Swing Low, Sweet Mandolin
(Acoustic Disc ACD-15)
Jethro Burns had an overwhelming influence on an entire generation of mandolinists, with players like David Grisman and Sam Bush leaping at any opportunity to sing his praises. In fact, Bush, while leading the progressive bluegrass battalion New Grass Revival, would play certain Chicago venues only if Burns were booked as an opening act. This insistence was more than the usual homage a younger master pays to an old sage and mentor. At the end of such evenings, after the fans had departed, thrilled at having heard the great Sam Bush in person, the New Grass Revival sound man would hand Bush a cassette of Burns’s opening solo set. Slipping the tape into his pocket, Bush would say with a smile, “All my licks for next year.”
Burns’s new album has just arrived, and it is among the best of his career. The only problem is, Burns is dead, and has been for six years. The irony is that this disc would never have been made if he were alive. Burns was considered a musical giant long before he died, but his impending death was the catalyst that brought about the sessions that have recently been issued as Swing Low, Sweet Mandolin on Acoustic Disc.
By the late 1980s, when these sessions were recorded, Burns had long been revered by legions of musicians as the world’s greatest mandolinist. Though the late Steve Goodman had exposed listeners to Burns by using him as an honored sideman for studio and tour work, Burns’s public profile was by then a faint shadow of what it had been from the late 1930s into the 1960s. But even back then many of his fans, only dimly aware of his abilities as a picker, knew him best as a grinner. Burns was half of the musical comedy duo Homer & Jethro, which released 35 albums, were fixtures on radio and TV, won a Grammy, and even starred in a series of commercials for Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. To H & J lovers, Burns was a hilarious, wisecracking funnyman who happened to play mandolin. Those fans made him a superstar in his day, but it was brilliant mandolin playing that made him a musical legend.
Burns, whose real first name was a much less comical Kenneth, hooked up with guitarist Henry D. “Homer” Haynes in 1932, when they were hired as staff musicians at their hometown radio station, WNOX, in Knoxville, Tennessee. They were 12 years old. At the same time, they formed their own swing group, the String Dusters, a name that would be reprised later as an album title (“String Dustin'”) for a group known as the Country All-Stars, which featured Burns, Haynes, and a young Chet Atkins, who eventually became Burns’s brother-in-law when Burns and Atkins married the singing sister duo known as the Johnson Twins, Lois and Leona.
The String Dusters evolved into Homer & Jethro, and by 1938 they were doing H & J full-time, leaning heavily on the pop song parodies that made them famous, such as “Smoke Gets in Your Eyeballs.” In between the comedic numbers they would insert straight instrumentals, but most audience members were there for the laughs. RCA eventually let
H & J issue a couple of instrumental albums (It Ain’t Necessarily Square, and Playing it Straight), which have long been sought by record collectors and are in dire need of CD reissue.
Soon Burns was playing on countless recordings as a session musician, and occasionally he and Haynes and Atkins would use leftover studio time to record instrumental jazz and country tunes. These tracks would be issued in tiny quantities by RCA without publicity, and then disappear from the catalog. This was the fate of the “String Dustin'” EP in 1954.
In 1949 H & J settled in Chicago to become regulars on the WLS Barn Dance radio show, and they never left. From 1962 until 1966 they made the Corn Flakes commercials, which Burns later described as “far and away the most important work we got.” Next came Las Vegas, which was a pretty amazing gig for two guys armed with only guitar and mandolin, but such was their popularity. Then in 1971 a heart attack killed Haynes, which left Burns as a solo act. Soon, however, Burns developed a close relationship with Goodman, who exposed a new generation to the magic of Burns’s playing.
In the early 1980s Jethro was appearing regularly at Durty Nellie’s in Palatine, and it was there that a new partnership began. Multiinstrumentalist Don Stiernberg had begun studying mandolin with Burns in 1973, and when he sat in with Burns in 1980 their relationship changed from student/teacher to colleagues. Burns formed his new quartet around their duo mandolins, and this alliance remained strong until the end of Burns’s life.
In Stiernberg Burns found an ideal partner–something he probably didn’t expect from a mandolinist who was only 24 years old. Burns grew up in an era of great songs that quickly became jazz standards. Numbers such as “Body and Soul,” “Solitude,” “I’ll Never Be the Same,” and “That’s A-Plenty” were Burns’s turf and at the center of his musical world, but by 1980, that world had all but vanished. However, Stiernberg had grown up in a house where jazz, particularly older jazz, was sacred music. Clarinetist Pee Wee Russell was a favorite of Stiernberg’s father, to the degree that dinner conversation would be silenced whenever a Russell solo came rasping off a record. Stiernberg shared Burns’s tastes. The one tragedy of their partnership was that it was short-lived, lasting only until 1989, when Burns died of cancer.
For someone so prolific there is surprisingly little of Burns’s work available on CD. The best place to find younger Burns is on a German label, Bear Family, which released a disc by the Country All-Stars called Jazz From the Hills that includes the fabled “String Dustin'” sessions. Bear Family has also released a box containing four CDs of Chet Atkins recordings spanning from 1946 to 1954, featuring Burns’s mandolin on many of the classic tracks.
Unlike with many artists, one need not look to the early years to find prime playing by Burns, because his prime period never ended. Nowhere is this more obvious than on Swing Low, Sweet Mandolin. Knowing that cancer would soon take his life, Burns told Stiernberg to “get some microphones and come over” to his Evanston home to do some recording. He also told Stiernberg to bring his guitar. The setting was familiar, the partner was an excellent musician and a close friend, and the tunes they recorded were ones Burns had loved for most of his life. These recordings were to be, in a very real sense, the last testament of a man whose music career spanned 57 years. The duo setting, with Stiernberg’s Djangoesque guitar prodding Burns’s mandolin, allowed Burns some of the openness of unaccompanied playing at which he excelled, while also offering him the added rhythmic drive provided by the stylistically simpatico partner he had come to know in Stiernberg.
The playing on Swing Low, Sweet Mandolin is vintage Burns. All of his trademark qualities roll off his pick with a conversational informality that belies the intense creativity of Burns at his best. His solos tell stories in the most direct sense, and are therefore as appealing to a mandolinist marveling at the skill and intellect involved as they are to a casual listener drawn into the constant surprises and melodic gems that gurgle from the strings. Burns’s technique and vocabulary, which involve glistening single-note lines, rich and varied chordal passages, and constant attention to a song’s melodic contours, as well as a relaxed but faultless sense of swing, make every track glow with the humanity of disciplined spontaneity. One gets the feeling that Burns could sit back and easily play on like this forever, but the CD ends after 47 quick minutes, leaving us with only the consolation that Acoustic Disc promises a second and final volume from these precious, and final, sessions.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/E.J. Stiernberg.