20:20 — 20 Questions, 20 Answers
Published January 1, 2021
In part 17 of our series,
the exceptional Thomm Jutz —Grammy nominee for Best Bluegrass Album of 2020—
joins us for an inspiring and insightful Q&A.
Thomm—songwriter, producer, musician, teacher, husband—shares his view of creativity, moving to the US from Germany, the challenge and reward of producing, making history into music, and so much more. Thomm’s To Live In Two Worlds – Vol 1 is nominated for a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album of 2020. We hope you enjoy these sincere words from a truly gifted writer and dedicated artist as much as we have.
Photo by Jefferson Ross | Photos courtesy of Thomm Jutz
20:20 with Thomm Jutz
NWM 1): Please introduce yourself, briefly, as a musician and human of Earth.
Thomm: I was born in a small town in the Black Forest of Germany at the tail end of 1969. I started playing piano and the flute when I was six years old and started playing guitar when I was eleven. After high school, I studied classical guitar in university, but was always more drawn to playing American roots music. I’m glad that I have that classical background on my instrument—it helps with a lot of things; it gets in the way of some other stuff, but that could be said for many music-related things.
I love writing songs, love recording and producing, love to walk and run, love to cook and like good craft beer and good bourbon. I believe that creativity lives in a lot of places. My wife and I have been together for 35 years, and I am very happy about it. I’m a songwriter, producer, and guitar player, living in Nashville, Tennessee.
NWM 2): Ever since you were a little boy, you wanted to go to Nashville. Please tell us about what sparked that interest.
Thomm: I saw Bobby Bare play on a German country music TV show in 1981. He played “Detroit City” and “Tequila Sheila.” It changed my life, and it was not just the music. I was seeing an archetype that my unconscious mind reacted to. I knew that this was what I wanted to do with my life, and that very day I started playing the guitar, which has become both my life and my livelihood. It was one of those decisions that we only make as children, when we have that kind of “beginner’s mind” and trust our intuition. We are not cynical about life or ourselves yet and believe that truly anything is possible. I got to know Bare and had the chance to work with him a couple of times. It’s a thrill to come to that kind of “full-circle” experience.
I believe that creativity lives in a lot of places.
NWM 3): Now—a citizen of Nashville since 2003—you are one of those fortunate individuals who is truly “living his dream.” Share a little bit about those hurdles you had to overcome in order to make it happen.
Thomm: I had to leave my parents and brother and sisters behind and start from scratch, in a new country at 33 years old. But it was well worth it to me and my wife as well, since she had lived in the US as a child and always wanted to move back here. I had to prove myself in a town full of ridiculously talented and hard-working people, which is as much of a hurdle as it’s an opportunity.
I had to think on my feet and learn on the spot about how to behave in certain situations on the road or in the studio, but I don’t perceive these things as hurdles necessarily, they’re learning curves.
The biggest hurdle was to get a green card which involves tons of paperwork, exams, and interviews. After that, becoming a US citizen was a hurdle with more interviews and paperwork, but all of that’s okay; you have to prove that you’ll be a worthy citizen. It helps you not to take that citizenship for granted; you learn that responsibilities are as much a part of that deal as the opportunities it provides.
NWM 4): What was your first concert as a fan?
Thomm: I was a big fan of a German band called BAP when I was a kid. That was my first concert when I was 15. The second one was Bob Dylan with Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers on the Temples in Flames Tour a year later. I loved and still love Mike Campbell’s [of The Heartbreakers] guitar-playing and am a huge Dylan and Tom Petty fan.
Photo by Chris Richards
NWM 5): Name three things that make you smile.
Thomm: A good run on a cold day. A cold beer on a hot day. Dogs.
NWM 6): You are also a producer with your own TJ Tunes Studio. You have produced more than 20 albums in five years and with some notable musicians. How does producing compare to creating your own music?
Thomm: When you produce a record, you are a facilitator for someone else’s musical vision.
You have to create a vibe in the room so players and the artist feel connected.
