Long associated with the ragtime blues guitarist Rev. Gary Davis whenever he picks up an acoustic guitar, Jorma Kaukonen has extended his reach into the white country music of the 1920s and ’30s on his latest project, “Blue Country Heart,” his first album for Columbia and a stellar effort. Disc should receive the attention of anyone provoked by the early 20th-century mountain music found on the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack, but for now, Kaukonen and his blues-to-bluegrass trio are selling out shows to longtime fans of his work with Hot Tuna and the Jefferson Airplane.
Kaukonen, his voice’s plaintive quality rising on country songs and deepening on the blues, brings a unique twist to the pre-WWII country music of the Delmore brothers, Jimmie Rodgers, Louisiana’s “singing governor” Jimmy Davis and others by giving the songs an added orchestration that generally wasn’t found on the early, rather simple recordings.
His is a bluesman’s approach, which, in this case, isn’t all that different from that of a bluegrass master such as dobroist Sally Van Meter, in which each song is a vehicle for displaying technical proficiency.
It took this recently assembled trio — “Saturday Night Live” bandleader G.E. Smith played a boisterous mandolin — a few tunes to find their center at the first of four soldout shows, yet their command of the material was irrefutable; once a balance was struck, Van Meter’s twang and Kaukonen’s finger-picking danced around each other like veteran square dancers doing a do-si-do.
Within Kaukonen’s playing of the country tunes, there’s a reliance on certain chord progressions; for the guitarists in the friendly confines of McCabe’s guitar shop, it was a definite delight to see the nuances in his fingerings on “Red River Blues” and “Blue Railroad Train,” two songs that sound remarkably similar.
As the hour-and-45-minute set picked up steam, Kaukonen turned to the blues and his own compositions that gently drew a line between black and white cultures of the 1920s and ’30s and his psychedelic days in San Francisco. “I Am the Light of This World,” the Rev. Gary Davis number that Kaukonen first recorded on the “Quah” album in 1974, was startling in its ability to refresh and lift the audience; the Airplane instrumental “Embryonic Journey” and his take on Gary Davis’ “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” remain singular gems in the canon of guitar fingerpicking.
Kaukonen, at 61, has his life balanced between teaching at his Ohio ranch and touring with or without his Hot Tuna helper, bassist Jack Casady, who enjoyed Saturday’s opening set on the steps leading from the stage.
Kaukonen’s return to recording for a major label has yielded a significant result and, with proper marketing, the career of this spiritually gifted musician finally may be elevated above the residue of the Summer of Love.
Kaukonen has two upcoming New York performances. He’s part of the downtown J&R Music Festival Aug. 22 and on Sept. 19 he plays Merkin Hall on a bill with a cappella band the Persuasions and banjo wizard Tony Trischka.