I grew up in the city of Sheboygan, Wis. and in the late 1960s I began playing the guitar. Like many young folks, I was swept up in the popular music of the time, which included not only rock from both sides of the Atlantic, but also folk music, and perhaps the most seminal of influences - blues.
In the early 1970s I heard three guitarists who have been (and continue to be) an enormous influence on me and my particular music direction. They are John Fahey, Mississippi John Hurt, and Merle Travis. John Fahey was the first fingerpicking guitarist I listened to intently to learn the basics of this wonderfully eclectic and adaptable style of playing. Fahey played mostly original instrumental compositions that borrowed heavily from pre-war country blues and blending in other sounds and influences to make bold, visionary artistic statements. He also played in open tunings on acoustic guitar, giving the instrument a rich sonority and different tonal possibilities. The music of John Fahey opened a world of music to me that I am still exploring and using in my work today.
When I first heard Mississippi John Hurt’s “Last Sessions” LP, I was mesmerized by his beautiful fingerpicking sound. Unlike Fahey, who played with a forceful, deliberate attack on the strings, John Hurt’s picking sounded to me like a river, the notes flowing in a soulful, rhythmic stream coming from somewhere ancient. His voice and his songs convey a calm wisdom, although at the time I had no idea where John had come from (other than Mississippi) or what his life had been like. I knew that John’s playing was beautiful and fundamental, and I went about trying to unravel his picking to learn how to play like him.
It wasn’t until 2004 that I began recording John Hurt’s songs after I visited Hurt’s hometown of Avalon, Mississippi, on the Eastern edge of the Delta. So much has changed in Mississippi since John lived there (1892-1966), but the landscape around Avalon and Carrollton remains mostly the same. I made many trips to the area in the following years, and got to know pretty well some of the folks who lived on the same old dirt roads John Hurt walked on. I ended up recording four CDs of John’s songs, and I’m even mentioned in a recent Hurt biography. I play a few of John’s tunes every time I perform, and everywhere I go people enjoy his music. – Jim Ohlschmidt