You try to understand that vision and then apply your expertise to get as close to the artist’s vision as you can. You help them shape that vision so they end up with a product that’ll hopefully be conducive to their career. You put together a budget, a band, an engineer, or sometimes you’ll be the engineer. You are a guide to the artists throughout the whole process. Some people need a lot of encouragement. Some people need a dose of reality. Your job as a producer is to provide all of that and to make it look effortless. You have to create a vibe in the room so players and the artist feel connected. It can be challenging at times, but it’s very rewarding.
NWM 7): Who might we be surprised to find on your playlist?
Thomm: At the moment Thomas Kroener, a German avant-garde, multi-media artist who creates intense ambient music that I find very helpful in cleansing my musical palate. Another one is an album called Lost Voices Of Hagia Sophia by Cappella Romana that’s pretty high on my list, an album of medieval Byzantine chants.
NWM 8): You have worked with so many big names, including Mary Gauthier, Nanci Griffith, Jason Ringenberg, Jerry Douglas, and John Prine to name only a few. What has been a particularly rewarding experience or memorable performance in your career so far?
Thomm: Playing the Grand Ole Opry for the first time with Mary Gauthier was definitely one.
I think everybody remembers their first time playing the Opry stage, especially at the Ryman.
Having John Prine sing one of the songs I wrote with Peter Cooper and Mac Wiseman was another, somewhat otherworldly experience, especially because Prine was such a good friend with Mac and also because he really liked the song.
Nominated for a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album of 2020 was pretty mind-blowing.
Getting the news that my record To Live In Two Worlds – Vol 1 is nominated for a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album of 2020 was pretty mind-blowing.
I’m a lucky guy that I have had quite a few of those moments, but you have to carry on. I don’t sit around the house and think about my “memorable” life. “My life is a process, not an event,” as the great drummer Steve Gadd said.
NWM 9): What’s a favorite song?
Thomm: I think Bob McDill’s “Good Ole Boys Like Me” is a perfect country song. The imagery, the language, the musicality and the craft in that song just blow me away. I printed out the lyrics many years ago and keep them on the wall of my studio to remind me of my gold standard.
Another one that’s that good is Tom T. Hall’s “Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine”—another perfect song. Every word, every syllable is right. I see that song in colors … some stuff will do that to me.
There are many more, Richard Dobson’s “A Place Called Idaho” and Guy Clark’s “Dublin Blues.” My friend Jefferson Ross wrote a song called “Isle Of Hope” that’s as good as anything anybody’s ever written.
A favorite of my own songs:
It’s hard to have favorite songs of your own, I guess it’s like having favorite children.
If I had to pick one out, I really like “Hartford’s Bend.” People seem to respond strongly to that one when we play it live.
I wrote it with John Hadley who was friends with Hartford and lives only about a mile from Hartford’s house on the Cumberland River in Nashville. It came really easily one Sunday morning. The words and music seem to flow together really well and create an atmosphere of being on a boat.
I have a lot of new songs that I’ve written since March that I feel really strongly about. Some of them will be released over the next couple of years, and I’m very excited about those. Stylistically they are fairly varied, some really traditional-sounding stuff, some more progressive stuff, a lot of historical stuff, but also some very personal stuff about me or/and my co-writers.
NWM 10): Where were you and what were you doing when you realized COVID-19 had just changed your life as a performance artist and producer? I haven’t played a show now in over half a year, that’s the longest time without a gig since I was sixteen. We came into the US through O’Hare about eight hours before it all shut down. I haven’t played a show now in over half a year, that’s the longest time without a gig since I was sixteen. It’s freaky, but we’ll get back to it when the time is right. For now, everybody just needs to do the right thing and stay put.
Thomm: I was in Ireland with my friend Eric Brace, about to start a 10-day tour. Ireland’s first case was in the town where our first show was going to be, so that got canceled. The next day it was pretty obvious that we had to cancel all the remaining shows and try to change our flights to get home, which luckily we were able to do.
I haven’t played a show now in over half a year, that’s the longest time without a gig since I was sixteen.
