The World’s Fastest Flat Picking Guitar Picker Lives in Our Mountains!
Playing musical instruments is like eating potato chips for Curtis Jones. He can’t stop with just one! Curtis discovered his musical talents in middle school and progressed so rapidly that he started earning a living in the music business right out of Pebblebrook High School. In the 30-plus years since, he’s traveled the world with several bands and has settled into the good life in Blairsville these days after earning the reputation as “The World’s Fastest and Cleanest Guitar Player.” The Best of the North Georgia Mountains Publisher Mitch Talley recently took a few minutes to talk with this talented musician and singer, as he was just finishing up teaching a flat picking guitar class at John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, N.C. Here’s what he had to say about his inspiring career during our 45-minute talk.
Now, what is John C. Campbell Folk School? I’m not familiar with that. It’s a folk school in North Carolina and they do weekly classes on folk art. They have music courses and basket weaving, quilt making, metal art, just everything to do with folk art. It’s a wonderful school. They do it all year long and they have classes every week. So we were up there teaching this past week. We were doing a flat picking guitar class. When did you start playing the guitar yourself? I started playing guitar when I was in middle school, late middle school. I originally started with the trumpet and saxophone in early middle school. Right into high school, I switched over and started playing guitar. OK. Where did you go to school? I went to South Cobb High School for my first two years and then went to Pebblebrook High School my last two years and graduated from there. Can I ask how old you are? I’m 52. That’s a good age. You know, I feel better in my 50s than I actually did in my 40s. I’m in much better shape. And you know, being out on the road back in my 30s, I ate a lot of cheeseburgers and didn’t exercise much. So I feel much better in my 50s so far. Can you give us an idea of how your career progressed? Yeah. I was fortunate enough to have very supportive parents, you know? And my mom’s still alive. They got me the instruments I needed, and I just got real dedicated to it in high school. So just out of high school, I landed my first professional gig actually with Cotton Patch Gospels, a theatrical play that went on the road and we were gone for four months. When I was out on the road with them, I just decided that’s what I really wanted to do, keep trying to make a living playing music. So it’s the only job I’ve ever done. It’s the only job I’ve ever wanted to do. Wow. So, yes, I was fortunate enough to just land that gig right out of high school and it kind of inspired me to keep going with it.
And what all have you done since then? I started a band called Misery River, a local bluegrass band based out of Dallas, Ga. We wound up getting a lot of corporate gigs and playing a lot of the big bluegrass festivals for a couple of years. After that, I went to an annual convention for IBMA, which is International Bluegrass Music Association, and met the Schankman twins out of California there. They hired me, and that was really my first big professional job. I spent a lot of time on planes going back and forth to California and then flying all over the country playing. I did that for seven years. After that, I joined a band called Bluegrass, Etc., and that was the band that I really started going more worldwide. We toured Europe a lot more than we did the States. So I stayed pretty much on a plane for at least 200 days a year every year for about three and a half, four years. After that, I decided to start focusing on the studio so I built a recording studio and kind of learned how to do all that and then decided to start staying closer to home. So I still play and perform a ton, but it’s all within four or five hundred miles usually. If it’s anything more than that, I’ll do it for sure, but I do it a lot less. So now I’m able to stay home. And, you know, I do a lot of teaching. I teach a lot of clinics and seminars and also have a lot of wonderful private students, too. I do that all around Georgia and North Carolina and then play just a bunch of different gigs, corporate gigs, festivals, and then there’s some bar gigs. We play at Rocco’s in Jasper, play there quite a bit. We do a lot of restaurant gigs and stuff like that. Sounds like you stay pretty busy! Man, we run the roads, that’s for sure. It’s a blessing, though. It’s so, so nice to do what you love for a living. When you were starting out in middle school, when did it hit you that, hey, I’ve got some talent with this. Was it like immediately or did you work for years? I’ve always loved music. I remember my mom telling me when I was a little baby, she would play music for me in the crib and I would start patting my foot and kind of hitting the side of the crib in time with the music. She remembered all that. In middle school I was walking by a classroom one day and the choral instructor was in there playing piano and he was just playing some beautiful stuff on it. I just kind of stuck my head in and he asked me to come in and said, do you play or sing anything? And I said, no, I’ve never tried. So he hit a couple of notes on the piano and said can you hum those notes. So I did. He said, man, you’ve got great pitch, you know, can I have a meeting with your parents? I told mom and dad, and they went up to the school and he told them he’d really like to get me in band and choral. So while we were in chorus, I just got real involved with singing. And then he asked me, how would I like to play an instrument, too? At that time, I really didn’t know too much about music. I didn’t know anything about jazz, which is my favorite music, and all of my favorite musicians are horn players now. But I didn’t know that then. The instrument that really stuck out to me was the trumpet, so that’s the instrument I picked. And of course, my parents got me one, and I started learning, just generally how to read scales and how to think about that kind of thing. So I did trumpet for about a year and a half to two years. I really didn’t get bored with it, just wanted a different sound so the tenor saxophone kind of caught my ear and I did that for another year. Then how it happened with guitar is I was just listening to some music and heard some really cool-sounding flat picking music, which wound up being a Doc Watson recording. Just something about the tone of the guitar really captured me, so mom and dad got me a guitar and I got a chord book and learned a few chords and just kind of started trying to figure out some of the stuff Doc Watson was doing. And then it just kind of snowballed from there. I got so involved with it and I went to a bluegrass festival shortly after that – this would have been early high school – in Dallas, Ga., called the Raccoon Creek Bluegrass Festival, and they actually still have that festival.
