson Ross

When friends and songwriting collaborators Thomm Jutz and Tim Stafford get together, their conversations turn to historic and cultural curiosities - a newly discovered photograph of an iconic bluesman, the feuding clans of old Kentucky, a Depression-era negro baseball team or the esthetics of early 20th century passenger trains. We know this because these ruminations became songs. Imagine what else they talk about that didn’t make it that far.

They are two of bluegrass music’s most experienced songwriters - both Songwriter of the Year winners - who share an unquenchable fascination with history, especially the life and lore of Appalachia. And they’re both interested in widening the scope of bluegrass and folk songwriting beyond rural tropes. It’s easy to conjure a little cabin on the hill, but who built it when, and on what hill, facing what direction? On their new album Lost Stories, their first together, that’s the spirit - an attentive affection for character, time and place.

“If I have one criticism about modern songwriting, especially in the singer songwriter realm, is that it's just so claustrophobic,” says Jutz in a three way conversation with his co-writer over Zoom, the same medium where these songs came to be. “It's so inward oriented, and there's so much more out there to write about that might be more interesting.” On solo albums such as his Grammy-nominated To Live In Two Worlds, Vol. 2, Jutz found his history-attuned voice with songs like “Jimmie Rodgers Rode A Train” that captures the life arc of the country music pioneer in three verses. His artistic collaborations, as on this new album and his prior project with fiddler/singer Tammy Rogers, have burrowed even further into old Americana.

“We both have interest in American history, Appalachian history, Appalachian culture, and, you know, those sorts of things go a long way, if you have that common ground,” said Stafford. “Some of the things we've written came directly out of recent books that he's been reading. So I'm really lucky to be hooked up with somebody like him.”

Stafford is a native Appalachian from Kingsport, TN who’s made his life in bluegrass music (Alison Krauss’s Union Station and his own massively influential 30-year band Blue Highway) as well as studying and teaching history at various schools. Jutz approaches all this as a naturalized American, having grown up in Germany as a wide-eyed fan of country music and bluegrass. I’ve covered here how Jutz came to the US and got established as a musician and record producer on the outskirts of Nashville.

Now Jutz has taken his passion all the way to a master’s degree in Appalachian Studies and a thesis about traditional music master Norman Blake, which is a pretty good place to look for the unifying purpose behind Jutz’s work. He’s a cultural geographer, it turns out. “Cultural geography studies how cultures and societies grow out of their particular landscapes but also how those societies shape and build that landscape,” he writes. It “looks at all the different ways places influence culture and societies and the ways those express themselves in response.”

That’s how Stafford and Jutz so easily come together to capture the essentials in “The Blue Grays” about a Black baseball team that barnstormed around the South between 1935 and 1955.

“Travel wasn’t easy and mostly done at night
They didn’t know a different way but they knew it wasn’t right
They often stayed in churches in the colored neighborhood
The white teams wouldn’t play them cause the Blue Grays were too good”

And in “Code Talker,” we get the fascinating details of how 29 Navajo Marines created an unbreakable code for combat operations in WWII out of the unwritten language they’d been forbidden to speak growing up in American schools. We also get the essence of why they mattered.

“A word for every sentence and no mistake was made
A weapon much more lethal than the bullet or the blade
The Marines at Iwo Jima would not have won the day
Without the ancient sounds”

Jutz and Stafford started writing songs together in 2017 but their weekly meetups took on new purpose during the pandemic when there was no place to go. Their chemistry works not just in their mutual fascination with past times and places but because they iterate with the same set of values and plan. Also, no small thing, the inability to play guitars and sing together effectively over Zoom led them to write lyrics first in nearly every case.

“Story is paramount,” says Stafford. “You get the story, you can make it work somehow. And, and then the melody, after you've spent 30 or 40 minutes working on the lyric, the melody is going to jump out to you a lot of times.” It’s part of a strong belief in intuition and working with as little second guessing or analysis as possible, Jutz says. “Tim has this thing that once after you've written a lyric, the first thing that you play on your guitar and sing, you should record because your subconscious mind has already informed your musical sensibilities what this should sound like.”

When the time was right, they curated a collection of 14 songs from the pile they’d composed and set up at Jutz’s log cabin studio east of Nashville to make the album. While focused on the twin voices and crystalline flatpicking of the songwriters, gentle support comes from Shaun Richardson on mandolin, Ron Block on banjo, Tammy Rogers on fiddle, and Mark Fain on bass. One song called “Callie Lou” written from a mountain woman’s point of view is sung here by bluegrass star Dale Ann Bradley.

Another notable thing about Lost Voices is that the liner notes are one of the last things music historian Peter Cooper produced before he died last December. “No duo has made a record like this because no other duo can,” he wrote. “Stafford and Jutz aren’t in competition with other wondrous bluegrass duos (sah, Skaggs and Rice, Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, or contemporaries like The Gibson Brothers). Music speaks to whom it speaks. It isn’t about better or worse. In the case of duos, it’s usually about somehow joining together to create something singular.”

That’s taken place for sure, making a bit of history of their own.

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Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org