Jeff Coleman finds strength in that old-time music
Sons of Jefferson has a story and a sound that folks in Northern California might not expect.
“We’re into the mythical state of Jefferson,” frontman Jeff Coleman said with a hearty laugh. “The actual state of Jefferson kind of scares us!”
Coleman was playing off his nicknames of Jefferson and Jeffro (like Jethro of The Beverly Hillbillies) in the early 2000s—before the movement became so politically charged.
Though he plays traditional American music on vintage acoustic instruments— guitars, fiddle, mandolin and banjo—Coleman’s bluegrass/folk group of rotating musicians (he is partial to Ralph Stanley’s term, “mountain music”) also throws a bit of punk energy into the mix. It’s something he’s further experimented with in his new Americana folk-punk art project, Taste Like Crow (featuring frequent Sons of Jefferson contributors vocalist/banjo player Skylar Gibbons and bassist Eric Hall).
Note that it’s “Taste” not “Tastes” Like Crow. “We both like shiny things,” Coleman said. There’s that laugh again. It’s infectious.
If you have a chance to meet Coleman, it’ll quickly become apparent the man has a sense of humor and creative mind that’s constantly whirring. The 50-year-old multi-instrumentalist has been playing music, starting with the guitar, since he was 8 years old, but has enjoyed a professional career for the past 20 years. His style was shaped early, by the tunes he heard as a child, and later, from the heartache and discoveries he made during a rich, but often difficult life.
While Coleman says he can’t recall his parents ever being in the same room (eventually, they split up), he does remember the melodies that filled his childhood homes in rural French Gulch, near Redding, and in the Bay Area: his mother’s jazz tunes, by the likes of Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, and his father’s bluegrass favorites by Bill Monroe and The Stanley Brothers.
However, as a young man, Coleman moved on to explore many other genres, branching out to play punk rock and African roots music, as well. But his father’s death, when Coleman was 26, brought him back to the music that his dad—a guitar and harmonica player—always begged him to play. Coleman picked up his father’s guitar and began strumming two of the Irish bluegrass songs the Vietnam War veteran taught him: “Red River Valley” and “The Red-Haired Boy.” He stuck with it, finding it a natural fit for his voice and his heritage.
“When I was younger, I was like, ‘These lyrics are kind of corny.’ And [my dad] was like, ‘Wait till you get your heart ripped out of your ass,’” Coleman said. “When I finally did get my heart broken and play these songs, there’s almost a mountain cry to it; it’s pretty deep and heartfelt when you can hear it in their singing.”
For a time, music took a backseat to raising his two daughters and his full-time gig as a chef, running a kitchen at a fly-fishing lodge in Mount Shasta. And when Coleman turned 30, everything came to a standstill when he found out he had stage three colon cancer. He was bedridden and bored, waiting—hopefully, to get better. Around that time, the cabin his dad built burned down, he caught his girlfriend cheating and his dog died.
It was hard not to drown in the misery. Then, an old friend said something to him that stuck: “Worry about the things that you can be in control of, and don’t let this bad stuff define who you are as a human, because your mind will want to do that.”
“I started focusing on trying to use it as a positive thing,” Coleman explained. “In a strange way, I feel a debt to music. Because it’s helped me in some of my rougher times.”
Rougher times also include his own divorce, the resurgence of colon cancer 10 years later and the permanent damage of his eyesight from chemotherapy and radiation treatment. Coleman is currently three years cancer-free.
Sons of Jefferson was formed after a move to Santa Cruz, where he began working with a catering company, serving musicians at festivals. He performed in Chico a few times, but didn’t land here permanently until five years ago, resettling to spend more time with one of his daughters.
Early in his musical career, Coleman caught flack for taking a nontraditional route, but in Chico he’s found a music community that’s been good to him. “I feel like I’m writing good songs, and I feel like I have a good energy when I go out to play, and I enjoy the people I play with. That’s really all I want out of it … that motivates me and makes me excited about being a musician.”
Oh, and Coleman says he and band mate Gibbons are “on the hunt for full bear outfits,” y’know, if you happen to see any.