Oh. Just the sound of live bluegrass really captured my imagination, and the guitar especially. So at that festival, I remember there was a record seller there. I still remember his name. Carl Queen was his name. And I asked him what I should get to listen to great guitar music. He actually handed me a Tony Rice and Ricky Skaggs record and said, ‘That’s on the house, man. I hope it inspires you.’ So I took that record home and dissected it. It was a vinyl record, and I stuck my finger on it to slow it down so I could hum what they were playing and try to figure it out. That’s always amazed me. I assume you can listen now and just start playing a song. Yeah, now that I’m more familiar with scales and all that. And I’ve trained my pitch now to hear notes, so if I hear a chord, I can figure out what they’re playing. I noticed on your website that you play with several bands. Are you still active with those? Yeah. I have a bluegrass band called Primal Roots. And then I have a jazz band called Insonnia. We do a lot of traditional swing type jazz, a lot of original stuff, and then some more new jazz. We throw in some bee-bop. And then we also have a rock band called Echoes of Imagination that is kind of Pink Floyd inspired. We all love the music of Pink Floyd and write all our own music. But it’s very inspired by Pink Floyd. Yeah, I enjoyed your version of “Minor Swing.” That was good. Oh, thank you. That’s a piece that was written by the great Django Reinhardt, of course. There’s a lot of players that I adore, but Django Reinhardt is probably my favorite guitarist of all time. I really listen to a lot of Django’s music, so that was done as kind of a tribute to him. Did you write that song? No, that was done by Django, but I have composed and written a little bit over 800 pieces of music in my career, and I’ve released 19 records to date, all originals. Everything I’ve ever recorded is originals that I have written. What was your first recording? It was called “Blue As I.” It was a bluegrass record that at the time I was with the Schankman twins. And so I was real inspired to write a lot of bluegrass music. I just kind of sat down and the first song I ever wrote is actually on that record. It’s the second song on the record. I just got real inspired to write. At the time, there were a lot of new bands coming out with original material. In the past, bluegrass had been everybody doing Flatt and Scruggs and Bill Monroe tunes. But at the time, it got to be a trend for the new bands to start writing their own material. So I wrote 12 songs and then decided to put them on a record. I recorded that project with a lot of Alison Krauss’ band, at that time. They’re all good friends of mine. So I talked them all into recording with me so we just went in the studio in Virginia and recorded that record.
