John Freaking Renbourn

Dec 12, 2019
Austin, Texas, where I presently suspend my chapeau, brands itself "The Live Music Capital of the World." Said branding is the subject of much debate among the musicians who actually make that claim possible. Once upon a time, the story goes – the late 1970s, say – when rents were cheap and housing plentiful, one could have a nice life playing fifty dollar gigs, swimming at Barton Springs and keeping goats in a yard with a view of downtown. Now of course, the rents have shot up, the bungalows have been scraped to build McMansions for California expats and since gigs still pay fifty dollars, well, you can do the math. Progress, 1, paradise, 0.

Austin has gotten one thing right, however, and that's an organization called the SIMS foundation, which was created in the 1990s to provide affordable mental health care for local musicians. There are a lot of people doing a lot of things all year to make SIMS work, including my friend Jenny Reynolds, who puts on a "sort of annual" benefit show called Williams Night. The concept is simple: get ten Austin musicians on a bill and have them each play one song by Hank Williams and one by Lucinda Williams.

Jenny's my homie; we grew up 10 miles from each other in Massachusetts but didn't meet until we'd both moved to Texas. This was my second time playing Williams night, and my first time remembering all the words. The show was at Threadgill's, which is famous to most people for being someplace Janis Joplin sang before moving to San Francisco, and famous to me for being the first place I ever saw side dishes divided into "vegetables" and "vegetarian vegetables."

After I played, I ran into a guy by the bar who wanted to chat. It turns out he'd grown up in a small town in Pennsylvania with nothing but Top 40 radio. Once he stumbled across Acoustic Guitar magazine, however, his world opened up, and he got hip to the likes of Doc Watson, Tony Rice, Norman Blake and a host of other bluegrass flatpickers. He'd seen I was going to be on the bill and and came to the show to, among other things, hear me play for the first time after seeing my name on dozens of magazine articles more than two decades ago.

I thought that was kind of cool, because I have an ego the size of Montana, but what really struck me was how similar his experience with AG in the 1990s was to mine with Guitar Player in the late 1970s. Like him, I learned about all kinds of musicians by reading about them in magazines, long before I was able to track down their recordings or hear them live. The second copy of Guitar Player I ever read, in fact, had a profound impact on my taste and direction for years to come. Not only did the April 1978 issue have a cover story on Mike Bloomfield that I read over and over, years before I ever heard Super Session, A Long Time Coming or even Highway 61 Revisited – it also included interviews with Stefan Grossman and John Renbourn and a Grossman column teaching his solo fingerstyle arrangement of "Banish Misfortune" in dropped-D tuning, one of the first guitar instrumentals I ever learned to play.

A year or two later, my guitar teacher Jeff Wyman, discovering I was interested in fingerstyle guitar, wrote out the basic arrangement to Davey Graham's "Anji" in his beautifully stylized manuscript. I promptly devoured this and requested more, but there was evidently nothing else quite like it to be had. Jeff did say there was a version of it on Simon and Garfunkle's Sounds of Silence, so I somehow convinced my mom to take me, with all due haste, to the Strawberries record outlet at the local mall. There, we found the Simon and Garfunkle LP but, continuing to flip through the Folk bin, I found myself face to face with Under The Volcano, Stefan Grossman and John Renbourn's sophomore collaboration on Grossman's Kicking Mule label. Shazam! Just like in Guitar Player.

And so, later to S&G. I took home the LP of guitar instrumentals – a whole album of just the good parts! – and spun it every morning for an entire summer. From there, I hunted through the Harvard Square record shops for the first couple of Pentangle records, and got my hands on Renbourn's solo masterpiece The Black Balloon. While I managed to transcribe a few of Renbourn's things, and learn some of Grossman's repertoire from further Guitar Player columns, Renbourn remained something like George Hamilton's tan in Doonesbury: "One does not 'beat' George Hamilton! Tanmaster Hamilton is the standard against which all other tans are measured!"

A couple of nights ago, my friend and former Acoustic Guitar colleague Teja Gerken posted the link to an interview with guitarist Clive Carroll. I was killing time online, almost done rendering files for an advertising project, and I'd never heard of Carroll before, but as he started telling stories about meeting and touring with Renbourn, breaking down some of John's instrumentals, talking about tunings and demonstrating the sound of John's guitar, I got totally sucked in. You can click below to see it for yourself. In double-checking the link, I also came across footage, posted by Stefan Grossman, of Stefan and John's last rehearsal before John's passing. They're working on arranging "Hit The Road, Jack," which, curiously enough, has the same basic chord progression as "Anji." Make of that what you will.

Clive Carroll Discusses John Renbourn

Grossman & Renbourn – Last Rehearsal

More soon,


P.S. I'm currently working on new Youtube material for 2020. If you have a moment, write me back and let me know what your favorite Fretboard Confidential lesson of 2019 was and why. Thanks!