We came into the US through O’Hare about eight hours before it all shut down. I haven’t played a show now in over half a year, that’s the longest time without a gig since I was sixteen. It’s freaky, but we’ll get back to it when the time is right. For now, everybody just needs to do the right thing and stay put.
NWM 11): You were in your first band at age 16 and many in Germany thereafter. Tell us a bit about those “blues bands, rock bands, Elvis impersonator bands” of your youth.
Thomm: My first band was a 4-piece rock band. I was fifteen at the time. We played all kinds of covers, the usual…Clapton, Cream, Led Zeppelin, Stones, and so on. The Elvis impersonator stuff came a little later when I was trying to make a living playing music. It was a good band, and it was fun to play the 70s Elvis stuff, the big arrangements, “American Trilogy” and stuff like that. At the same time I played with a Black R&B singer from New York City who had moved to Germany, as well as my dear friend and mentor, the late, great Richard Dobson. We played all over Central Europe, up to 200 shows a year, constantly driving. You have to grind out all kinds of gigs to get better and to make a living, so I did.
NWM 12): What not-so-obvious aspect of your life has been changed by the pandemic?
Thomm: Food has become some sort of highlight of the day. Planning for dinner and stuff like that. We’ve done all our grocery shopping by curb-side order or delivery from local sources, so scoping those out was fun. I actually find it more exciting not to know exactly what we’ll get delivered rather than going to some box store and buying whatever’s there. Cooking is a nice way to end the day with my wife. We actually make it a point to change from workout wear into regular clothes, have a drink, cook together, and end the day like that.
NWM 13): How do you express your creativity other than through music?
Thomm: Obviously with me it’s mostly music and songwriting, but I also write a lot of music for TV and movies, so that’s a totally different mind-set from writing songs. You are writing music without words for pictures, you try to create a mood through music that people can relate to within the first seconds, which is very different from the more traditional songwriting side of things.
Music, visual arts, and literature, although we call them the fine arts, are not superior forms of creativity in my opinion.
I teach in the songwriting department at Belmont University, which requires creativity as well. Every class and group of students is different, you have to react to that. I think creativity is everywhere. Gardening, wood-working, brick-laying, hunting….whatever it may be, it all requires creativity.
Music, visual arts, and literature, although we call them the fine arts, are not superior forms of creativity in my opinion.
NWM 14): If you could see anyone from throughout history perform who would it be?
Thomm: Skip James, Charlie Poole, Jimmie Rodgers, Robert Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, Riley Puckett, The Memphis Jug Band, Bill Monroe, Carter Stanley, it’s a long list. …
NWM 15): We are particularly interested in your fascination with the American Civil War and your expansive The 1861 Project. You collaborated with other famed artists for this project, which has been eloquently described thus:
These three albums have been described as musical historical novels “that suggest the Stanley Brothers and Alison Krauss meeting Steve Earle and Shelby Foote on the verandah at Tara.”
Please share about the concept and creation of this project.
Thomm: I have always been interested in American history, Southern history specifically. When I became a US citizen, I thought about this country and its role in the world a lot and how we came to be where we are. The Civil War plays a big role in explaining that. It was a moment when Americans had to look at who we wanted to be, where we came from and where we were going to go. Unfortunately, we had to fight that war to come to a decision.
The human interest in that war is nothing short of amazing. Think about the immigrant community involved, the Black population during reconstruction, figures like Lincoln, Grant, and Robert E. Lee in all their complexities. I just got really into it and started writing about it and pretty soon we had a full album. Then we realized that there was still more to write and made two more albums, one about the role of Irish immigrants in the Civil War and one about the Battle of Franklin here in Middle Tennessee, a decisive battle that’s not one of the well-known ones.
People were into participating on this album. It was exciting to have Bobby Bare, Maura O’Connell, Marty Stuart, and folks like that come in and record and then also play a show at the Franklin Theatre on the eve of the 150th anniversary of the battle of Franklin.
