Most people know Jorma Kaukonen as one of the founding members of the legendary psychedelic, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame group Jefferson Airplane. His distinctive and creative guitar style was easy to identify and enjoy. His riffs were rooted in African American country and gospel, even as they spun everywhere across the musical spectrum. Kaukonen left the Airplane to form Hot Tuna, which featured his acoustic and electric guitar playing as the centerpiece and raison d’etre for the band’s existence. The group still gets together and plays, but Kaukonen works primarily as a solo force these days. He lives on a farm in Ohio, runs a guitar camp, and promotes a simple rural life.
At 66 years of age, Kaukonen is getting as old as the bluesmen he used to cover and revere back in the ‘60s. He has been one of the best interpreters of Rev. Gary Davis and other similar stylists since the younger man was in his early 20s. He still performs Davis’ compositions with a delicate grace and sense of rhythm. On Kaukonen’s new record, he beautifully sings and plays two of them, including the spiritual “There’s a Table Sitting in Heaven” as a Piedmont cakewalk. Old timers who remember Hot Tuna’s classic Quah, which was largely comprised of Davis’ songs, will be overjoyed by the fact that Kaukonen’s still got it.
Kaukonen performs two other covers of note: Johnny Cash’s “When the Man Comes Around” and Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Come Back, Baby.” Kaukonen’s extraordinary acoustic guitar playing on these tracks is notable in itself. His hands deftly slither up and down the strings to give a slide-like effect one moment and a hard pickin’ feeling the next. Kaukonen’s skillful vocals are more of a surprise. He’s always been able to sing with precision and practiced a studied restraint so that he never appeared to strain because he never reached for high or low notes. He sang midrange with a gruff, manly edge. Kaukonen continues to do this, but his phrasing has become stronger and more nimble. On the Cash song, Kaukonen lets his voice resonate as he delivers the Biblical-infused visions with serious attention. Where once a listener may have wondered if Kaukonen meant to be sincere or ironic when singing this type of material, now it’s clear that he takes the song and its implications itself seriously.
The Hopkins song Kaukonen delivers may be a secular plea for a lover to return, but the song’s gospel roots are noticeably evident. Kaukonen keeps the arrangement simple; he’s joined by a bass, mandolin, and harmonica, and clearly enjoys the pleasure one gets while singing about misery. He may croon “Come Back, Baby” with an earnest ache, but oooh, it feels so good to say. Meanwhile, his fingers make the guitar strings ring as he plucks and pulls them.
Kaukonen wrote five of the 14 tracks on Stars in My Crown. They fall in the American tradition carved out by Davis, Cash, Hopkins, and others. Kaukonen plays acoustic guitar and is backed up by non-electrified stringed instruments like banjos, pedal steels, violas, and such on the others. He uses the greatest number of backing musicians on the opening cut, “Overture: Heart Temporary”. Thirteen artists harmonize and engage in gentle tribute to the Lord’s perfection, which must always be flawed in this Zen-like paean to the holy mystery of existence.
Kaukonen ends the album with two solo tunes: Roy Bookbinder’s homage to Reverend Davis, “Preacher Picked the Guitar”, followed by an instrumental reprise of Davis’ “Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown”. After all these years, Kaukonen still can’t shake Davis’ influence. That’s a simple fact that we all can take pleasure in.