Now, when would that have been? That would have been 1998. I think I started recording that record in ‘96 and we recorded most of the guitar tracks and most of the vocal tracks first. And then it took a couple of more years to get everybody else’s stars lined up with mine so we could get them in studio and perform on that record. It took a couple of years to get it done, but it was finally released in ‘98. I noticed on one of the songs that you play a whole bunch of different instruments. How many do you play? I play 22 different instruments. Wow! Yeah. I’ve actually got a record called “Fused” that I did a couple of years ago where I played all 22 instruments on that one. Kind of what has inspired me over the years is getting to go to all these foreign countries and see all these other cultures and the way people live through music. So everywhere I would go, say, for instance, France or Brazil or Italy or Spain I would get out and roam the countryside and try to discover local music talent, try to find musicians that were local, and then study some of their music. So it led me to getting a lot of instruments that at the time I didn’t even know what some of them were. Fortunately, I had enough interest to get the instrument and bring it home and try to learn how to play it. Can you name all 22 for us? Ok, well I can try. Let’s see, we got guitar, mandolin, fiddle, bass, piano, banjo, sitar, trumpet, saxophone, clarinet, cello, bassoon, drums, tabla, shamisen, erhu, tanpura, flutes, balalaika, tin whistle, charango, and steel guitar. Those are the 22 I played on my record Fused. But I’ve actually added a new instrument since that record. It’s called a waldzither, and it’s a German instrument that is very different. It’s a 14-stringed instrument and it’s in the lute family. I guess it’s up to 23 instruments now! Since you play so many instruments from other countries, can you talk a little bit about what it’s like to actually perform overseas? I mean, you’ve been to how many countries? I’ve been to most of them! Let’s see, it probably would be easier to just send you a list of ones I haven’t been to. I haven’t really been to the Middle East very much. I really wanted to go when I was playing overseas a lot, but there really wasn’t a big market for American musicians going over there at that time. And then, of course, after 9/11, you know, I was a little bit nervous to go over there because of all the world tension. I mean, it just got too dangerous. We did get a call one time to go to Iraq to play at a convention hotel. At that time, 9/11 had happened not too long before, and I was really just too nervous to go plus I didn’t really want to bring a lot of the musicians in my band at that time. You know, they had families and I just was too nervous about it. But we’ve toured all over Europe, Spain, Germany, France, Italy, of course, England, been to the U.K. In fact, I used to teach music in the public schools or do seminars over in France and England twice a year. And then again, this was before 9/11. So that kind of stopped after that. All over Europe and Ireland. I love Prague. We played in Prague a couple of times and Transylvania and all over that region. So it’s been quite a few different countries. But the experiences over there were always tremendous. Oh, yeah, Russia, too. We used to go to Russia twice a year to play. It’s just been great. I mean, just getting to meet other cultures and ironically enough and I know it sounds weird, but at the time we were playing mostly bluegrass and bluegrass music is really huge over there. And I think it’s because they don’t really get it like in this country, you know, in Georgia or North Carolina or Virginia, those states, I mean, you can pretty much throw a rock and hit a bluegrass musician. But over there, they just really don’t get to hear authentic bluegrass music very much so it always went over real well and we were always treated wonderful.
Do you mostly do instrumentals? I know I’ve heard you singing some on your website. It really depends on the music and what we’re hired to come and do. Like when we go out for bluegrass, we generally do more singing than instrumentals. So in a 12-song set, we’ll probably do 10 vocal songs and two instrumentals. If we go out and do jazz, though, we do mostly instrumental. We might throw in a couple of old standards like “Summertime” or “My Favorite Things,” but primarily in a 15-song set of jazz, we would probably do 13 instrumentals and maybe two vocals. And then with the rock band it’s kind of right in the middle because just like Pink Floyd, we do a lot of ambient instrumental music leading into song, so probably half of our set is vocal, half is instrumental. I guess you have noticed that music is the international language. Oh, it definitely is. I mean, I met several people in Spain when I was over there that didn’t speak hardly any English. And I, of course, didn’t speak any Spanish. But we communicated just through music. You know, we jammed together, including one wonderful afternoon with a man who had an antique shop. I went in there and he recognized me from the show that we had played the night before. He closed the shop and took me upstairs and he had a bunch of flamenco guitars up in the attic. So we sat down and just pretty much played for five hours without stopping. Wow. And you could hear people banging on his door downstairs trying to getting in. But he locked it up and we just sat and played and spoke very little to each other other than through the guitar. So it’s definitely a universal language that people can relate to. What might be your most memorable performance that you’ve done in your career? That’s a good question. You know, I’ve played a lot of memorable performances, but one sticks out to me more than any. And this is going to be funny to a lot of people. But I performed at a casino in Russia. I remember the weather when we were there. It was the winter time and it was just frigid cold. So it was everything that you would think when you think of St. Petersburg, Russia. You know, we got on the subway and when we came out, it was pouring snow. We went in this casino, and the gig didn’t start until midnight. So we started playing from midnight to 2 and then we had an hour off to walk around the casino. And then we came back on for another two hour set at 4. For some reason, that gig always stands out to me as my most memorable. Everything was just magical about it. You know, we were drinking good coffee on stage and we were in a casino dressed up nice and everybody was dressed nice. And it just really stuck out as one of those things that I’ll never forget.