We write about home and time. The rest are just sub-themes …
NWM 16): Your appreciation of history reveals itself again with the creation of the album I Sang the Song by Mac Wiseman (91 years old at the time) that tells about his life in Crimora, Virginia, during the Great Depression. Please share about working with this iconic country and bluegrass singer and how this collaboration came about.
Thomm: My friend Peter Cooper and I had made a record with Mac before, called Songs From My Mother’s Hand, and we’d gotten to be really good friends with Mac. He was one of the most charming people I’ve ever met–with a crystal clear memory of his early life. He’d told us so many stories about growing up during the Depression, about playing with Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs and all that stuff.
Peter, being the great writer that he is, kept notes of all of that, so we just asked Mac if he would want to turn these stories into songs with us, and we did. Peter and I went to his house every Sunday afternoon for about 10 weeks and wrote these songs with him.
Since he was 91 at the time and had a hard time getting around, we asked Bluegrass artists who were influenced by him to sing these songs on the record. Everybody we asked agreed and wanted to pay tribute to Mac. We had Alison Krauss, Sierra Hull, Junior Sisk, Shawn Camp, John Prine, and a whole bunch of other folks come sing on the record. It was great fun to make, and it brought a lot of joy to Mac, which was wonderful to see.
NWM 17): What message, if any, is integral to your work?
Thomm: We write about home and time. The rest are just sub-themes of those two main themes.
Whatever messages are in my songs are best explained by and through the songs. I wouldn’t want to conceptualize that too much.
NWM 18): Strangest road story?
Thomm: There are so many…. We were on the road in Ireland with Nanci Griffith and after one particular show drove to the castle that was owned by the keyboard-player’s American expatriate, very wealthy wife. The bus couldn’t get up the driveway because there were too many trees with low-hanging branches. The production manager walked up to the castle and came back with ladders and saws to clear the way.
Once we got to the castle it was a pretty elaborate affair with hand-painted Tibetan wall coverings in this medieval castle in County Kerry. There was also a keg of Guinness and a bottle of Downes’ Number 9 whiskey involved. The bus driver was a Scottish guy who used the down time to wash his clothes and dry his underwear on the windshield wipers.
Phil Kaufman gave me a tour of LAX airport to show me where he had stolen Gram Parsons’ body …
The infamous Phil Kaufman aka “Road Mangler Deluxe” was our road manager for five years, so another one was when he gave me a tour of LAX airport to show me where he had stolen Gram Parsons’ body to go and burn it at Joshua Tree.
NWM 19): Apart from live music, what are you most looking forward to when things return to “normal?”
Thomm: Dinner at Adele’s in Nashville, followed by a show at the Station Inn. Being able to go have a beer with friends. Being able to teach at Belmont in person and not be nervous about it. Normal stuff … things not requiring so much effort. Going to Western North Carolina to hang with my friends there and going hiking in the mountains. Playing shows with Eric Brace and Peter Cooper.
NWM 20): What is one thing you would want our readers to know about which we might not know to ask? And what’s next for Thomm Jutz?
Thomm: I’d like for folks to know that Jefferson Ross is an incredible songwriter.
I’ve been writing a lot since this pandemic started. New projects I’m excited about are collaborations with Tammy Rogers of The Steeldrivers, with Mike Compton and with Tim Stafford of Blue Highway. I’m also planning to put out more solo stuff and hopefully something new with Eric Brace and Peter Cooper.
This Grammy nomination has put some wind in my sails, so we’ll see what we can do to ride this wave—I’m pretty excited about the future, especially once we have this vaccine and can come out from under this COVID rock. It’s all about keeping going and staying creative. For me, it’s imperative to keep it playful and not to take myself too seriously, while taking the work very seriously (which is a very loose William Faulkner quote).
In This House
A native of Germany who fell in love with American country and roots music as an 11-year-old, Jutz built a career as a touring musician across Europe. Relocating to Nashville as a young adult, he spins historical tales as reflected in the mind of a deeply insightful observer who, though foreign-born has always found his soul belonging to the American Southland.
To learn more visit https://thommjutz.com/
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