Multi-instrumentalist Joe Craven reinvents old murder ballads and other Americana on his new CD
Blame the damned dog. Joe Craven was convalescing at home in Dixon on a recent Tuesday evening, nursing a bad case of poison oak he’d contracted over the weekend while visiting acoustic guitarist Alex DeGrassi in Mendocino County. DeGrassi’s dog had reminded Craven of a beloved but now departed pooch, and they started roughhousing. And soon the old, dreaded “leaves of three, leave it be” maxim was coming home to roost. “You’re in this great moment, connecting with another beast,” he said, laughing, “and the payoff is this.”
There’s nothing like a little encounter with Toxicodendron diversilobum to slow a busy person down, and Craven—who admitted to playing the mandolin and eight other stringed instruments, as well as various percussion instruments—is no couch potato. Craven has been a member of the landmark mutant bluegrass-jazz combo the David Grisman Quintet for the past 14 years. When he isn’t performing with Grisman, he chases his own muse, which has led him to several different activities. “I’m real involved in education,” Craven said.
Craven’s involvement with Grisman’s group happens during warm weather. So, during the winter months he needed to find a place to focus. “When I’m off the road with the quintet, I do outreach in schools,” he said. “I do motivational presentations for students. Now that’s a big buzzword in the adult, professional community—motivational speakers and this kind of thing. But I really like to take that same spirit—the idea to inspire, with words in addition to actions—to students, to kids. Everything from preschool to university level.”
So, Craven’s the guy who shows up with mandolins, fiddles, guitars, banjos and sundry other noisemakers. “I have a romance with instruments that have a lot of different sonic character about them,” he said, “which usually means things from a lot of different cultures.” Many of these are acoustic, but he still gets off on raising a racket with electric instruments, which was how he originally cut his musical teeth.
Craven grew up in the Southeast, moved around a lot and landed at the University of South Carolina, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in museology and aesthetics. Then, he followed his father out to Reno, his introduction to the Wild West, where Craven managed an art gallery. Craven is no stranger to the art world; in his spare time, he paints. To him, making music and painting are not far removed.
“Over the years, I’ve become really enchanted by just sounds, a lot of different sounds,” he said. “I think of myself, musically, as a painter—in terms of using a lot of different tools to create a lot of different colors, rather than pulling a lot of different color from one specific thing, which is a valid approach, as well.”
On his newest musical project, a CD titled Mo’Joe (Blender Logic Creative Arts), Craven is reinventing the folk idiom, the kind of songs on the Smithsonian Folkways’ Anthology of American Folk Music compiled by Harry Smith in the 1950s. Anyone who’s ever listened to folk revivalists or learned how to pick guitar from a Mel Bay instructional should be familiar with a repertoire including “Banks of the Ohio,” “John Henry” and “Columbus Stockade Blues.”
What Craven has attempted here is along the lines of what Nick Cave, Johnny Cash, Tarbox Ramblers and others have done, which is to breathe new, electrified life into these musical links to what writer Greil Marcus once called “old, weird America.”
“That is, like, old, old stuff,” Craven said. “But it’s also about real-life experiences. It’s honest. I mean, today we deal with so much violence and weird, aberrant behavior that gets thrown at us on the television set. The romance is gone; it’s not even that weird to us anymore. Whereas this stuff is placed in music in a [certain] way; these are stories, documents—the stuff of the day.”
In other words, news: murders, strange deaths. Even man bites dog. Well, not really.