You’re billed as the world’s fastest and cleanest acoustic guitarist. When did you reach that level? I’m very lucky in that I’ve always been able to play really fast. I never, never really set out to be a fast guitar player. My main thing was, I wanted to be really clean, so I always practiced a lot to make sure that when I played a solo or played notes that they’re really clean. I guess in doing that and playing so much in practicing difficult runs and scales that it really helped my speed as well. I can remember never really struggling to play fast. It always just kind of came natural for me, putting the work in, of course. I just didn’t pick up a guitar and start playing that fast. So there was a lot of hours there spent doing certain runs and certain lead lines and scales, just doing them over and over and over again to make sure they were clean. So pretty much, right off the bat, people started calling me really fast. Then when I joined the Schankman twins, I guess that’s when the outside bluegrass world that I didn’t know outside of Georgia started taking notice of my speed. A bunch of people started saying that this guy is, you know, the fastest and cleanest guitar player, acoustic guitar player I’ve ever seen. So it just kind of snowballed, and now everybody talks about it a lot. I never really focus on it myself. I just focus on being the best player I can be. I have a certain standard that I want to perform, and if I don’t get to that standard, then I’m not very happy with myself. I just make sure I play enough to make sure that standard is met with myself. What is something that maybe you still would like to improve on? I would think songwriting. I love to write songs, whether it be instrumentals or vocals. If there is improvement to be made, really, I would love to improve at songwriting and I would love to improve at orchestration. So one of my big goals this year is to do more film scores, which I’ve done a few in the past. But I really want to be a much better composer and try to keep growing in that area and composing more music that I feel is good enough for people to notice me as the composer. Right. I think you said you had written 800 songs. Yeah, that’s right. I’ve written a lot of songs counting instrumentals and soundtracks. A lot of people do not know this about me – and I don’t even think it’s on my website – but I did the music for the Roland Martin and Orlando Wilson fishing shows for several years back when I was in Nashville. That alone is over 300 pieces of music that I sent to that show.
So yeah, I was cranking out a lot of music there for a couple of years. And again, like I said, I always every day want to get better as a composer and I want to get better as a songwriter as well. I’ve written quite a body of work ,and I definitely want to keep on that route. You mentioned Orlando Wilson. He actually ran the Chevrolet dealership in Calhoun, where I live. Oh, cool. Small world, isn’t it? He used my work on his show for a long, long time, and I was very grateful because that was a great exposure for me. Believe it or not, even today I have people come up and they know me more for that than they know me for anything else I’ve done. But it never offends me. I think it’s a great compliment when somebody is watching a show like that and they notice the music. So that always makes me feel good. So you actually performed the songs on the show? Yeah. I didn’t do the theme song – that was done by Tom T. Hall – but all of the music in the background, once the show started, that was pretty much all my music. Do you come from a musical family? I do in a sense. On my dad’s side of the family, everybody sings. My dad was the only musician other than myself. He was a great fiddle player and a great banjo player, and he was instrumental in starting me out with music. He always tried to get me inspired to play the banjo. But really, the horns are what got my attention first. And then after I started guitar, my dad showed me a few banjo rolls. I’ve continued my progress as a banjo player as well. So my dad was really the only musician, but everybody on his side of the family sings and sings really well. I’ve got three sisters, and they all sing as well. I have one sister, my middle sister, Nora, who plays a little bit of guitar, but just chords. And, you know, they just never had the fire in them like I did. They all chose different career paths, and they just never really wanted to do much with music. So I got all the bug. What kind of advice would you give to the aspiring musicians out there?
