Picker, Jon Stickley

Imagine that your life had a personal soundtrack. What would it sound like? Jon Stickley, a native North Carolinian and longtime national touring artist, has been interpreting his surroundings for so long that it’s natural that his music would evolve into a personal soundscape, lush with many miles of experience with his own Jon Stickley Trio.

“I think the music is inspired by the lifestyle,” Stickley says, when asked about the heavily rhythmic guitar music he writes. “I handle most of the driving in the band. I’d get out of the van and play something that has that same energy, like a video game, weaving in and out of traffic.”

Appealing To Many
Jon Stickley Trio has attracted fans of all ages into their pocket of the jamgrass landscape through almost a decade of national festival touring and four studio album releases. Repeat listeners don’t seem to mind that the music can’t be easily categorized, and Stickley acknowledges that while bluegrass is his form of choice, the drums-guitar-violin trio members have become successful deviants of that form. “We try to incorporate the bluegrass technical side of things and put that into other genres. We use the same drive and keep the tone, articulation and technique where you’d want it to be in the bluegrass setting, and use it mainly over different chords and rhythms.”

With mountains for a backdrop—Stickley’s a longtime resident of Asheville—he’s developed an uncanny ability to transmute his environment and daily story into compelling musical ideas, rich with imagery and focused emotion, like a dramatic drive through the Alaskan wilderness.

Fitting Background
Stickley’s background in Parks and Recreation at North Carolina State University seems fitting when he presents his vivid musical concepts. In 2003 he worked in Alaska as an intern with Alaska State Parks, and the timing roughly coincided with his transition from a gigging drummer playing hard punk to a dedicated acoustic bluegrass musician: “The energy, the fast tempos, excitement of it, and the fact that you could do it anywhere you wanted drew me to bluegrass,” he says. While he’d played a lot of punk and rock up to that point, he explains that “bluegrass was the backpacking version of that. You could do it camping; it was like music to go.”

Summers after college were spent in the Colorado music scene playing guitar with Durango-based Broke Mountain Bluegrass Band; and Stickley long considered himself to be a “sideman,” evidenced by his subsequent years in that role with Carolina bands Biscuit Burners and Town Mountain. He’d founded Jon Stickley Trio as a side project before he decided to focus on it, despite his assertion that “being a leader of the band is not the most comfortable position” for him. “Learning to be in charge was so rewarding,” he adds.

A Certain Amount Of Pain
Does flatpicking at this level come naturally to Stickley? “I have to ease into it,” he says. “If I don’t play for two days, there’s a rebuilding process for me.” He advises other players, “Acoustic guitar is a very physical instrument; it’s going to take a certain amount of pain and suffering before it gets comfortable. You’ve got to do some weight lifting—build your calluses, your muscles have to be strong enough to press down the frets. The strings are stiff. You’ve got to build to a basic level before you can start having fun.” When asked how he mentally prepares to play, Stickley explains that music is his meditation: “Music is my form of relaxation. It grounds me and gets me in a better headspace overall.” Having had injuries in the past, he emphasizes that it’s important not to over play. “Make the most beautiful sounds you can with what you’ve got at the time,” he explains.

And what are those sounds during these months of quarantine and isolation, now that his high-paced driving days have come to a pause? “I barely leave the house, so the things that inspire me are more like looking out at my yard. So I’m not drawn to aggressive music, I’m drawn more to peaceful music,” Stickley says, naturally finding the muse in his situation. “I’ve been doing solo livestreaming for the first time ever—you have to keep the music going. It’s been an amazing step forward for me, and it’s forced me into some new ideas.”

While his self-professed Tony Rice guitar obsession is undeniable, Stickley has explored and mined his personal creativity to discover his own musical vista. And while his music is constantly evolving, Stickley confesses that he prefers to “go with the flow” rather than set concrete goals for his next chapter. “A lot of it is energy related,” he states. “The goals get defined as we move forward.”
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Written By Rebecca Frazier