The biggest thing that I would say is to be open to sound. A lot of musicians I know and have grown up with are great and wonderful, talented musicians, but they kind of lock themselves in cages, you know? Meaning that they’ll get stuck on one thing and won’t allow themselves to like anything else. So one of the reasons I am where I am musically, anything I do is because I’ve always been open to other styles of music. And looking back on it, I probably would not have the fire I have to keep going. I mean, I’ve been doing this now for 30 years and I love playing it. I mean, I can’t wait for the gigs tomorrow. We have two gigs then, and already I can’t wait to get out and go to those gigs. Part of the big reason for that is I’ve just been open to sound and I’ve explored being a jazz guitarist, being a bluegrass guitarist, a flamenco, a classical guitarist and whatever else that I’m into. I would say especially for younger musicians, just to keep an open ear and listen to a lot of different players and a lot of different styles of music. Keep the inspiration clicking. Because a lot of time if you just do one thing, it kind of can start to get old and, you know, you can just kind of lose interest in it. What’s a typical show like at Rocco’s? We’ve played a lot of different styles at Rocco’s, but they tend to like us to play more bluegrass. So usually we do a trio there which will consist of guitar, bass and mandolin. We usually do a mix of traditional bluegrass, and then we throw in a lot of original stuff and a good mix of medium tempo stuff, up tempo. At Rocco’s, they tend to like the faster stuff, so we usually do a lot of fast instrumentals and things like that up there. What’s your most popular song to perform? Probably my most requested song is “Sweet Georgia Brown,” which is an old traditional jazz tune. But a lot of people know it more for being the theme song of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team. There’s a YouTube video of me playing that song with a mandolin friend of mine, and it’s got over a million views. A lot of people recognize me from that video, so they’ll ask me to play it so I would say that’s probably my most requested. What instruments maybe would you like to still learn how to play? If there’s anything, something that’s really been nagging at me a little bit is probably the oboe. I’ve played a couple of times on an oboe, but not long enough to really get much out of it because it’s a double reed instrument. The oboe is one of those instruments that just touches my heart. When I hear somebody play it really good, it just kind of like makes me feel good, just float away. Oboe will probably be the next instrument that I’ll really take serious and really start getting it figured out. You mentioned a lot of practice in the early years. How many hours did you practice back then? Oh, yes, definitely at least eight hours a day. Back when I first started, of course, I didn’t need a job back then. I was just in high school. So I did have a little bit more time to devote to it. But I still maintain practice, so for instance, if I’m doing a two-hour gig one day, I’ll still practice two hours sometime in that day. So pretty much four hours a day since I started playing at least is the average.
Even now. Yeah, even now. Now if I’ve got a full day of gigs like six, seven hours then other than warm ups and stuff, I won’t really practice that day because I’m already playing a lot. But if it’s a light day where I’m just playing a couple of hours, I’ll definitely throw a couple of hours practice time in there as well. Now where is it you live? We live in Blairsville. I guess y’all got snow last week? We got a bunch. In the span of three hours we had six inches on the porch, so it was pretty heavy there for a little bit. That’s kind of an inspirational place to live, huh? Yeah, we live very close to the foot of Blood Mountain. So you can pretty much walk out our door and look to the right and see Blood Mountain and then look to the left and see nothing but woods. So it is very inspiring living there. It’s a beautiful area. And of course, the hiking and nature trails and just how much there is to do there outdoors. And me and my wife both love it outdoors. So we get very inspired every time we’re able to get on the AT and walk a little ways and walk up to the top of Blood Mountain. We both get very inspired to create for sure. Now, you mentioned your wife. How did you meet her? Oh, I was living in Tennessee at the time. I got hired on to do a musical in Pigeon Forge, so I was looking for a house because at that time I thought I was going to stay up there. So she was a real estate agent who I happened to call and she went and showed me a few properties. And so we just really clicked and started talking to each other outside of looking for a house. We had so much in common it was unbelievable. In fact, it’s still amazing. We’ve been married for three years now, and we’re still together all the time. We do music together, she’s my booking agent, of course, and she’s playing music now. It’s just amazing how much we have in common. I used to think that opposites attract had some meaning, but after being in this relationship, it’s really taught me it’s very important to have a ton in common. What challenges are left for you now? What’s the goal? You know, I’m definitely not saying that I’ve done everything I want to do, but I’m really happy with where I’m at musically and professionally. You know, I don’t have to play commercial music. I have my own record label. I have my own recording studio. So I have pretty much everything that I would ever dream to have and have an extensive guitar collection and instrument collection, of course. So I kind of have everything I would ever dream of there. Musically my goals are, like I was saying, film soundtracks. I would love to do more of that. And I would love to eventually play Montreux Jazz Festival, because that’s something I’ve not done yet. That is definitely on my goal list. And then I would also love to play the jazz festival. The big one in New Orleans. I’ve not done that. I’ve been to it, but I’ve not played that yet. So that is definitely a goal that I would like to see come in the next couple of years.